Ex-WW business loses discrimination suit

The Cash Store violated US and Washington laws when it fired an employee with bipolar disorder, a federal judge ruled.

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in a case involving a former Walla Walla business, won one of its first disability discrimination lawsuits taken to trial concerning bipolar disorder.

After a four-day bench trial, the U.S. District Court of Eastern Washington entered judgment for $56,500 against Irving, Tex.-based Cottonwood Financial, which does business in several states as The Cash Store, the commission announced in a news release.

The court found that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination when it fired Walla Walla store manager Sean Reilly in 2007.

U.S. District Judge Edward F. Shea noted "Cottonwood's deficient ADA policies and practices" and found that the company's half-dozen different rationales for terminating Reilly were a pretext for discrimination, and that the company had in fact fired Reilly because it regarded him as too disabled to work due to his bipolar disorder, the EEOC said in its March 28 release.

The court also commended Reilly's efforts to cope with his disability, achieve academic success and get a job. Reilly was an honor student in high school and attended college in Portland on an academic scholarship. While in college, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

When his symptoms forced him to leave school, he returned home to Walla Walla. Reilly was hired by The Cash Store as an assistant manager in June 2006 and was promoted to manager in October.

In late January 2007, Reilly, through a health care representative, requested a short leave to adjust to new medication prescribed by his doctor to treat his condition, according to the EEOC. Reilly claimed the company denied this request, forcing him to return to work too soon. He was fired in February 2007, days after his need for sick leave first arose.

Cottonwood Financial's chief executive, Trevor Ahlberg, did not respond to an email seeking comment on the case. A person at the company's headquarters, however, told the Union-Bulletin that The Cash Store in Walla Walla was closed in 2010.

After first trying to reach a voluntary settlement with Cottonwood through the EEOC's conciliation process, the agency filed suit and was joined by Reilly through his attorney, Keller W. Allen of Spokane.

Shea awarded Reilly $6,500 in back wages and $50,000 for emotional pain and suffering. The court also issued a three-year injunction, requiring The Cash Store to train its managers and human resources personnel on anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation laws.

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