Linda K. Atkins’ bosses at a Maryville (Tenn.) Dollar General store knew she was diabetic and needed to keep orange juice handy to stave off a hypoglycemic attack.
They knew she swigged a bottle from a store cooler for just that reason while working alone at the register in March 2012 and paid for it later. She told them so. But they fired her anyway.
On Friday, a jury in U.S. District Court ordered Dollar General corporate owner Dolgencorp, LLC, to pay Atkins $250,000 in compensatory damages and $27,565 in back wages, ruling Atkins had been discriminated against and fired because of her diabetic condition.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit, which attorney Jennifer Morton joined on behalf of Atkins, against the firm for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act when Atkins was fired for committing what the company termed a “grazing” offense – eating or drinking Dollar General inventory without first paying for it. The case went to trial last week.
In a preliminary ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge Tom Varlan detailed the facts leading up to the litigation.
Atkins was hired at the Maryville discount store in August 2009. Her supervisor, Wanda Shown, knew Atkins had just been diagnosed with diabetes and was sympathetic to her needs as Shown had a relative who suffered the same condition.
Atkins kept insulin and juice in the break room, but she couldn’t always access it, especially when manning the register alone. She had asked Shown to let her keep orange juice at the register, but Shown told her that violated store policy. Although the firm has a policy that requires under the ADA that “reasonable accommodations” be made for such medical conditions, Shown didn’t know that, according to Varlan.
Twice – once in 2011 and in 2012 – Atkins drank a bottle of juice from the store’s cooler before paying to stave off an attack. Each time, she later paid for it, and Shown knew about both incidents. In March 2012, Dollar General Manager Scott Strange and Regional Loss Prevention Manager Matt Irwin were conducting what was known as a “shrinkage” audit to investigate any employee thefts.
Two employees who admitted “grazing” violations told Strange and Irwin that other employees also ate inventory on occasion, naming Atkins as one of those. The pair was fired per store policy. In her interview, Atkins admitted drinking the juice and confirmed she did not steal it but paid for it, albeit after the fact.
“Strange and Irwin understood that the reason Atkins violated the policy was because of a medical emergency,” Varlan wrote.
But she was fired anyway.
Although jurors deemed the firm guilty of violating the ADA and wrongfully firing Atkins, the panel rejected a claim the company and its managers acted with malicious intent, which barred the award of any punitive, or punishing, damages. The company is entitled to appeal. No appeal notice has yet been filed.