Is diabetes a disability? Yes, according to Maine Human Rights Commission investigator

Posted Feb. 05, 2014, at 2:40 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — A former Belfast paramedic and firefighter who has diabetes has reasonable grounds to believe he was discriminated against by the city because of his physical disability, according to an investigator from the Maine Human Rights Commission.

David R. Cobb of Randolph wrote in a complaint he filed with the commission in 2012 that the city refused to grant him the accommodation of working no more than two nights per week for medical reasons. In response to the complaint, the city of Belfast denied that Cobb had a disability, adding that a doctor determined his blood sugar spikes were largely due to his own poor food choices and didn’t warrant any work schedule modifications, according to the report from investigator Robert Beauchesne.

“Complainant was placed in the position of having to endanger his health, and ignore his doctor’s advice, if he wanted to continue working for [the city],” Beauchesne wrote in the Jan. 24 report. “Under the circumstances, it was reasonable for complainant to decide that he had no choice but to resign in order to safeguard his health. Disability discrimination is found in this case.”

The Maine Human Rights Act states that unless it would cause undue hardship on the operation of a business, an employer must make reasonable accommodations to the “known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability.”

Cobb said in his complaint that he was hired to work for the Belfast Fire and Ambulance Department in February 2011. In March 2012, he submitted a note from his doctor to his supervisor saying that he needed to limit his night shifts for the next two months because of “poorly controlled blood sugars.”

He said the city required him to undergo a fitness for duty evaluation by a different doctor. After he did, that doctor told the city that Cobb’s high blood sugar levels were due to his own poor diabetes management, that his condition did not pose a public safety risk and that it was not a work-related condition.

“The letter directed complainant to immediately resume his prior schedule of working three nights per week,” the report stated. “[Cobb] did not believe that Respondent granting the accommodation would have been a hardship, because it was only for two months.”

The city answered Cobb’s complaint by saying that the former employee had never requested any medical accommodation until he submitted that medical note, and that his regular work schedule required him to work 11-hour shifts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The city also indicated that Cobb was allowed to stay on medical leave for three weeks after his initial request for a modified schedule and that he agreed to see a different doctor of his choosing. That doctor said that when Cobb’s blood sugars are high, he is “somewhat short-tempered” but suffers no performance issues.

The city maintained that Cobb doesn’t have a disability because the medical evidence doesn’t demonstrate that his condition limits his life activities or significantly impairs his physical health. It also stated that reducing Cobb’s night shifts would put an undue burden on the remaining staff.

“After several conversations with the city manager … it was clear to Complainant that it was a hostile work environment,” the report stated.

In Beauchesne’s investigation, he found that the accommodation Cobb requested was reasonable and that two doctors agreed that changing sleep patterns is a factor in elevated blood sugar levels in diabetics.

“Complainant has established that the denial of his requested accommodation affected the terms and conditions of his employment,” he wrote in the report.

Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the case on Monday, Feb. 24.

 

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