Dollar General Discriminated Against a Diabetic Employee by Firing Her for Drinking Orange Juice in Violation of an “Anti-grazing” Policy
A federal appellate court recently upheld a $725,000 jury verdict against Dollar General for discriminating against an employee on the basis of her disability. Central to the lawsuit was $3.38 worth of orange juice. This case illustrates why employers must take employees’ requests for reasonable accommodations seriously.
In 2009, Dollar General hired a sales associate who occasionally suffered from low blood sugar (she had type II diabetes). When she experienced a low blood sugar episode, she would ingest glucose to avoid seizing or passing out. The employee would do this by going to the break room where she kept orange juice in a cooler. At some point, the employee was promoted to a position which required her to work the store alone. As a result, she could no longer go to the break room when she needed to ingest some glucose. To avoid the risk of seizing or passing out during a low blood sugar episode, the employee asked her manager if she could keep orange juice at her register. The manager refused because it was “prohibited by store policy.” When she experienced two low blood sugar episodes in late 2011 and early 2012, the employee took a bottle of orange juice from the store cooler, drank it, paid the $1.69 she owed for each bottle of juice, and told the store manager what had happened.
In March 2012, Dollar General’s loss prevention team audited the store to address employee theft. During the audit, the employee admitted she had twice taken orange juice from the store cooler during a medical emergency and had paid for it each time. Dollar General fired the employee because the two events violated the company’s “grazing policy,” which prohibits employees from consuming merchandise in the store before paying for it. The employee filed a discrimination charge against the company, and a jury awarded her $28,000 in backpay, $250,000 in damages, and $447,000 in attorney’s fees and expenses.
What This Means for Employers:
When an employee requests a reasonable accommodation, employers must explore the nature of the employee’s limitations, the extent to which those limitations affect the employee’s work, and what types of accommodations could be made. This case is a reminder of the importance of engaging in the “interactive process” with employees that request to be reasonably accommodated. In addition, this case illustrates the significant damages that juries are willing to award plaintiffs suffering disability discrimination cases. Please contact Barsamian & Moody if your company needs guidance in dealing with a request for an accommodation.
The goal of this article is to provide employers with current labor and employment law information. The contents should neither be interpreted as, nor construed as legal advice or opinion. The reader should consult with Barsamian & Moody at (559) 248-2360 for individual responses to questions or concerns regarding any given situation.