Commission finds city discriminated against former diabetic employee
Augusta — The Maine Human Rights Commission voted 4-0 at its meeting Monday, Feb. 24 that there are reasonable grounds to believe the city of Belfast discriminated against a former employee because it refused to grant requested accommodations to get his diabetes under control.
According to an e-mail from MHRC Executive Director Amy Sneirson, the commission sided with Randolph resident David Cobb, a former Belfast paramedic firefighter who filed his complaint with the MHRC June 29, 2012. In it he alleged the city unlawfully discriminated against him because of his diabetes "by refusing to grant the reasonable accommodation of working no more than two nights per week for a period of two months."
In the investigator's report, the city denied Cobb had a disability.
The complaint stated Cobb started working for the city's fire and ambulance department in September 2011 and the alleged discrimination occurred May 9, 2012. Cobb submitted his resignation May 11, 2012, and it was effective May 31, 2012.
In March 2012, according to the report, Cobb submitted a note from his doctor to his supervisor that stated Cobb would need to limit work to two nights per week for the next two months for medical reasons. In response to the supervisor's request for more information, Cobb's doctor submitted a second note in April stating Cobb's need for an altered schedule was due to poorly controlled blood sugar.
Later in April, according to the report, Cobb's supervisor required him to undergo a fitness-for-duty evaluation that was to be conducted by another physician. Soon after the evaluation, Cobb received a letter from his employer outlining the findings of the second doctor, which stated Cobb's condition was largely due to his own dietary choices. The letter further stated Cobb's condition did not pose a public safety risk, that it was not a work-related condition and that the city did not need to provide any accommodation. The letter additionally directed Cobb to resume his prior schedule of working three nights per week.
Cobb did not believe the city granting the accommodation would have been a hardship because it would have been a temporary schedule change. Due to the city's failure to allow it, he submitted his resignation.
In its response to the complaint, the city, through its attorney, Mark Franco, stated Cobb never requested an accommodation for any medical condition until he submitted the note from his doctor in March 2012.
Cobb was allowed to remain on medical leave for three weeks after his initial request for a modified schedule, stated the report. Because Cobb served in a position which is safety sensitive, and because the initial doctor's note lacked detail, the city asked Cobb to see a doctor of its choosing.
The response from the city also stated that the results from that medical evaluation showed that while Cobb could be "somewhat short-tempered" when he suffered from high blood sugar, it would not adversely impact his work performance.
In its response the city stated that where Cobb did not need the accommodation to perform his work functions, allowing the schedule change would have placed an undue burden on the city. The response also stated Cobb refused to return to work under his former schedule after returning from leave, and Cobb did not provide any further information regarding the necessity for his requested schedule modification. Instead, the report stated, Cobb submitted his resignation letter after he used up all of his accrued sick and vacation time.
"[Cobb] never stated that he resigned due to his medical condition or because his request for accommodation was refused," stated the report. "He also never submitted a grievance under the respondent's personnel policy."
As part of Cobb's response to the city's explanation of events, Cobb questioned the city's statement that allowing the accommodation would place an undue burden on the city because there were others who worked the same shifts he did who had covered for him in the past. Cobb also stated the city responded to his initial request for accommodation by taking him out of work altogether for a period of weeks, meaning the city had to make sure all of his shifts were properly staffed.
Cobb further stated that based on the wording of the letter he received after he visited with the physician of the city's choosing that he was working in a hostile environment. Because Cobb felt his health was at risk and the city was not willing to accommodate his request, he felt he had no choice but to resign.
MHRC Investigator Robert Beauchesne determined the city's argument that diabetes does not entitle Cobb to MHRC protection because it did not substantially limit one or more of his life activities or significantly impair his health is "not persuasive."
"In this case, [Cobb's] doctor provided evidence that [Cobb's] diabetes was in fact significantly impairing his health," stated the report.
Beauchesne also stated Cobb's requested accommodation was reasonable, and would not have placed an undue burden on the city.
"Respondent's position appears to be that since [Cobb] could control some aspects of his condition, it had no need to make any accommodation for his disability," stated the reprt. "This position is unsupportable."
Beauchesne found that even if Cobb's food choices contributed to his elevated blood sugar levels, it is undisputed that Cobb's doctor felt Cobb needed the temporary schedule change to get his diabetes under control. Beauchesne also found that the doctor the city selected to see Cobb never stated the accommodation should not be granted.
Beauchesne also concurred with Cobb on the portion of his complaint stating the schedule change would not have placed a hardship on the city.
Additionally, Beauchesne agreed with Cobb's contention that the denial of the accommodation affected the terms and conditions of his employment.