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Sixth Circuit Affirms Verdict for Diabetic Employee

In 2016, a jury found in favor of Dollar General employee, Linda Atkins, who was fired for taking orange juice to avoid a diabetic reaction. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the jury’s verdict in that case.
Ms. Atkins has Type II diabetes that can result in her having seizures or passing out from low blood sugar. Her Dollar store manager refused her request to keep orange juice at the register although she explained the medical need for her request. On two occasions she needed the juice so she took it from the cooler; she paid for it quickly after and informed her supervisor. Dollar responded by firing her, asserting that it violated a company policy against “grazing,” which prohibited employees from taking anything without paying first. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took the case on her behalf.
Dollar made two substantive arguments upon appeal. First, the company claimed that it had no duty to accommodate Ms. Atkins under the Americans with Disabilities Act because she had other ways to address her low blood sugar. She could have used glucose tablets, honey, candy, and/or peanut butter crackers. The court was not persuaded by this argument. These items also violated company policy about eating or drinking while working. Moreover, Ms. Atkins had asked for an accommodation and Dollar failed to explore with her what types of accommodation could be made in response to her request. Maybe one of the glucose alternatives would have been appropriate for her but Dollar never offered any accommodation at all.

Dollar also argued that it had a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for her termination i.e., its anti-grazing policy. Again, the Sixth Circuit was not persuaded: “[A] company may not illegitimately deny an employee a reasonable accommodation to a general policy and use that same policy as a neutral basis for firing him.” Dollar’s failure to provide a reasonable accommodation was direct evidence of disability discrimination and any possible non-discriminatory rationale would only be relevant if the evidence of discrimination was circumstantial.