Verizon Must Face Bias Claim From Blind Analyst

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit accusing Verizon Wireless of firing an experienced web analyst after his first day on the job because he is blind.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White granted only part of Verizon’s motion for summary judgment Monday, and ordered it to enter an alternative dispute resolution proceeding with Nicaise Dogbo.

In his original August 2015 lawsuit in Contra Costa County Court, Dogbo claimed that Verizon “humiliated and demeaned” him on his first day on the job after it discovered he is blind, and then fired him for it.

Though he is “completely blind,” Dogbo earned a degree in electrical engineering and has more than 15 years of experience with top companies working on web accessibility.
Dogbo applied for a web accessibility analyst position with Verizon in December 2014 through the professional staffing agency Randstand Technologies, with the understanding that the six-month contract job could turn into a permanent position.
After a telephone interview with Verizon, Dogbo took a test to evaluate his knowledge of accessibility and testing processes.

When Verizon assessed his test performance on the phone, the interviewer asked whether he had used a screen reader on the test page.

Dogbo claims the question was meant to determine whether he is blind, and that he did not disclose his disability so it would not factor into Verizon’s hiring decision. After explaining why he missed certain questions on the test without disclosing that he is blind, Verizon hired him, according to Judge White’s 7-page order.

Before beginning work the following February, Dogbo told Verizon he is blind and would need a screen reader installed at his desk. But on his first day on the job, a Verizon employee took Dogbo to his desk and left him there for the day without any work or instructions on what to do.

Dogbo’s recruiter told him that evening that the work order for his screen reader had not yet been created, and told him not to return to work until it was. A month later Verizon fired him, telling him he wouldn’t be able to do the job because due to his disability, according to his complaint.

Dogbo sued for wrongful termination, retaliation, disability discrimination, failure to accommodate and engage in an interactive process, and intentional infliction of emotional distress under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

On Monday, White denied Verizon’s motion for summary judgment on disability discrimination and failure to accommodate and engage in an interactive process.

White found that though Dogbo would have been able to do the job with visual assistance from a coworker, it was unclear whether the tasks that require assistance qualify as essential functions, as required under FEHA, and whether such assistance qualifies as a reasonable accommodation.

“Although defendant is a large employer with large groups assigned to many projects, it is unclear from the record whether there would otherwise have been employees accessible to plaintiff in his workplace that could have stepped in when the aid of a sighted person was required,” White wrote. “Accordingly, because there remain disputed issues of fact about the essential nature of the functions and the reasonableness of the suggested accommodation, the court finds that defendant has not met its burden to demonstrate that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”

White granted Verizon’s motion for summary judgment on the retaliation claim, finding no evidence that Verizon fired Dogbo because he requested a screen reader.

He also granted Verizon summary judgment on the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, because Dogbo did not show that Verizon engaged in extreme conduct with the intention of causing him distress when it fired him, or that he suffered emotional distress when he was fired.

Dogbo is represented by Joseph Lepera in San Francisco; Verizon by Gabrielle Wirth with Dorsey & Whitney in Costa Mesa.

Neither attorney could be reached for comment Tuesday.

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