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Maine Employee Rights Group files disability discrimination and retaliation suit against Huhtamaki

The Maine Employee Rights Group (MERG) has filed a lawsuit against Huhtamaki, Inc.  The lawsuit alleges that the company discriminated against MERG’s client Barry Kot because he has epilepsy and retaliated against him because he spoke out against the company’s discrimination.

Huhtamaki is a large Finnish corporation with about 14,400 employees and operations all over the world.  It manufactures consumer and specialty packaging.

In August of 2013, Huhtamaki offered Mr. Kot a job as a Machine Operator at its Waterville location.  Mr. Kot was well qualified for this job having worked as a machine operator for another company between 2007 and 2012 and doing other similar jobs as well.

Huhtamaki conditioned its job offer on Mr. Kot’s successful completion of a medical exam.  The Nurse Practitioner who performed the medical exam asked Mr. Kot about his medical history and Mr. Kot told her that he took medication for epilepsy, a condition that can cause seizures.  He told her that the medication worked well and he had not experienced a seizure in over 8 years since he started taking the medication.  The Nurse Practitioner expressed concern that, for some reason, the medicine might not work as it had for over 8 years and he might have a seizure at work.  To try to convince her that he could do the job safely, Mr. Kot told the Nurse Practitioner that he was legally permitted to drive a car and that his neurologist annually submitted paperwork which said that he was safe to drive.  He even provided her with his medical records and the paperwork sent to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to clear him to drive.  Despite these facts, the Nurse Practitioner recommended medical restrictions for Mr. Kot that, if followed, would make it impossible for him to do the Machine Operator job.

It appeared to Mr. Kot that the Nurse Practitioner based her recommendations on unreasonable fears and stereotypes about people with epilepsy.  Indeed, it appears as though the Nurse Practitioner made her decision before she even had a chance to review the medical records from Mr. Kot’s neurologist’s office.  It also appears as though the Nurse Practitioner did not even have a description of the machine operator position that Huhtamaki offered to Mr. Kot  when she made her decision.

When the Nurse Practitioner spoke to Mr. Kot, and told him about the medical restrictions she decided to place on him, she attempted to justify the restrictions based, in part, on the fact that the Department of Transportation (DOT) does not let people with controlled epilepsy drive certain types of trucks.  Mr. Kot told the Nurse Practitioner that this justification didn’t make sense to him because the job at Huhtamaki didn’t involve driving trucks.  During this conversation, Mr. Kot told the Nurse Practitioner that he thought she was discriminating against him because of his disability.

About one or two weeks after he spoke to the Nurse Practitioner, Huhtamaki’s human resources manager called Mr. Kot and told him that the company decided not to hire him because of the Nurse Practitioner’s medical restrictions.  Mr. Kot asked her to put the reason for the company’s decision in writing.  When he received the written explanation, however, it said something different; it said that the company decided not to hire him because he used profane language and made threats when he spoke to the Nurse Practitioner.  This was not true.  What actually happened was that Mr. Kot had told the Nurse Practitioner that she was discriminating against him because of his disability.  So, it appeared to Mr. Kot that Huhtamaki was also retaliating against him for opposing disability discrimination.

Unfortunately, discrimination against epileptics based on fears that they will have a seizure is not uncommon.  For example, MERG attorney Chad Hansen successfully represented an epileptic who United Parcel Service (UPS) refused to permit drive a light package delivery vehicle because the DOT would not permit him to drive different, heavier package delivery vehicles.  A jury ruled against UPS in that case and the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict.