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Temporary GI Issues Not a Disability Under California Law

Is an employee’s temporary gastrointestinal distress as a result of his failure to take prescribed medication properly a covered disability?  Not under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), according to a recent decision out of California State court.  Smith v. Space Exploration Technologies Corp., No. B289189 (Cal. App. 2d 11/1/19).

Smith worked for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) as a Development Operations Technician.  During Smith’s approximate three-month tenure at SpaceX, he was criticized repeatedly for bringing “personal problems” into work and distracting his coworkers.  Smith received counseling and numerous verbal warnings on the need to improve his work performance or else lose his job.  When Smith’s supervisor told him to be less of a distraction to his coworkers, Smith responded that he would see a doctor for a prescription to “help his [job] performance.”  He was subsequently diagnosed with ADHD and instructed to bring a doctor’s note indicating he was medically cleared to work while taking his medication.

One day while at work, Smith took his ADHD medication on an empty stomach contrary to his doctor’s orders to take the medication with food.  Severe abdominal pain ensued and caused Smith to collapse inside a mockup space capsule.  Smith asked a coworker to bring him some food, and he was escorted to a “meditation room.”  45 minutes later, Smith reportedly felt “right as rain” and returned to work.

Later that day, however, Smith was fired after his supervisor caught word that Smith had been sleeping in the mockup space capsule.  This was the last straw, according to the supervisor, who then decided to terminate Smith.

Smith filed a lawsuit alleging violations of California’s FEHA and wrongful termination in violation of public policy.  Although Smith’s Complaint alleged he suffered from disabling ADHD and depression, in discovery he presented inconsistent assertions as to what, if any, disabling conditions he had and what accommodation(s) he needed or requested.

SpaceX moved for summary judgment, arguing that it terminated Smith for inadequate job performance and distracting behavior, which were legitimate and lawful reasons, and that Smith was not disabled under FEHA because the only condition Smith appeared to claim consistently was the stomachache that day in the space capsule.

The trial court agreed with SpaceX, finding that FEHA may cover a medication’s side effects, but it does not cover “transitory gastrointestinal problems” or “solitary events occasioned by noncompliance with medical orders when the plaintiff returned to normal shortly after having been given food and an opportunity to rest.”

Smith appealed.  The appellate court found that FEHA may cover side effects of medication and does not require a specific durational requirement that a condition meet in order to establish a disability.  However, the stomachache was not a covered disability because it was a temporary condition that did not require Smith to do more than “simply [] need to take a day off” and was the result of Smith’s failure to take medication properly as opposed to a side effect of the medication itself.

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