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Employer Cannot Prohibit Diabetic Employee From Eating at Work

    Client Alerts
  • August 23, 2018

On occasion, we read case reports that make us wonder why an employer litigates a claim that appears to be based on rigid adherence to work rules that do not make a whole lot of sense. A recent example is a decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld a jury verdict against a retailer that terminated a diabetic employee for occasionally drinking orange juice while working in order to maintain blood glucose levels.
In EEOC v. Dolgencorp, LLC, the employee was a retail sales associate who on two occasions purchased orange juice from the employer and drank it in order to manage her diabetic condition. During a subsequent internal audit, the employee admitted to doing so and was terminated based on a company policy that prohibits employees from eating or drinking on duty. The EEOC filed suit on her behalf under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a jury awarded her more than $700,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees. The employer appealed to the Sixth Circuit, claiming that it did not need to accommodate drinking OJ on the job because the employee could have managed her diabetic condition through other means.
The court rejected this argument, affirming the jury verdict. The Sixth Circuit noted that the alternative accommodations suggested by the employer, such as glucose tablets or honey packets, would also have to be consumed while on duty. Therefore, the claimed alternative accommodations were in reality no different from the one requested by the employee. In addition, the employer could not rely on the neutral no-eating policy as a defense to the claim. The ADA requires employers to vary such policies as part of the reasonable accommodation process. The plaintiff does not need to show that the employer enforced the policy based on discriminatory intent.
In many situations, regardless of the existence of a policy to the contrary, the easiest and legally least risky avenue is simply agreeing to the employee’s request. In the absence of a safety, productivity, or related serious business concern, blind adherence to a policy for the sake of consistency can lead an employer into expensive litigation and the resulting financial consequences.