Diabetes Not A Incapacity below the ADA?

On January 30th, 2017, a federal judge gave an employer a summary judgment on an ADA discrimination claim, including the grounds that the employee’s diabetes was not a disability under the ADA. The court found that the worker had provided no evidence that the diabetes severely restricted him from essential life activities. The case is Sanders v. Bemis Company, Inc. (ED Kentucky 1/30/17). The court found that a number of other federal courts have reached the same conclusion and that in those cases, “diabetes does not normally result in disability under ADA,” especially when the diabetes only requires an employee to inject insulin in Wear daily a pump and monitor blood sugar and make modest changes in diet and lifestyle.

No liability for accommodation. The court also concluded that the employer was entitled to a summary judgment even if the employee’s diabetes was classified as a disability. There is a relatively complex factual background (just like many in ADA / FMLA cases). The court found that the facility where the worker worked had changed hands several times during his employment. When the employee was first hired in 1986, he worked 8 hours in shifts.

In March 2002, the facility changed hands and the new owner changed his work schedule and asked him to work 12-hour shifts. He submitted a doctor’s recommendation to work an 8-hour shift because of his type 1 diabetes. The new owners agreed and he was assigned an 8 hour shift a day Monday through Friday.

The facility then changed hands again and the employee continued to work an 8-hour shift until the employer informed him in June 2014 that he would have to work 12-hour shifts in the future. The employee spoke to HR about his previous request for accommodation and stated that previous personnel files had ended when the current employer bought the facility. As a result, the employee filed another letter from his new doctor asking if he could continue to work 8-hour shifts. In the letter, the doctor noted that the employee was not significantly restricted in any life activity due to his health. For this reason, the employer denied the employee’s request for an 8-hour shift and asked him to work 12-hour shifts, which the court found he did for several months without incident.

Employee sued while he is still employed! The employee then filed a lawsuit against the employer, including for discrimination based on disability. After the complaint was filed, the employee filed a new doctor’s letter recommending that they only work 8 hours a day and not stand any longer. The employee left his shift unilaterally after 8 hours. The employer never punished him for this action. Ultimately (after communication between the lawyers) the employer agreed to allow the employee to work 8-hour shifts on a rotating schedule that included a few weekend days. The employee remained an employee while the lawsuit was pending on that schedule.

Please not work on weekends – a “personal preference”, no medically required accommodation. The court dismissed the employee’s failure to comply, finding that the employer had allowed him to set up an 8-hour schedule, the only accommodation recommended by his doctor. The court found that the employee requested a schedule that was limited to weekdays rather than weekends, but the court stated, “This request appears to be [the employee’s] personal preference rather than necessary accommodation for the disabled based on the recommendations of his doctors. “

Lessons for employers? Employers should use caution in comforting the court’s decision that diabetes is not a qualified disability under the ADA. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) was intended to change the law to expand the scope of qualified disabilities. In a Guide to Diabetes and ADA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission specifically stated: “Because of the changes made by the ADAAA, people with diabetes should be easily identified as having disability within the meaning of Part One of the ADA definition of disability because it is in the Main life activity of endocrine function are severely restricted. Because the determination of whether an impairment is a disability is independent of the ameliorating effects of mitigating measures, diabetes is a disability even if insulin, medication, or diet control a person’s blood sugar levels. “See https://www1.eeoc.gov//laws/types/diabetes.cfm?renderforprint=1

A better lesson for employers to learn from this case is that the courts are more likely to rule in their favor if they treat workers fairly and fairly. For example, the employer did not discipline the employee here when they began unilaterally restricting their schedule to 8-hour days. The employer eventually also agreed to allow him to work the 8-hour days he had requested. In addition, the employer and employee had managed to coexist peacefully even after the complaint was filed, thereby avoiding liability for retaliation.

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