By LINDA TRAINOR
Contributing Editor, Best Practices in HR
Key Issue: Is diabetes a qualified disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? It depends.
The Case: Nawrot v. CPC International, n/k/a Bestfoods, Inc., 7th Circuit, No. 00-2849 (January 2002)
Ralph Nawrot worked for Bestfoods for over 20 years. For 15 of those years he was a warehouse supervisor. However, in 1995 he began having interpersonal relationship problems, which he construed as misunderstandings. Finally, following an incident where Nawrot refused to shake a new employee's hand, he was given a formal reprimand and a final warning that similar future conduct would result in his termination.
At the same time, his long-time friendship with a female co-worker was falling
apart. Various rumors (including that Nawrot was stalking and soliciting sex
from her) began circulating around the company. The woman had been terminated
by the company, but with Nawrot's and her union's help was reinstated.
Employee's Poor Behavior
Does Not Absolve Company
Nawrot was a diabetic did not automatically qualify him as disabled
under the ADA. However, the seriousness of his condition required extraordinary
monitoring and insulin injections. Even diligent attention didn't eliminate
all the adverse effects of his diabetes. His episodes were unpredictable,
affected his ability to think coherently, function normally and presented
a significant risk of death.
these and other related impairments, the 7th Circuit disagreed with
the district court's conclusion saying, "& we are convinced that
Nawrot has sufficiently demonstrated that his diabetes substantially
limits his ability to think and care for himself, which are both major
life activities." The court also concluded that Nawrot's allegations
that Bestfoods had failed to reasonably accommodate his disability and
discriminated against him because of his disability had not been fully
addressed. So this part of the case was sent back to the district court
for further review.
Circuit did uphold the district court's decision with respect to Nawrot's
retaliatory termination claim. It said, "After numerous documented
occasions of inappropriate behavior, Bestfoods demanded that Nawrot
straighten up and fly right and instead he crashed and burned."
remind employers that even if an employee's behavior is grounds for
termination, that doesn't absolve the company from its responsibilities
with regard to discrimination practices.
When she returned to work, the company asked both of them to stay away from each other. Nawrot did not comply. The woman filed a complaint. The company investigated and terminated him for insubordination, harassment, and disloyalty.
Nawrot viewed the termination differently. Nawrot is a Type I diabetic and must inject himself with insulin approximately three times a day and test his blood-sugar level at least 10 times a day. Even if he follows this regimen, he can experience episodes of high or low blood sugar, which adversely affect his health, personality, and behavior and can be life threatening.
As his condition worsened, Nawrot asked for permission to take more breaks to better monitor his blood sugar. The company allegedly denied all of the requests. Finally, he requested a leave of absence, which was approved.
About two months later, with his doctor's approval, Nawrot asked to return
to work. The company did not approve his return until two months after his request.
During his leave, Bestfoods posted signs with plant security informing them
to keep Nawrot from entering the plant and told employees that he was away for
When he returned to work, Nawrot again requested discretion to monitor his diabetes, but his request was denied. Continued efforts for accommodation fell on deaf ears. Finally, after returning from vacation, he was fired. He filed suit alleging, among other things, failure to accommodate and discrimination under the ADA. He also alleged that his termination was retaliatory, a further violation of the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
The district court found in favor of Bestfoods, holding that Nawrot had not
shown he was a qualified individual with a disability and had failed to show
that the reasons for his termination were a pretext for discrimination. Nawrot
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Nawrot had "... sufficiently
demonstrated that he is a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA...."
While the 7th Circuit said Nawrot didn't provide enough evidence to show that
the stated reason for his termination was pretext, it did believe that his claims
of failure to accommodate and discrimination warranted further exploration.