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Appeals court affirms jury verdict for diabetic Dollar General worker

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A federal appeals court has affirmed a jury verdict of more than $277,000 to a former diabetic Dollar General worker, who was fired for drinking orange juice to forestall low blood sugar attacks, in a case filed on her behalf by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Linda K. Atkins, who began working at a Dollar General store, which is operated by Goodlettsville, Tennessee-based Dolgencorp L.L.C., in 2009, has diabetes and takes insulin daily, according to Tuesday’s ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Linda K. Atkins v. Dolgencorp L.L.C., dba Dollar General Corp.

Even though she monitors her blood sugar level daily, Ms. Atkins still occasionally experiences low blood sugar episodes, which can cause her to have seizures or pass out and, left untreated, can be fatal, said the ruling. She was prohibited by her store manager from keeping orange juice at her register in case of a hypoglycemic attack.

In late 2011 and early 2012, she suffered two hypoglycemic episodes. Because she was working alone each time and there were several customers in the store, she could not retreat to the break room.

Instead, she took a bottle of orange juice from the store cooler and drank it, later paying the $1.69 she owed for each bottle Both times, she told the store manager what had happened.

In 2012, Ms. Atkins was fired for violating Dollar General’s “grazing policy,” which forbids employees from consuming merchandise in the store before paying for it.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against Dollar General under the Americans with Disabilities Act in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, Tennessee, in which Ms. Atkins joined as a plaintiff.

A jury awarded Ms. Atkins $27,565 in back pay and $250,000 in compensatory damages, and the court awarded her lawyers $445,322 in attorney’s fees and $1,677 in expenses.

Dollar General appealed. The awards were unanimously affirmed by the three-judge appeals court panel. On Ms. Atkins’ reasonable accommodation claim, the ruling said, “Dollar General claims that it had no duty to accommodate Atkins” because her nurse testified she “could treat hypoglycemia in other ways, including glucose tablets or gels, honey, candy and peanut butter crackers,” said the ruling.

“But we need not decide whether Dollar General could have reasonably accommodated Atkins by permitting one of these alternatives because it did not do so,” the ruling continued. “All that matters is whether 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.”

On Ms. Atkins’ discriminatory discharge claim, the ruling said, “Boiled to its essence, Dollar General’s claim is that it had a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for firing Atkins, namely the company anti-grazing policy.

“But a company may not illegitimately deny an employee a reasonable accommodation to a general policy and use that same policy as natural basis for firing him … Atkins never would have had a reason to buy the store’s orange juice during a medical emergency if Dollar General had allowed her to keep her own orange juice at the register, or worked with her to find another solution,” said the ruling, in affirming the lower court.

In 2014, Walgreen Co. agreed to pay $180,000 to settle an EEOC disability discrimination lawsuit in which it was charged with firing an 18-year employee with diabetes after she allegedly ate a bag of chips without paying for it to stave off a low blood sugar attack.