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TDCJ Employee Wins $1,505,000 for Texas Prison System’s Failure to Accommodate

An El Paso jury awarded $1,505,000 to a former employee of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) for the prison system’s failure to accommodate her severe asthma by refusing to remove automatic air fresheners from an office area.

Linette Weller was a senior chemical dependency counselor at the Rogelio Sanchez State Jail, a TDCJ facility. She first suffered severe asthma attacks in 1999 when the jail distributed handheld aerosol air fresheners to office staff. Weller suffered progressively worsening symptoms until, after two weeks, she was taken to an emergency room with closed bronchial tubes.

“She basically couldn’t breathe,” said her attorney, Enrique Chavez. “Her lips would turn blue; she would turn blue. It was a traumatic event for her.”

At that time, the TDCJ accommodated her asthma by removing the air fresheners. However, in August 2001 the jail installed automatic air fresheners that plugged into a wall socket and released timed bursts of scented chemicals. Weller’s symptoms worsened and she suffered another severe asthma attack less than a month later.

She took a week of leave and was cleared by her pulmonologist to return to work. However, before she was allowed to return, the state jail insisted on a signed assurance from her doctor that she wouldn’t be affected by the air fresheners – an impossible condition.

Weller was laid off when her sick leave ran out. She reapplied for her former TDCJ job when it was posted, but was unable to interview because the jail refused to turn off the air fresheners before the interview or hold the interview in another area without air fresheners.

Weller filed suit in state district court alleging the TDCJ had failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. She offered to settle for $150,000; the TDCJ countered with a $20,000 offer. The case went to trial.

On August 15, 2007, following a three-day trial, the jury entered a verdict in Weller’s favor. For the layoff she was awarded $200,000 in lost wages, $225,000 in past compensatory damages, $225,000 in future compensatory damages and $105,000 in lost back pay. For the failure to accommodate she received $225,000 in future compensatory damages, $100,000 in lost back pay, $200,000 in lost front pay and $225,000 in past compensatory damages. The total award was $1,505,000. See: Weller v. TDCJ, 169th District Court (El Paso County), Case No. 2003-3978.

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Related legal case

Weller v. TDCJ