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Is Diabetes a Disability under the ADA?

In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) was amended to broaden the scope of conditions that constituted a “disability” under the ADA.  The definition is considered so broad that employment lawyers often joke everything is a disability.  While this joke is a good cautionary tale, courts continue to provide guidance on what is and is not a disability under the ADA.

For instance, in Sanders v. Bemis Company, Inc., the District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky recently held an employee’s diabetes was not a disability under the ADA or Kentucky Civil Rights Act, the state employment discrimination statute.  In that case, the plaintiff was a current employee of the company and continued to work there throughout the litigation. The basis of the plaintiff’s claim was that the company failed to provide a work schedule which accommodated his Type I diabetes.  Specifically, he sought to work an eight hour day rather than twelve, but his doctor did not indicate he was substantially limited in any major life activity.  The employee (although it was not doctor ordered) modified his own schedule and only worked eight hour shifts without repercussion.

In its decision, the Court reasoned the employee did not produce evidence his diabetes substantially limited any major life activity.  The Court noted “diabetes ordinarily fails to rise to the level of a disability under the ADA” particularly where the diabetes only requires an employee to inject insulin daily, wear a pump and monitor blood sugar and make modest dietary and lifestyle changes.   This is a very conservative view of the definition of disability, and we will see if the new Administration leads to more decisions like this.

A take away from this case is courts are more inclined to side with the employer if they are fair and reasonable with the employee. In this case, the employer attempted to accommodate the employee’s schedule and did not retaliate against the employee for filing the lawsuit.  However, despite this ruling, employers should be mindful that often times, state and local laws grant broader protections to employees than federal laws.  Therefore, while diabetes might not be considered an automatic disability by the Eastern District of Kentucky under the ADA it may be under state or local law as well as other federal district courts.  Moreover, the EEOC considers diabetes in its guidance to be a disability.  Therefore, if faced with an EEOC Charge and accompanying investigation, the employer should expect the EEOC to treat diabetes as a disability.  If faced with this issue, employers should contact labor and employment counsel to navigate what can quickly become a sticky area.

Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on civil rights issues and employment laws in general. If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560.