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EEOC Claims Papa John’s Unlawfully Terminated Blind Worker

Last week, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”), filed a  disability bias lawsuit against Papa John’s International Inc. (“Papa John’s”) for firing a blind worker who needed the use of a guide dog to get to and from work (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Papa John’s USA Inc. et al., case number 3:23-cv-00030).  The case is being heard in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.

The complaint alleges Papa John’s violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it failed to offer its newly hired blind pizza dough maker, Michael Barnes, a reasonable accommodation that would allow Barnes to bring his guide dog to work.  Instead, Papa John’s terminated him.

In its complaint, the EEOC alleges Papa John’s “accommodation request committee rejected Barnes’s request based on improper stereotypes about service animals and their presence in restaurants or other food service establishments.”

Barnes, who is legally blind, applied for a job at Papa John’s just prior to COVID-19 in February of 2020. Prior to starting work, Barnes informed the store manager that he would need to rely on his guide dog to get to and from work, but assured the manager that the dog could be crated during Barnes’ shift away from customers and food prep areas. The manager told Barnes that this would not be a problem. The two later discussed various options to accommodate Barnes’ disability and the need for his guide dog.

Before Barnes could start work, COVID-19 temporarily closed the store.  Several months later, after the virus subsided, Barnes was called in to finally start work.  Prior to his first day, Barnes went to the store to fill out reasonable accommodation request paperwork required by Papa John’s.  Despite assurances from his manager, Papa John’s accommodation request committee denied Barnes’ request.  In addition, the committee members did not ask any questions of Barnes or try to come up with a reasonable accommodation for him to perform his job.  Simply, the committee denied the request merely on the belief that having the guide dog in the restaurant would pose a health and safety risk.

However, as the EEOC asserts in its complaint, the committee never identified what specific code would prohibit the company from granting Barnes’ request.  As a result of the committee’s decision the manager told Barnes he needed to come up with an