Kidney failure was only the beginning of John Hayes’ hardships. The former Skywest Airlines employee also learned he was out of a job shortly after he returned to work from medical leave.
Hayes sued Skywest claiming discrimination and on Monday, a U.S. District Court jury in Denver awarded him a $2.45 million verdict including $450,000 in actual damages and $2 million in punitive damages.
Following a six-day trial in Judge Robert Blackburn’s courtroom, the jury determined that Skywest had discriminated against Hayes after he suffered kidney failure, said Hayes’ attorney Paul Maxon. Hayes also was represented by attorneys Sarah Parady and Amy Trenary.
Contacted Wednesday morning, Skywest officials said they are not ready to comment about the jury decision.
Mid-trial, Blackburn also found paralegal Ann Rutledge in criminal contempt after he overheard her telling Skywest employee Jamie Sorensen in open court not to answer questions on the witness stand, Maxon said. Blackburn later held Sorensen in contempt for speaking with a juror, he said.
“Skywest’s treatment of Mr. Hayes was deplorable,” Maxon wrote in a statement. “We hope and expect that this verdict will send a strong message to employers that discrimination and retaliation in the workplace will not be tolerated, but will be severely punished.”
Hayes’ treatment by the company was an unusual turn of events for Hayes, whose picture had once appeared on the cover of its training manuals and on Skywest’s promotional posters, Maxon said.
Just three days after Hayes returned to work on Aug. 20, 2014, following the start of dialysis, he was suspended because he became lightheaded once. But even after his nephrologist, Dr. Bruce Fisch, said such symptoms are common with people undergoing dialysis and cleared him for work, Skywest refused to allow him to return, Maxon said.
Skywest claimed that Hayes’ dismissal was simply part of a mass layoff at Denver International Airport in September 2014, he said.
At trial, Hayes’ attorneys introduced evidence suggesting that Skywest had a financial motive to place him on involuntary leave and ultimately dismiss him. Skywest was self-insured and dialysis treatments could cost up to $100,000 a year.
Hayes applied for many different positions at Skywest but was rejected in each case, Maxon said. Skywest offered an out-of-state position but he was undergoing dialysis and couldn’t leave, the attorney said.
The jury found in favor of Hayes on all his claims including that Skywest violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against him.