REI Sued for Retaliation and Discrimination by Paralyzed Employee
A few months ago, Seattle P-I reported on James Osborne’s multiple and continuing battles with REI. In 2007, Osborne was paralyzed when an REI brand bicycle he was riding broke apart and crashed. As a result of the crash, Osborne’s arms and legs were paralyzed for a while and though he can now walk around with the use of a cane, he still suffers from his injuries. He, along with others who were injured when their bicycles also broke, sued REI claiming the bicycles were defective and the cause of their injuries. After three years, Osborne’s product-defect lawsuit was settled through mediation. But that was not the end of the story for REI and James Osborne.
The story becomes even more complicated because Osborn was a lead IT consultant with REI from 1994 until 2012. Four months after settling his lawsuit with his employer, Osborne was terminated. REI and Osborne are now in another legal battle. Osborne believes his firing was retaliation for filing the product-defect lawsuit and based on his lingering, accident related disability. REI says his termination was part of the company’s restructuring.
Federal laws like the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act), and FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) and Washington state labor and anti-discrimination laws prohibit discrimination against qualified individuals based on things like religion and disability. In order to avoid discrimination claims, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations, so long as they do not create an undue burden on the employer.
REI may have fulfilled its requirements. REI held Osborne’s position as an IT consultant for him until he was able to return. While Osborne was able to return to work and his position, he was not able to work a 40 hour work week or carry the same workload as before. They adjusted Osborne’s schedule and workload to accommodate his disability and his recovery. When REI restructured, the newly restructured position could not accommodate his needs. REI claims the restructuring would require an employee in his current position to work a 40 hour week and have a heavier workload. These actions could indicate that REI accommodated his disability until doing so became an undue burden and they let him go.
Both state and federal laws prohibit retaliation against employees who have made complaints, claims, or participated in proceedings against the employer over potential violations of state or federal law. REI claims that Osborne’s termination could not have been retaliation because it had been three years since Osborne had filed the product-defect lawsuit and four months since settling that lawsuit through mediation. For mediation to work both sides have to come to an agreement that they can both live with. Osborne believes that he was not offered other available positions created during restructuring that he was qualified for because he had sued REI. It will be up to the courts to decide whether REI used restructuring as a tool for retaliation.
There are always at least two sides to every story. If you have questions about accommodations or believe you have been wrongfully terminated, contact a Washington employment attorney.