Here’s a disability law twist that HR pros will want to keep in mind: The effects of an employee’s medication may amount to a legally protected disability – even if the underlying medical condition doesn’t.

This point came out when a federal appeals court heard the case of a U.S. Army employee in Pennsylvania.

Frequent restroom breaks
The employee, who was obese and suffered from sleep apnea, took a prescription drug that limited the amount of dietary fat his body would metabolize. As a side effect, though, he had to use the restroom frequently – for a total of up to two hours a shift.

His supervisor asked the employer to transfer the employee. Because no positions were available elsewhere in the facility, he was laid off. He sued for disability discrimination.

The court said that even though the employee’s underlying condition didn’t substantially limit a major life activity, if he could show the effect of his medication did impose such a limitation, he might have a case.

In this instance, however, the court said, he couldn’t prove the side effects amounted to a disability.

Reason: The specific drug wasn’t the only one available to treat his obesity. So he had a choice, unlike someone with a true disability. Indeed, his doctor eventually switched him to another medication.

So what can you do if employees report side effects from medication are affecting their performance? You may want to investigate an accommodation, and suggest the employees consult their physician as part of the process.

Cite: Sulima v. Tobyhanna Army Depot, No. 08-4684, 3rd Cir., 4/12/10.

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