On July 31, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict against the City of Evanston, awarding a former water department employee total damages of $354,000. The employee, Biagio Stragapede, was fired by the City in 2010 – an action the jury found to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because the City failed to accommodate Mr. Stragapedes traumatic brain injury.
The trial court also ordered the City to pay Mr. Stragapede an additional $357,000 in costs and attorneys fees
According to the Court of Appeals opinion, Mr. Stragapede worked for the City for more than 12 years before suffering a brain injury while at home in 2009. At the time, the City placed him on a leave of absence to rehabilitate. In June 2010, he returned to work after a brief doctor-suggested “work trial to test Stragapede’s ability to perform the daily functions of his job in the field,” wrote the Court.
“From June 7 until June 22, Stragapede appeared to do his job without much trouble.” Beginning June 23, some troubles developed. Mr. Stragapede asked for assistance in changing out a water meter; he spent two hours installing a meter but did not finish the job; he suffered “directional mishaps, arriving at Colfax Place instead of Colfax Street and Green Bay Road rather than Gross Point Road.
The City again placed Mr. Stragapede on leave, and asked for the opinion of Mr. Stragapede’s doctor. The doctor opined that “the incidents identified by the City rendered Stragapede unable to perform the essential functions of his job,” but “hedged his opinion, noting that it was based entirely on information provided by the City.” The City fired him on Sept. 24, 2010. The doctor examined Mr. Stragapede “only once, in the spring of 2010, and did not examine him when he was on leave in July 2010,” says the Court’s opinion.
After being fired, Mr. Stragapede filed suit in 2012 resulting in a trial in March 2015. The trial resulted in a $354,000 verdict against the City, to which the trial court added another $357,000 in costs and attorneys’ fees at a later hearing.
The Court of Appeals ruled that it was the jury’s job to weigh the different opinions of the doctor: Mr. Stragapede was ready to return to work in spring 2010, but not able to work in July when he was placed on leave and unable to work in September 2010. “The jury may have given [the] April opinion more weight than his later opinions; the latter two were based entirely on information supplied by the City, and the jurors may have questioned whether the information was accurate or complete,” wrote the Court.
The City also introduced some conflicting evidence regarding Mr. Stragapede’s work in the field. The Court noted that one supervisor testified he “could not complete” his work in the field. But she “had never observed Stragapede in the field. In contrast, Mr. Stragapede’s direct supervisor observed Stragapede in the field and testified that he was capable of installing meters perfectly. In addition [the supervisor] performed three to four spot checks on [other] work and found it accurate each time.”
The City also alleged Mr. Stragapede was “so frequently absent from his job” that he was unable to achieve its most basic requirement – showing up. But the City counted as work absences “returns to the office to ask questions. The evidence shows that Stragapede had to return to the office three or four times to seek assistance with his computer login and password. The jury could reasonably conclude that these infrequent and temporary office trips should not count as absences from work.”
The jury also discounted the City’s argument that Mr. Stragapede was a direct threat to the health or safety of others (he was seen looking down while driving once, and reported to the wrong location twice). The City also argued it would have been an undue hardship to accommodate Mr. Stragapede, and again the jury rejected its argument.
The trial came after years of litigation when time after time Judge Edmond Chang of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Illinois strongly encouraged the parties to settle the case. As early as January 2013, in a minute entry, Judge Chang said, “This case seems like a particularly excellent candidate for early resolution; it might be a drawn-out, expensive battle.” The Court ordered Mr. Stragapede to make an offer by early February and the City a counter-offer by March 2013. The offers were not public but were provided to the Judge.
The litigation was handled in-house by the City’s legal department. Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar has long espoused a philosophy of refusing to settle matters and taking them to trial.
In September 2013, Judge Chang again ordered the exchange of settlement demands. In October, the Judge “encourage[d] the parties to jointly ask for a settlement referral (the Court almost never requires a referral if either party objects…– On Oct. 9, 2013, the Judge noted, “Defendant [City] does not want to participate in a settlement conference.”
Instead of a settlement conference, both parties filed motions for summary judgment seeking to resolve the case on legal grounds without trial. Mr. Stragapede won a partial summary judgment establishing as fact he was disabled, and the City lost its motion entirely.
Even after trial, Judge Chang again tried to push for settlement, this time entering a “settlement-conference referral… The parties really should make a vigorous and good faith effort to resolve this case, because the litigation is far from over and will consume additional time and expense if the parties continue on the current path.”
After the court-ordered conference, a magistrate judge issued a settlement recommendation on May 28, 2015. It was rejected. On Oct. 9, 2016, after extensive legal briefing, Judge Chang awarded over $347,000 in attorneys’ fees, about $10,000 less than the full amount sought.
While awaiting the attorneys’ fee decision, the City appealed the jury award. On July 31, 2017, the appeal was rejected and the verdict affirmed.