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PITTSBURGH — A longtime employee's federal lawsuit against his former employer for allegedly failing to accommodate his condition of claustrophobia follows a series of similar cases introduced since a change in disabilities law in 2008.
In his 11-page complaint filed Feb. 15 in the U.S. District Court for Pennsylvania's Western District, Robert J. Turco sued Zambelli Fireworks for allegedly failing to accommodate his claustrophobia and for allegedly firing him because of his disability. Turco also claims his firing was retaliation "for his reasonable accommodation" request and for his disability discrimination complaint, both of which are violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Turco is seeking lost wages, compensatory and punitive damages, legal costs and attorneys' fees.
The case was assigned to U.S. District Court Chief Judge Joy Flowers Conti on Feb. 21. On Feb. 28, notice was filed that the civil action had been placed in U.S. District Court's Alternative Dispute Resolution program.
Claustrophobia is listed as an anxiety disorder under the ADA as amended in 2008. Under the prior ADA, anxiety disorders were treated as temporary ailments, which then meant claustrophobia wasn't an ADA disability.
Litigation followed after claustrophobia received the heightened ADA designation.
In 2011, Clark County Nevada Commissioners agreed to pay $150,000 to settle the lawsuit of a former data technician. The technician had been fired for alleged poor job performance after she complained working in a cubicle cause her severe anxiety and triggered claustrophobia.
In August 2016, Regis Corp., owner of SmartStyle hair salons, paid $60,000 in damages and back pay to former stylist to settle a federal disability discrimination suit after the company allegedly failed to accommodate a stylist's claustrophobia but, instead, fired her.
In 2017, Pittsburgh law firm Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, following arbitration, settled a lawsuit filed by a former associate who claimed the firm failed to accommodate her claustrophobia.
Turco started working for Zambelli Fireworks in March 1984 and "was a dedicated and exemplary employee who received several promotions, ending with the title of senior project manager," his lawsuit said.
Turco never mentioned his claustrophobia until the fireworks company announced in October 2017 that it would move its headquarters from South Mercer Street in New Castle in Lawrence County to the Thornhill Industrial Park in Cranberry Township, Butler County. The company's fireworks plant near Garner Road in Edinburg remained.
Early in the move, Turco observed the new building had a limited number of windows and he became "deeply concerned" that his new office, unlike his office at the time, would not have a window, the lawsuit said.
"Turco's claustrophobia substantially limits his ability to think and breathe, among other negative impacts on his major life activities," the lawsuit said.
The same month the move was announced, Turco informed Zambelli Fireworks President Tom Bametzrieder that he suffers from claustrophobia, according to the lawsuit. After saying a window could be provided, Bametzrieder informed Turco the following December "that he was probably not going to get a window," he lawsuit said.
The following day Bametzrieder informed Turco that about half of his accounts had been reassigned to other clients because "he was not sure if he could count on Turco and if Turco could continue with the company," the lawsuit said. The following month, Bametzrieder allegedly gave Turco a poor performance review, which included the note "Unfavorable reaction to office relocation" and asked Turco when he intended to quit.
After the move, Turco reported great difficulty working in his new windowless office. Verbal altercations with Bametzrieder and the company's Human Resources director allegedl followed and he was subsequently fired.
The lawsuit was filed on Turco's behalf by attorneys of the Minto Law Group in Pittsburgh.