The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced Wednesday that it is suing Papa John’s International Inc. on the basis of alleged disability discrimination. According to the federal agency, the Louisville-based pizza chain unlawfully denied a legally blind man’s request to keep his service dog on site and “away from customers and food preparation.”
According to the lawsuit, Michael Barnes applied for a job with his local Papa Johns pizzeria in Athens, Georgia in early 2020. After he was hired, he was unable to start at his new job until his accommodation request to bring in his service dog was formally granted by Papa Johns. However, according to the lawsuit, Barnes’ request was denied and he was terminated before he had even worked a single day at his job.
The EEOC argues that Barnes’ termination was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which states that service animals are considered a “reasonable accommodation” but that an employee must request that the animal be present.
“The ADA prohibits employers from terminating employees because of a disability and denying them equal employment opportunities,” Marcus G. Keegan, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Atlanta District Office said in a statement. “The ADA protects employees seeking reasonable accommodations involving service animals. Employers must evaluate such requests on their individual merits. They may not, as Papa Johns has done, reject such requests based on vague and unspecified ‘health and safety’ concerns.”
The EEOC is seeking “backpay, reinstatement or front pay, compensatory damages, and punitive damages and injunctive relief” to prevent future violations of the ADA.
In response to the lawsuit, a Papa John’s spokesperson said that “Papa Johns is committed to maintaining a diverse and inclusive culture for all of our team members, including those with disabilities. We do not discriminate against any team member or applicant on the basis of any characteristic protected by statute or local law. In compliance with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), we make reasonable accommodations for the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is a team member or an applicant, unless undue hardship would result. This policy governs all aspects of employment, including recruitment, selection, job assignment, compensation, corrective action, termination and access to benefits and training.”
This is not the first time the pizza chain has faced legal scrutiny on the basis of discrimination; in 2017 Papa Johns settled for $125,000 in a EEOC lawsuit for terminating an employee with an intellectual disability. The pizza industry is no stranger to allegations of discrimination by the visually impaired community. In 2019, a legally blind man won a case that went all the way up to the Supreme Court requiring the Domino’s website to be accessible to the disabled, which led to the Congressional introduction of the Online Accessibility Act.
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