Blind Barber Receives Compensation for Wrongful Firing
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UPDATED: Dec 14, 2015
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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar laws in most states protect disabled individuals from employment discrimination. The thrust of disability discrimination laws is that people who can do the job should not be denied employment because of prejudices or fears that customers will not want to do business with a disabled employee.
The State of Massachusetts sent a clear message about the importance of complying with the law when it ruled that Tony Morales violated the state’s disability discrimination law by firing Joel Nixon, a barber who is legally blind. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination ordered Morales to pay $100,000 to Joel Nixon as a result of the illegal termination.
Nixon suffers from Retinitis Pigmentosa, a hereditary condition that was diagnosed during Nixon’s adolescence. The condition impairs Nixon’s peripheral and night vision. The Massachusetts Commission for the Blind certified that Nixon is legally blind. He was forced to surrender his driver’s license at the age of 19 as the condition worsened and now depends on others for transportation.
Nixon, who is now 29, graduated from a barbering school when he was 22. He passed the state licensing examination despite his disability. For two years after he became licensed, Nixon worked at a barber shop that was about a 45 minute drive from his home. Neither his employer nor his customers complained about his job performance.
When Nixon learned that Morales was opening a second shop at a new location closer to his home, he applied for a position. Nixon did not inform Morales that he was legally blind because he did not consider that information to be relevant to his employment. Morales hired Nixon to work in the new shop. Morales continued to work in his first shop, which was in a different city.
The new shop was in the town where Nixon was born, making it easy for Nixon to develop a clientele. He never received any complaints from customers or from his employer.
Someone who knew of Nixon’s disability eventually mentioned it to one of Nixon’s co-workers, who reported it to Morales. Morales told the shop’s manager to keep an eye on Nixon.
About a month later, Nixon was asked to fill in at the shop where Morales worked. Nixon tripped over a customer’s extended legs and later tripped over a chair in the waiting room. Nobody was injured in those incidents, but Morales fired Nixon. When Nixon tried to get his job back, Morales told Nixon that he didn’t need a “blind barber” working in his shop. He also indicated that having a blind barber would be bad for business.
The Commission’s Decision
Nixon experienced severe financial hardship as a result of losing his job. His transportation options were limited since he depended on his wife for transportation. His wife had a difficult pregnancy and was not always available to drive him. In addition, most of the barber shops in surrounding communities were “one chair” shops and had no need for a second barber. Nixon searched for work continually but was unemployed for three years. It was not until August 2015 that Nixon found another job as a barber.
Nixon’s loss of income forced him to incur new debt, placed his home at risk of foreclosure, and caused him to rely on food stamps and charitable assistance after his wife gave birth to their child. The Commission determined that Nixon’s loss of employment caused severe emotional distress as well as a loss of income. His self-esteem, self-confidence, and sense of independence were dealt a severe blow by his employer’s discrimination.
Morales did not attend the hearing and presented no defense. Hearing no evidence to the contrary, the Commission concluded that Nixon was qualified for his job because he was able to perform its essential functions and had performed it to the satisfaction of his customers. Since the evidence of Nixon’s disability was undisputed, as was the evidence that he was fired because of his disability, the Commission easily concluded that Nixon’s termination was discriminatory.
The Commission calculated Nixon’s lost wages over a three year period to be $75,000. Because Massachusetts law provides for a “make whole” remedy that includes emotional distress damages, the Commission determined that Nixon was entitled to an additional $25,000 as compensation for his mental anguish.
Morales told the press that Nixon’s story is a “bunch of lies” and claimed that Nixon was an independent contractor, not an employee. However, Morales was given several opportunities to defend the claim and consistently refused to appear before the Commission. He also fired his attorney.
Morales says he intends to hire a new attorney to file an appeal. That will be an uphill battle, given his failure to introduce any evidence to justify the defenses he now claims to have had.