Bah-gawd, those were two hecka-expensive bottles of orange juice!

Orange juice 1

By Agricultural Research Service ([1]) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Three strikes and you’re out.

For one variety store chain accused of failing to accommodate and then firing a diabetic cashier who had to take a few bottles of orange juice from the store refrigerator to avoid seizing or passing out, well, the company swung hard!

By the numbers.

Yesterday, the Sixth Circuit (here) upheld the jury’s $277,565.44 award for the plaintiff and the nearly $446,999 in attorney’s fees and costs awarded to her counsel.

For those wondering, the plaintiff paid $1.69 (plus tax) per bottle of orange juice. Assuming 7% sales tax, that’s $3.62 total, which is about 1/200,156th of the employer’s total bill.

Oh, wait. I’m guessing that the employer’s attorneys didn’t take the case pro bono.

Where is my calculator?

Bad logic. Bad results.

I think the Sixth Circuit was a little fed up with this employer; notably, the company’s defense that it did not discriminate against the plaintiff when it fired her for violating the company’s anti-grazing policy, which forbids employees from consuming merchandise in the store before paying for it.

Let’s see if you agree with me:

[A] company may not illegitimately deny an employee a reasonable accommodation to a general policy and use that same policy as a neutral basis for firing him. Imagine a school that lacked an elevator to accommodate a teacher with mobility problems. It could not refuse to assign him to classrooms on the first floor, then turn around and fire him for being late to class after he took too long to climb the stairs between periods. In the same way, [the plaintiff] never would have had a reason to buy the store’s orange juice during a medical emergency if [the defendant] had allowed her to keep her own orange juice at the register or worked with her to find another solution.

Happily for us, doctrine lines up with common sense in this setting….For good reason: The company cannot mask discrimination by firing able-bodied employees who need no accommodation. Any such comparison gives analogy a bad name.

Between the amount that this employer will have to shell out to the plaintiff, her lawyers, and the company’s lawyers, this may be the most expensive orange juice of all time!

Conserve your litigation budget. Train your managers.

Start by helping managers exercise better judgment concerning any store policy that may have the unintended consequence of killing an employee with a disability.

But also train your managers on how to identify a situation that may call for accommodating an employee with a disability. A call, text, email, or visit to HR will keep the positive momentum going.

And, hopefully, your business will avoid the orange crush.

“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”