- A federal appeals court has upheld a jury award of more than $700,000 for a Dollar General cashier who was not permitted to keep orange juice at her station to accommodate her diabetes and then fired for twice, during medical emergencies, drinking a juice from the store before paying for it (EEOC/Linda Atkins v. Dolgencorp LLC., dba Dollar General Corp., No. 17-6278 (6th Cir., August 7, 2018)).
- The case, which has spanned years, made headlines for opening up the possibility that employers may have to accommodate "stealing." Dollar General appealed the verdict, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that the jury didn't reach any unreasonable conclusions.
- Once the employee requested the accommodation, Dollar General had a duty to explore the nature of her limitations and determine whether any type of accommodations could be made, the court said; instead, the store manager denied the request, failed to explore alternatives and never relayed the matter to a superior. And in court, the company argued that the employee could have found another way to address her episodes. The 6th Circuit, however, said it was not persuaded by this "accommodate thyself defense"; "the jury had a legally sufficient basis to conclude that Dollar General failed to provide Atkins reasonable alternatives to keeping orange juice at her register. Ample evidence supported that conclusion."
The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, unless the employer would suffer an undue hardship as a result. Once an employee has requested an accommodation, the law favors employers that engage in an informal, interactive process to identify reasonable accommodations. Failing to engage in the interactive process isn't a stand-alone violation, at least under federal law, but it can be evidence of discrimination.
Accommodations can run the gamut. According to federal guidance, common adjustments include making existing facilities accessible; job restructuring; part-time or modified work schedules; acquiring or modifying equipment; changing tests, training materials, or policies; providing qualified readers or interpreters; and reassignment to a vacant position.
The ADA does not require that requests for accommodation be in writing, and no "magic words" need be used. Because front-line managers are often on the receiving end of these requests — and in the best position to see if an employee is struggling because of an impairment — training is often recommended as a first step toward compliance. In fact, one expert recommends training managers to respond to such requests by saying, "How can I help you?" to get things started on the right food.
And that's just where Dollar General went wrong here, EEOC alleged. “This case highlights another employer who failed to train its employees on the reasonable accommodation requirements under the ADA,” EEOC attorney Faye Williams said in a statement announcing the verdict; “We hope this jury verdict sends a message to its employers, train your employees on the reasonable accommodation requirements under the ADA."