Diabetes-related workplace discrimination happens, but there is a fairly clear legal precedent in American law about how it is handled by the courts. The tone has been set by an employment discrimination case in which science and the active participation of the American Diabetes Association set a precedent which still stands unchallenged.
Rudy Rodriguez was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 1997. In 2002, he worked for a month through a temp agency at a food processing plant in Fort Worth, Texas, in a job that required heavy manual labor unloading delivery trucks and handling containers of ingredients. Based upon his performance, Mr. Rodriguez was offered a permanent position. “Offer in hand”, to use the court’s exact words, he submitted to a medical examination to determine his physical fitness for duty.
Such examinations are the norm for industrial employers, often upon the urging of a casualty or workers’ compensation insurer to control loss from avoidable claims. A medical condition can heighten risk of injury or of aggravating a condition on the job; it could even endanger other workers. Typically, pre-employment screenings cover such things as ability to lift, push and pull, stand or sit for extended periods, be agile enough to safely operate or work near machinery, and hear and see adequately to work safely. The examining physician or physiologist, usually under contract to the employer or with a service specializing in occupational health and safety, conducts an exam according to the job description.
But in this case, both Mr. Rodriguez’s employer and the examining doctor were just basically misinformed about how diabetes works. Mr. Rodriguez had been seeing his own physician and taking medication as prescribed, and had shown no signs of physical ill-effects due to diabetes before seeing the employer’s examining physician. However, he apparently grew flustered during the employer-mandated medical examination and couldn’t name his medication nor his normal physician. From this visit and a urinalysis, the doctor decided Mr. Rodriguez’s diabetes must be uncontrolled; the doctor failed to take a blood sample. He was deemed “not medically qualified” for the job.
The employer’s HR manager (whose testimony at trial evidenced her lack of understanding of the condition) revoked the job offer. In doing so, the company ignored Mr. Rodriguez’s own successful temp track record at the position. The company failed to provide any real job description to prove that Mr. Rodriguez could not meet the demands of the job he already was doing.
After unsuccessfully pursuing remedies with the Texas Commission on Human Rights and the regional office of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Mr. Rodriguez sued the employer in Texas state court under the state’s equivalent of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. On grounds unrelated to the merits of the case, it was re-filed in federal district court in Texas, which applied both federal and corresponding Texas law. But the decision handed down showed that court was as unschooled about diabetes as the employer and the doctor, leaving Mr. Rodriguez without remedy for the discrimination that took place.
On appeal, the 5th Circuit Court in Louisiana reversed the lower court’s decision, in an opinion which reproduced extensively the trial testimony of the HR manager and laid out the court’s reasoning in a manner that showed comprehensive understanding of diabetes. A written argument, called an amicus or friend of the court brief that was submitted by the American Diabetes Association, AARP, and a Texas disabilities rights advocacy group, was persuasive. Interestingly, EEOC in Washington also filed an amicus brief on the side of Mr. Rodriguez, making an about face on its regional office’s decision.
The 5th Circuit Court found that diabetes is covered under The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, P.L. 101-336. This act prohibits, among other things, an employer from making a hiring decision on the basis of perceived disability, and it requires an employer to make reasonable accommodation for a worker when doing so will permit the worker to carry out the essential requirements of the job.
The opinion was withering in its condemnation of the discrimination that occurred, quoting another case by saying “an employer cannot slavishly defer to a physician’s opinion without first pausing to assess the objective reasonableness of the physician’s conclusions.”
To summarize the act’s influence on the Rodriguez case, it was found that:
- A hiring decision cannot be made on the basis of the employer’s mere perception that an illness equates to a disability and makes an applicant medically unfit
- The employer, and by extension its medical evaluator, may only consider illness or disability in the narrowest terms relating to the essential requirements of the job and whether the individual applicant’s medical condition might hinder safe performance
- If an accommodation is reasonable, from a business standpoint, to allow the job applicant to do the job, it has to be made
In future articles, we’ll have a closer look at the Americans with Disabilities Act and at other federal laws affording protection to persons with diabetes and other chronic illness. We’ll examine how improvements in diabetes management and self-care has shaped non-discrimination laws since Rodriguez. And we’ll see how Congress has since amended the Americans with Disabilities Act to more directly address diabetes.
In the meantime, here are the links to the appeals court decision, and to the two briefs which helped carry the day:
(This article should not be considered legal advice.)
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