Jury awards former U.S. Steel employee $5.5M in disability discrimination lawsuit

Brian Bowling
| Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016, 11:54 a.m.

U.S. Steel must pay a former longtime employee more than $5.5 million for firing him because of his arthritic knee, a federal jury decided Tuesday.

Albert Gucker, 64, of North Strabane worked for the steelmaker for more than 30 years and was a heavy equipment mechanical repairman at its Irvin Works in 2011 when a new supervisor fired him, the lawsuit said.

“I was shocked, surprised and dismayed over the whole situation because I enjoyed my job,” Gucker said in a statement provided by his lawyer. “I didn't do anything wrong. I just couldn't understand it.”

Company spokeswoman Sarah Cassella declined comment.

Arthritis limited Gucker to lifting no more than 30 pounds, and the company accommodated that limitation for about eight years, said his lawyer, Paul Tershel.

“He had these lifting restrictions for eight to 10 years without complaint, and the new supervisor sent him home that very day he learned of the restrictions,” he said.

Instead of correcting the supervisor's error, the company tried to change Gucker's job description and send him to a physical exam to prove he couldn't do the job, Tershel said. The exam was “designed to eliminate him, not to give him a fair shake,” he said.

An eight-person jury decided Feb. 11 that the company discriminated against Gucker and, on Tuesday, awarded him $550,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.

After the first verdict, Gucker said he was relieved and “grateful for the jury's faith in me.”

U.S. Steel filed a post-verdict motion asking U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer to reduce the damage award to $300,000, based on damage limits in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While federal law has that limit, the state discrimination law doesn't, Tershel said. Gucker sued under both laws, and Tershel said he plans to file a motion arguing that Fischer shouldn't reduce the damages.

Whether Fischer will reduce the verdict depends on a lot of factors, including the evidence of the company's conduct and state case law on compensatory and punitive damage awards, said Mark Weber, a DePaul University law professor who studies disability discrimination law.

“I would think this would be very difficult to predict,” Weber said, though he added a $5.55 million verdict “would be on the high side.”

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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