Since the beginning of month, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has filed a dozen lawsuits against employers for disability discrimination.  Four lawsuits, which were filed in the Northern and Eastern Districts of the U.S. District Court, address various facets of disability discrimination.

One of the cases was filed against Walgreens drug store for failing to accommodate and for firing a diabetic employee who was cashier in the company’s South San Francisco store.  The employee, who worked for Walgreens for nearly 18 years without a blemish in her work history, opened a bag of chips while on duty because she was suffering from an attack of low blood sugar.  The chips cost less than two dollars and the employee paid for it.  The EEOC alleges that the company fired her after it learned of the incident although it knew the employee was diabetic. 

The EEOC also filed a lawsuit against Merritt Restaurant and Bakery, an Oakland eatery, for firing an employee who suffered from seizures.  The employee, a cook and kitchen manager, had a seizure during the night shift.  Although the employee’s physician cleared him to return to work, the employer delayed his reinstatement and transferred him to the day shift which resulted in fewer work hours and less pay.  According to the EEOC, the employee complained about the change in his work conditions and was fired.

Modesto retailer Buy-Rite Thrift Store fired an epileptic employee after he had small seizures at work.  The EEOC alleges that the company improperly “relied on its own judgment – which is not consistent with the law – to determine that [the employee] was a danger to himself and others” instead of asking the employee to “take a fitness exam or provide medical documentation of his ability to perform the job duties required of his position.”

Finally, the owner of a McDonald’s in Oakhurst was sued by the EEOC for demoting and causing the constructive discharge of an employee with cerebral palsy.  The employee had worked for a prior owner since 2006 without incident.  In fact, the employee had been promoted to a supervisory position.  Within two months of new ownership taking over the McDonald’s operations in 2009, the employee was demoted to a janitorial position.  They also cut his hours and reduced his pay.  The EEOC alleges that the employee was forced to quit his job as a result of the company’s treatment of him.  

While it is too early to know whether these employers will vigorously defend their actions, these lawsuits demonstrate that disability discrimination can come in many forms.  Important lessons can also be learned from these cases.  First, employers should refrain from forming their own opinions on whether an employee is medically or physically able to perform the essential functions of the job.  If there is a valid question as to the employee’s abilities, the employer should ask the employee to take a fitness for duty exam or provide medical documentation certifying fitness.  Second, employers must be flexible in accommodating disabled employees.  This may mean providing accommodations if the employee experiences symptoms related to his or her disability in the workplace.  For example, Walgreens could have accommodated the diabetic employee immediately by simply allowing her to eat the chips and take a break long enough to allow her to raise her blood sugar.  Finally, if an employer wants to change the working conditions of a disabled employee, the employer should evaluate the reasons for the change to make sure it is for legitimate non-discriminatory business reasons.