Employee Discriminated Against Because Of Peanut Allergy, Lawsuit Claims

peanut allergy discriminationAround 3.3 million Americans are allergic to nuts. As a country, we have become more aware of this condition over the last decade, with some schools declaring themselves peanut-free zones. But according to a new lawsuit, many remain insensitive to people with peanut allergies, and are even outright hostile.

In a complaint filed with the District Court of Arizona on Oct. 25, Antoinette Barrett claims that her former employers, the global technology company iQor, Inc. and the debt collection agency Allied Interstate, discriminated against her on the basis of her disability -- a severe peanut allergy -- and her race, as a black woman. She is now suing for back pay, the reinstatement of her job, compensation for emotional pain and suffering, and unspecified punitive damages.

Barrett started working at an iQuor, Inc. and Allied Interstate call center in Chandler, Ariz., in April 2010. At the time of her hire, and on several occasions afterward, Barrett allegedly told her employer and supervisor that any exposure to peanuts may lead to hospitalization, and even death. She avoided the office cafeteria.

In July, Tammy Doherty became Barrett's new supervisor and soon began harassing her, claims her attorney Trisha Kirtley, because of the allergy and the headscarf she sometimes wore out of respect for her Muslim son. In September, two co-workers ate peanuts near Barrett and chased her with them, supposedly touching the nuts to her arm and leg to see if Barrett was faking her condition.

Barrett struggled to breathe, and went to an urgent care facility.

A couple of weeks later, co-workers allegedly ate peanuts near Barrett's desk, causing her face to swell up and throat to close. She couldn't breathe, claims the complaint, and she again went to urgent care. When Barrett returned to the office, she gave Doherty a note from her doctor saying that she was on modified work duty. Her supervisor allegedly replied that "it was all in her head."

Barrett asked Doherty to tell her co-workers to avoid eating peanuts in the area. But instead, the complaint alleges, Doherty told Barrett's co-workers to eat peanuts around her to test if Barrett's allergy was actually real.

Later in September, Barrett returned from a break to find peanuts scattered on her desk and on the floor around her workstation. She was rushed to a medical center.

In early October, another co-worker allegedly placed peanuts on Barrett, whose throat quickly closed. She was again sped off to urgent care.

This time, Barrett reported the incident to management, and filed a report with the police and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to Kirtley.

"The employer should have accommodated her," Kirtley told AOL Jobs. "But not only did they not accommodate her, but they taunted her. They thought it was a game."

Barrett returned to work three days later, and within an hour of her arrival was summoned to Doherty's office, where the supervisor was eating a Twix peanut-chocolate bar. Doherty allegedly joked that if Barrett really had an allergy, she would be dead right now. Barrett struggled to breathe, claims the complaint, cried for help, and fell to the floor. Co-workers allegedly did nothing, and Doherty told them not to assist her until they had met productivity "goals."

Barrett claims she called 911 on her cell phone, and threw up before the ambulance arrived. She was hospitalized, and told by doctors to remain at home until it was safe for her to return to work. She was under doctor's care for the next six weeks, Kirtley claims, and in constant contact with her employer. But on Dec. 3 she received an email saying she was terminated. The reason listed was "resignation."

"She, like many Americans, is living on the edge," says Kirtley. "As a result, she lost her home, she lost her automobile. She has a disabled son who she is caring for. This woman was not in a position to quit her job."

Barrett filed another complaint with the EEOC, claiming that her former employers had retaliated against her for accusing them of discrimination.

As far as Kirtley knows, there have been no cases of peanut allergy sufferers suing employers under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The definition of a disability in this law is a condition that substantially limits a person in a major life activity. Kirtley believes that Barrett's allergy clearly fulfills this criterion, as it limits her in the major life activity of breathing.

"I think it's a significant case in terms of sending a message to employers about educating their supervisors, and giving them training," explains Kirtley.

iQuor and Allied Interstate denied Barrett's allegations, claims Kirtley, and denied that Barrett suffered from a peanut allergy at all. "I was shocked," she says. "They will retreat from that, and probably already have."

The companies do not comment on pending litigation, according to a spokesman.

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