By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.
Evidence presented at trial supported an over $1.5 million jury verdict in favor of a diabetic driver who was fired after making an unauthorized stop to drink sugar water to treat his low blood sugar. Denying the company’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and/or for a new trial, a federal court in California found that the jury reasonably concluded from the conflicting testimony that DHL fired him for conduct caused by his disability and denied him a reasonable accommodation (Navarro v. DHL Global Forwarding, October 4, 2017, Snyder, C.).
No lunch breaks. The employee, who worked as a driver for DHL for almost 22 years, claimed that his diabetic condition caused him to become lightheaded and faint if he didn’t eat at regular intervals. If his blood sugar became low, he would treat his symptoms by drinking juice or sugar water. He asserted that since DHL did not allow its drivers to keep food in the company’s trucks, he informed his managers that he was diabetic and requested permission to take regular lunch breaks. However, his repeatedly requests were denied.
Suspended, then fired. In August 2012, he received a five-day suspension after making an unauthorized stop to buy food, despite explaining that it was an emergency stop because he was feeling dizzy and had blurred vision. He was again suspended on July 18, 2013, after he made another unauthorized stop after feeling dizzy so that he could drink sugar water to bring up his blood sugar level. While stopped he also filled out some work-related forms, and when his supervisor called and asked where he was, he only indicated he was doing paperwork. As he was pulling out, he saw one of his managers sitting in a car across the street.
“Dishonest” behavior. Once he returned to the worksite he met with several supervisors and his union shop steward, and was questioned about the stop that he had just made. He explained that he was feeling dizzy and had blurred vision so he pulled over to drink sugar water to stabilize his blood sugar level. The next day, his managers accused him making an unauthorized stop and lying to his supervisor. Though he again explained what had happened, and that he had stopped to drink sugar water to stabilize his diabetic condition, he was suspended and subsequently terminated for “dishonest behavior.”
His lawsuit proceeded to trial, and the jury returned a verdict on his claims of wrongful termination in violation of public policy, as well as claims under California law for disability bias and failure to accommodate and engage in an interactive process. He was awarded $765,000 in past and future lost wages plus an equal amount in emotional distress damages.
Fired for conduct caused by disability. Denying DHL’s motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court rejected its assertion that that no reasonable jury could have found that the employee’s disability was a substantial motivating factor in his discharge. Notably, a plaintiff can show that an adverse employment action was taken because of his disability by presenting evidence suggesting that he was fired for conduct caused by his disability. The employee offered such evidence here.
Both he and the shop steward testified that DHL did not allow drivers to eat in their trucks and that although managers were aware that he was diabetic, it refused to allow him to take regular meal breaks. Furthermore, the employee’s testimony regarding his 2012 suspension indicated that DHL already disciplined him for making an unauthorized stop for food, even though he had explained it was an emergency due to a hypoglycemic episode.
He further testified that after he was again denied a meal break on July 18, 2013, he had a similar episode requiring him to make an unplanned stop to drink sugar water. And though he had a miscommunication with his supervisor, he subsequently explained the situation to his managers, who were aware he had diabetes. Nonetheless, he was suspended and then terminated. On this record, the jury reasonably inferred that a substantial motivating factor in his termination was his unauthorized stop which was conduct caused by his disability.
No new trial. The court also rejected DHL’s bid for a new trial, finding that the jury did not act unreasonably in rejecting the employer’s assertion that it terminated the employee because he failed to report an unauthorized stop and lied to his supervisor about his whereabouts. Though three of his superiors testified that he lied about his whereabouts, there was plausibly a miscommunication when he told his supervisor that he was doing paperwork on August 13.
An email from the decisionmaker also supported the finding of disability bias. In his July 18 email to HR (the only contemporaneous account of his motivations for firing the employee), the manager wrote, “I want to terminate him for lying to supervisor and theft of time.” This email suggested that the employee’s unauthorized stop itself, rather than his failure to report, was a substantial motivating factor in the termination decision. Accordingly, because the employee presented credible testimony that he had stopped the truck because he was having a hypoglycemic episode, there was substantial evidence that he was discharged for conduct caused by his disability.
Evidence of failure to accommodate. The employee’s claims that DHL failed to provide a reasonable accommodation or engage in an interactive process similarly depended on witness credibility. DHL argued that it allowed the employee to keep food in the cab of his truck and to take lunch breaks every day. It also contended that the evidence clearly established that it engaged in a good faith interactive process resulting in DHL providing those reasonable accommodations. However, the employee and the shop steward both testified that DHL did not allow drivers to keep food in their trucks and repeatedly denied the employee’s requests for regular lunch breaks.
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