A former Baltimore County employee who was forced into retirement when the County refused to accommodate her disability won a $780,053 jury verdict in the US District Court for the District of Maryland on January 30. Plaintiff Dianne Van Rossum worked for Baltimore County as a Sanitarian for the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management for 29 years and 9 months. She was forced to retire on April 22, 2010 when the County withdrew the accommodations it had previously provided to her to alleviate the disabling reactions she had to chemicals in her newly renovated office space.
In July 2009, her department’s offices moved to the newly renovated fourth floor of the Jefferson building, which contained new furniture, paint, carpeting, and other materials that “off-gassed” chemicals. When Ms. Van Rossum was in the space, she experienced severe allergic reactions to these chemicals: strong headaches, loss of balance, severe burning in her eyes, severe inflammation of her sinuses, a burning sensation in her extremities, and a tightness in her chest, and as a result, she was unable to work while on the fourth floor. She was eventually diagnosed with severe allergic and irritant rhinitis. Ms. Van Rossum requested, and was initially granted, a reasonable accommodation to be moved to another floor in the building. However, in 2010, the County withdrew this accommodation, ordering Ms. Van Rossum to return to her former office on the fourth floor or resign. Unable to return to this floor, Ms. Van Rossum was forced to retire on April 22, 2010.
After three hours of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of $250,000 in damages for pain and suffering, and $530,053 for economic damages against Baltimore County for discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The trial team was a joint effort between lawyers from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee (Matt Handley and Deepa Goraya) and the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP (Michael Petrino and Thomas Fleming).
“We are pleased that the jury understood Ms. Van Rossum’s claim and took into consideration her hard work for the County, an employer she had been loyal to for 30 years,” said Michael Petrino from Kirkland & Ellis LLP.
“This is a significant victory for not only Ms. Van Rossum, but for all persons with disabilities,” said Jonathan Smith, Executive Director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “It sends an important message to employers that discrimination of any type, including retaliation and the refusal to accommodate for a disability, will not be tolerated.”
“As a result of being constructively discharged from the County, I lost everything. I didn’t know what else to do,” said Dianne Van Rossum. “I loved my job and wanted to continue working for ten more years. I was caring for my ill parents and was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. All they had to do was move me to a different floor. But they outright refused, and as a result, I lost everything and have been out of a job for the past 6 and a half years.”