The federal agency tasked with protecting Americans from workplace discrimination has filed a complaint against Hobby Lobby, alleging that the famously conservative crafting chain wrongfully fired an employee who relied on the use of a service dog.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a Kansas-based Hobby Lobby employee—identified in the filing only as S.C.—suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. She uses a trained medical service dog, but according to the filing, she did not have one when she started working as a part-time clerk in late August of 2020.
S.C. worked as a cashier and various departments throughout the store in Olathe, Kansas, including unloading and stocking merchandise.
At the beginning of October, the complaint says, S.C. told her store manager that she was “obtaining a fully-trained medical service dog to assist her with symptoms related to her anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and she needed to bring the service dog to work with her.”
The manager asked for medical documentation, which S.C. provided in the form of a letter from her mental health provider in support of her request to bring the service dog to work. The manager referred the matter to the company’s corporate human resources department, which ultimately denied S.C.’s request for the service dog.
According to the complaint, Hobby Lobby’s denial letter said that “due to identified safety hazards and the overall nature of the business, [S.C.] may not utilize a service animal while cashiering or unloading freight and stocking.”
A representative from the human resources department also allegedly “told S.C. [the service dog] was a safety hazard because someone could be allergic to the dog, someone might trip over the dog, or the dog might break something,” the complaint says.
“Hobby Lobby did not allow S.C. to bring her service dog to the store to see whether it would cause any problems,” the complaint noted.
After taking a week off to finish training with her service dog, S.C. returned to work in late October with the dog in tow and renewed her request for accommodation. The Hobby Lobby manager sent S.C. home and told her she couldn’t bring the dog to work; she also told her that if she couldn’t work without the service dog, it would be considered “job abandonment.”
“S.C. could not work without her service dog and did not return to work,” the complaint says.
Three days later, she was fired.
“Customers are allowed to bring service dogs and other dogs into Hobby Lobby Store #75 in Olathe, Kansas, despite the alleged safety risks the company cited in denying S.C.’s request for accommodation,” the complaint noted.
The EEOC contends that Hobby Lobby’s alleged firing of S.C. violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination based on disability.
“The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement via its conciliation process,” the agency said Friday in a press release.
The EEOC alleges that Hobby Lobby acted with “malice or with reckless indifference” to S.C.’s rights, and is seeking back pay, compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of the former employee. S.C. is also asking for her job back, and the agency is seeking “injunctive relief to prevent future discrimination.”
The EEOC complaint is only the latest high-profile case against Hobby Lobby, which has made a name for itself pushing back against federal law: it famously opposed the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, and in 2014 won the legal battle in the Supreme Court. In 2021, an Illinois appellate court upheld a $220,000 award to Meggan Sommerville, a 20-plus year employee of Hobby Lobby and a transgender woman who had been denied access to the women’s restroom.
Also in 2021, Hobby Lobby was subjected to a forfeiture order from the federal government over an ancient tablet with origins in Iraq that had been smuggled into the U.S. and ultimately purchased by the company.
Representatives for Hobby Lobby did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s request for comment.
Read the EEOC’s complaint, below.
[Image via Matthew Stockman/Getty Images.]
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