EEOC settles federal disability discrimination suit against Walgreens

A long-term South San Francisco Walgreens employee with a solid work record ate a $1.39 bag of chips from store merchandise to stabilize her blood sugar at work during a hypoglycemic attack brought on by her diabetes. She was later fired for eating the chips before paying for them in violation of the company rule against employee "grazing."

Ironically, Walgreens had reportedly previously allowed Josefina Hernandez to refrigerate her insulin at work, keep candy for low blood sugar and take extra breaks for blood testing or medically related eating.

Hernandez filed an administrative claim of illegal disability discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces federal anti-discrimination in employment laws. On Hernandez' behalf, the EEOC sued Walgreens in federal district court in California for discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other civil rights laws.

After the judge issued an opinion denying Walgreens' request for summary judgment in the case, which would have allowed it to proceed to a jury trial, the EEOC issued a news release that the parties had agreed to settle for $180,000. As part of the settlement, Walgreens also agreed to several internal changes in policy and practice designed to prevent such an occurrence from happening again.

An EEOC official said in the news release that "Ms. Hernandez is free to be rehired and cannot be retaliated against."

Disability discrimination under the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act, known as the ADA, is the primary federal law prohibiting most employers from discriminating against qualified employees or potential employees on the basis of disability. In particular, an employer subject to the ADA must provide "reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations" to allow that person to perform the work he or she is otherwise qualified to do.

Reasonable job accommodations are flexible changes to aspects of the job that otherwise make it undoable because of an employee's disability. For example, a person with blindness or deafness might need to use certain technologies to make written or spoken language accessible; a restroom might need to be made wheelchair accessible; or a schedule might need to be flexible to allow medical appointments or treatment.

The exception to requiring accommodation to allow a person with a disability to perform a job is if the accommodation would be an "undue hardship on the operation of the business."

Legal counsel essential

Any Californian who suspects discrimination based on disability at work or as an applicant for a job should speak with an experienced California employment law attorney as soon as possible. A lawyer who has represented employees and job applicants in disability discrimination matters can give advice about meeting important deadlines, legal rights and options for legal remedies.

Not only does federal law provide remedies for disability discrimination in employment, but also the California Fair Employment and Housing Act or FEHA may grant state-based legal rights and remedies in such a matter.