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A federal jury in Pennsylvania last week awarded $1.5 million in a suit brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act by a woman who said her bosses at first accommodated her Crohn’s disease by letting her work from home on a flexible schedule but later reneged on that promise by insisting that she work specific days in the office. Attorney Mardi Harrison of Doylestown, Pa., brought the case on behalf of Denise Davis, a former underwriter with the Guardian Life Insurance Co.; Harrison tried the case along with attorney Paula A. Patrick. The eight-member jury awarded Davis the highest estimate of economic damages presented by the plaintiffs — $1.3 million — and $200,000 in compensatory damages. An economist testified at trial that Davis, who is currently 37, has already suffered losses of more than $40,000 in wages. And since no employer is likely to hire her while needing an accommodation, he said that a present-value estimate of her future lost wages up to age 67 is more than $1.2 million. Davis worked as a disability insurance underwriter in Guardian’s northeast regional home office in Bethlehem, Pa. In 1989, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder that produces a thickening of the intestinal wall, a narrowing of the bowel channel and a variety of symptoms including abdominal pain, fever, diarrhea, extreme pain and dehydration. The condition forced Davis to miss a significant number of work days throughout her career at Guardian. According to Guardian, Davis missed 58 days in 1988, 44 days in 1989, 102 days in 1991, 55 days in 1992, 57 days in 1993, 225 days in 1994, 103 days in 1995 and 155 days in 1996. Davis contended that the vast majority of those days, including all of the absent days in 1994-96, were related to several maternity leaves. She insisted that she has not missed any work days due to the Crohn’s disease since beginning to work at home in late 1994. Since the Crohn’s disease often rendered Davis incapable of traveling to the Bethlehem office, she requested an accommodation that would allow her to work from home several days of the week. In late 1994, Guardian agreed to let Davis work several days a week at home. Under an agreement reached between Davis and her supervisors, she agreed to a schedule under which she would work at home on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while she would work Tuesdays and Thursdays at the office. She was also assigned a new computer, which could interface with Guardian’s mainframe to facilitate her work at home. In August 1995, Davis went on leave and did not return to work until July 15, 1996. Upon her return to duty, Davis assumed a schedule that allowed her to work only Mondays and Thursdays in the Bethlehem office. Eventually, her supervisor learned that Davis had not been coming to the office on the days that she was assigned to do so. He asked Davis to commit to a schedule which fixed the days she would report to the office. The company decided that if Davis could not travel to Bethlehem on a day she was scheduled to be there, then she would have the day counted as a sick day. But Davis said that she could not commit to a fixed schedule because she never knew when the Crohn’s disease would “flare up” on her. Davis requested that she be allowed to work exclusively from her home during periods when her condition became aggravated. The flare-up periods generally lasted two or three weeks. But Guardian would not agree, and in April 1997, Davis went on disability leave. From April through August 1997, Davis received disability benefits through Guardian, which served as both her employer and disability insurance administrator. In May 1997, Davis filed a discrimination claim. Guardian then discontinued Davis’ disability benefits from August 1997 to March 1998, saying that Davis had not adequately provided the medical information required to continue benefits. In March 1998, Guardian resumed the disability benefits and made current, with interest, the payments it had withheld from August to March. At trial, an economist testified that if Davis continued to receive disability pay, the estimate of the present-day value of her lost wages would be $757,000. And if she managed to get another job at a comparable salary, he said, the lost wages would be just $350,000. But Harrison said the jury decided that the only way to guarantee that Davis would be made whole was to put all of the money in the award. In conversations after the verdict, she said, jurors said they did not trust Guardian Life to continue making the disability payments. She said jurors also told her they were disappointed that the insurer had inadequate policies for addressing ADA claims. “This case was about: when is an accommodation reasonable,” Harrison said. “[Guardian] gave her an accommodation, and it worked. And then they changed it.” Harrison said the evidence showed that Davis did her job very well when Guardian allowed her to work with a flexible schedule. But when the company rigidly insisted that she work from the office on certain days, for no real reason, the accommodation was less than reasonable, Harrison said. “What’s reasonable is what works,” Harrison said. Guardian was represented at trial by attorney R. Michael Carr of Stevens & Lee who has already filed a motion to have the verdict set aside.

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