Michael Trimble’s astonishment oozed from the legal jargon of the court documents he filed last week.
His employers had just told him he was being fired because he refused to comply with simple requests about his bike. It would be nice, the Gresham, Ore., man said, if he could carry it up a back flight of stairs to avoid coming through the lobby of the building or speeding through a landscaped pavilion out front. When he balked, they asked if he could simply push the bike across the pavilion, he said.
If he couldn’t comply with these minor requests, his employer asked, according to the documents, how could he be trusted to deal with the more complicated requirements of his job?
“How can I push my bike?” he responded. “I don’t have any arms.”
Trimble is suing the Kroger supermarket chain and Elwood Staffing Services, the temp agency that placed him at Kroger’s corporate offices in southeast Portland. He claims their discrimination and retaliation violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and resulted in his wrongful firing.
Trimble’s disability is severe and clearly noticeable — he’s missing both arms — and the accommodations he asked of his employer were minor, his attorney told The Washington Post.
“It looked to me like someone at Kroger got in their head that he needed to do this specific thing with his bike and nothing but doing this exact thing was going to satisfy them,” said Trimble’s attorney, Daniel Snyder.
The Americans With Disabilities Act requires “a non-adversarial meeting between the employer and the employee in which they say, ‘We understand you’re asking for this, we think we can do this or would this work instead?’” Snyder said. “It’s not supposed to be an adversarial, off-with-your-head type of conversation.”
In a statement, Keith Dailey, a spokesman for Kroger, told The Post: “The Kroger family of stores has a long history of hiring and accommodating people with disabilities. While we can’t comment on pending litigation, our company values include safety, inclusion and respect and we strive to live up to those values every day.”
Elwood’s chief executive and legal counsel didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Trimble was born in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1987, a year after a nuclear power plant explosion sent plumes of radioactive smoke over Eastern Europe, killing 31 people and causing a spike in birth defects. When he was born, Trimble’s arms were so deformed that they had to be amputated.
He was adopted and came to the United States at age 8, he says on his YouTube channel.
There are a lot of things Trimble can’t do, his lawsuit says. He’s had to find innovative workarounds for many of his activities, some of which he recorded and put on his YouTube channel. A bike maker in Portland designed a bicycle that Trimble can operate with his shoulder and the amputated remains of his left arm.
Trimble can’t drive, so the bike is his main method of transportation. And when Trimble got a job answering customer and employee phone calls at Kroger through the temp service last year, the modified bike got him to and from work, according to the lawsuit.
Initially, there was some adjustment on both sides. The height of his desk at Kroger had to be changed, according to the lawsuit, because Trimble typed with his feet. He also made “a compelling case” for a second monitor. A month into the job, however, his evaluations were good. He received a 100 percent on one audit, a 98 percent on another, the lawsuit says. On March 24, “both audits were glowing in praise of his performance.”
But the bike was causing problems.
Trimble’s employers wanted him to stop bringing his bike through the front door. But that meant bringing it through a rear door — and up a flight of stairs.
With a lot of effort, Trimble can heft his bike onto his shoulder, but he can’t carry it for more than a few feet, according to the lawsuit. Carrying it up the stairs was a herculean task.
“This would require Michael Trimble to manually open the back door, to go through a smoking section, and to carry the bicycle up and down a flight of stairs, which is impossible for him as he does not have arms,” the civil complaint says.
When Trimble objected to the request, the lawsuit said, a supervisor told him, “No, that’s what we decided,” and offered no alternatives.
A woman who worked at Elwood Staffing talked to Kroger, and the company waived the requirement that he carry the bike up the stairs, according to the lawsuit. But Kroger asked him to stop biking across the pavilion after one manager said Trimble was going too fast through the area. Walking the bike was out of the question for Trimble, too.
On March 25, Trimble learned he was fired because he hadn’t complied with the bike rule.
“Michael Trimble explained … that he could not walk the bicycle across the pavilion because he does not have arms,” the lawsuit says. His employers told him their decision was final.
William Goren, a lawyer who focuses on compliance with the ADA, said that it’s difficult to understand how an employer could fire a disabled employee because of “a side issue” like a modified bike.
“You have a productive employee who’s bringing diversity to your employment base who’s able to do his job,” Goren told The Post. “It doesn’t make sense to get hung up on a side issue about how a person’s going to transport himself to work and back.”
Goren, who is deaf and has been working with ADA law for nearly 30 years, warned that other issues could come to light when Kroger responds to the lawsuit. He said corporations like Kroger often have good policies for accommodating employees with disabilities but that training breakdowns can hamper those policies from being put into practice.
“I do wonder about how often these employers are getting trained on disability compliance and who is doing the training,” Goren said. “Yeah, the policies are in place if they have good lawyers, but they may not be getting carried out effectively because [managers] just don’t understand disabilities.”