An investigator with the Maine Human Rights Commission (MHRC) has reportedly found that Kennebec Valley Community Action Program (KVCAP) discriminated against a hearing impaired employee, violating the disability discrimination provisions of the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA). The hearing impaired employee, Agnes Farnsworth, provided transportation to KVCAP clients, who were economically disadvantaged people living in central Maine. Farnsworth asked KVCAP to communicate with her by text message, instead of by phone, while she was on the road because of her hearing impairment. KVCAP apparently agreed to this reasonable accommodation at first but, after a couple weeks, stopped. It then terminated Farnsworth allegedly because it no longer wanted to provide her with this reasonable accommodation.
Farnsworth did not receive any wages from KVCAP. The MHRC has determined that KVCAP was still Farnsworth’s employer even though it did not pay her for her work, which means that she can bring a claim against KVCAP under the employment discrimination provisions of the MHRA. Typically, in a case where an employer unlawfully terminates an employee, the employee seeks back pay. In this case, Farnsworth will not be entitled to back pay because KVCAP did not pay her. That said, KVCAP may be required to pay Farnsworth money to compensate her for the emotional distress she experienced when KVCAP terminated her. Farnsworth likely derived a lot of personal satisfaction out of helping KVCAP’s clients and, given that she worked for KVCAP for 17 years, she likely enjoyed working with many of her co-workers at KVCAP. Most people spend about half of their lives at work and when an employer takes away that part of someone’s life, it takes an emotional toll on the person.
In addition to emotional distress damages, KVCAP may also be required to pay punitive damages. Employers who recklessly disregard the rights of their employees are sometimes required to pay punitive damages as an additional deterrent to them violating the law again in the future. Typically, punitive damages are awarded when an employer who violated an employee’s rights knew that its actions were illegal but broke the law anyway.