A federal judge has rejected a potato chip theft defense, for now, in a disability discrimination case against Staples office supplies company.
Staples Inc. fired Araminta Roa of Newburgh two years ago for allegedly stealing potato chips from an employee refrigerator at its warehouse in Montgomery, Orange County.
Roa had been working on light duty because of injuries she claims were caused by her job assignment. She sued Staples last year in federal court in White Plains for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state Human Rights Law.
“A rational finder of fact” could find that it was “more likely than not she was the victim of intentional discrimination,” U.S. District Court Judge Vincent L. Briccetti ruled on Aug. 9, in rejecting Staples’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Staples hired Roa in 2004 and she worked for several years in the bulk department, where she was often required to lift and move large objects.
By 2013, she claims, the physically demanding work had caused permanent neck, back, shoulder and spinal disabilities. She had to take Vicodin twice a day to perform her duties.
She was put on light duty. Her productivity declined but other employees voluntarily helped her get her work done.
Roa alleges that a supervisor wanted to “be rid of her.”
“Do we know how long we have to accommodate Araminta Roa?” the supervisor asked a human resources manager, according to the lawsuit. Later, he recommended that Roa’s compensation be reduced.
“I know it’s been a long time,” an HR coordinator responded, “but I promise there will be a resolution.”
Four months later, Roa was fired. A surveillance camera in the cafeteria had recorded her reaching into a refrigerator and removing a bag of chips belonging to another employee.
Roa admits taking the chips but said her action was merely a mistake. She believed they had been put there by her sister, Lila Sanchez, who routinely left snacks for her there.
Staples also opposed her application for unemployment insurance benefits on the ground that she was fired for misconduct.
The state Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board rejected Staples’ position, according to her lawsuit, and granted the benefits.
Briccetti also found flaws in the firing.
“The record reflects the investigation was conducted in an unusual fashion,” he said.
Some video footage was not preserved, for instance, and there is no evidence that people involved in the dispute were interviewed.
The evidence that Roa stole the chips is weak, Briccetti ruled, and there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that the theft accusation was a pretext.