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Disability: It’s never a joking matter

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in Employment Law

Now is a good time to remind managers and employees that making fun of someone’s disability is never OK. Supervisors must understand that they have a responsibility to stop harassment immediately and take steps to prevent it from recurring.

Recent case: Tim worked on a production line. He was diagnosed with neuropathy, a condition that causes the nerves in his muscles to die and his muscles to degenerate. This condition caused him to slowly lose control of his arms and legs. For years before the diagnosis, Tim had walked with a limp and by the time he was diagnosed, he began to wear leg braces. His co-workers and floor supervisors were aware of his deteriorating condition.

But instead of being supportive, they allegedly participated in mean-spirited name-calling. Tim said that almost daily, someone at work called him “Forrest Gump,” “cripple,” “Gumby,” “ratchet ass” and other names. They also mimicked his limp and generally made him feel offended, stressed and eager to get home as soon as possible.

Then, when his condition deteriorated, he told his supervisor that he might need to take some FMLA leave for treatment. Days later, he was terminated after allegedly neglecting his work and paying bills while on the clock.

Tim sued, alleging that he had been forced to work in a hostile environment and that his request for FMLA leave, which he claimed amounted to a request for a reasonable accommodation, had been ignored.

The court said both claims could go forward. It said the years of name-calling was severe enough to create a hostile work environment and that Tim’s request for FMLA leave could have been considered a reasonable accommodations request. A jury will decide if that’s the case. (Mangel v. Graham Packing, No. 14-CV-0147, WD PA, 2016)

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