A Penny Wise And a Pound Foolish: Lessons Learned from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Dolgencorp, LLC, d/b/a Dollar General Corporation serves as a critical lesson of what can happen when managers are not properly prepared. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held in this case that Linda Atkins, an insulin-dependent diabetic, was subjected to disability discrimination when her employer, Dollar General, failed to accommodate a reasonable, medically-based request, and subsequently fired her.

Atkins occasionally suffered from low blood sugar, also know as hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia, which manifests in symptoms such as dizziness, nausea and headaches, may be treated by ingesting a sugary substance such as orange juice. Atkins approached her manager about her medical condition and requested a reasonable accommodation of having orange juice at her register while she worked her shift. The best practice for a manager under similar circumstances would be to enter into an interactive process designed to attempt to find a reasonable accommodation that would enable the employee to perform the essential functions of her job and that would not pose an undue hardship on the employer or disruption to the work environment.  Alternatively, it would be equally good practice for a manager to bring such requests to the human resources department, which is likely better equipped to address the issue. Dollar General's manager simply rejected Atkins request to have access to orange juice at her register, never entering into any interactive process, and it also appears that the manager never alerted human resources of her request.

As a result of the manager's failure to accommodate Atkins' request or find a reasonable and appropriate alternative, or to bring the situation to the attention of Dollar General's human resources department for resolution, Atkins had two hypoglycemic episodes while working and had to take orange juice from the store cooler to address her medical need. She paid the $1.69 store price for the orange juice on both occasions. Nevertheless, Dollar General fired Ms. Atkins and she, in turn, successfully sued and was awarded $722,887: $27,565 in back pay, $250,000 in compensatory damages, and $445,322 in attorneys' fees. Dollar General also, of course, had to absorb the additional cost of its own counsel fees, lost a good employee, and suffered disruption to its workforce.

While it may not always be practical to train managers to deal with specific situations such as Atkins' directly, it is certainly feasible to train managers to identify situations that should be brought to the human resources department to address. Dollar General could have avoided the significant costs resulting from this case had the manager taken Atkins' request for an accommodation to human resources. The company could have entered into the interactive process with Atkins which should have led to a reasonable accommodation. Moreover, had human resources been aware of Atkins' request for an accommodation, the company may have been in a better position to identify the significant risk of litigation under the circumstances and, therefore, not have terminated her employment. This case once again underscores the crucial importance of implementing effective management training.

Please feel free to reach out to David Gabor to talk about how organizations should handle employee requests for accommodations and effectively training managers to properly respond to such requests.