Texas Supreme Court: Disability Caused by Medication’s Side Effects Covered Under State Disability Statutes

By Harrison Paige

In Green v. Dallas County Schools, the Texas Supreme Court recently held that a Texas appeals court erred in its decision to overrule a trial court’s jury finding of disability discrimination. The state supreme court thus reversed and remanded the case back to the appellate court for additional deliberation.

Plaintiff Paul Green suffers from a congestive heart defect, which he treats with a diuretic medication whose side effects include urinary incontinence. Green was employed by the Dallas County School District (“DCS”) as a school bus aide and monitor, helping to transport children with special needs to and from school every day. At the start of his employment, he reported his heart condition, as well as his medication-related urinary incontinence, to his supervisor. Initially, Green had no problems, working easily with a bus driver who accommodated Green’s medical needs by stopping the bus at public places along the route to allow him to use the restroom as needed.

However, a few years later, Green was transferred to work with another bus driver, Carlos Barcena. On August 30, 2011, Barcena and Green were working together and had just dropped off the only student on their bus when Green requested that Barcena stop at a gas station so he could use the bathroom. Barcena reportedly agreed to do so, but did not follow through, instead taking the bus to a “residential area” where there were no public bathrooms available. Barcena ignored Green’s repeated requests to stop the bus, and Green urinated himself on the bus before he was finally allowed to step off, conceal himself, and finish urinating using an empty water bottle.

Green and Barcena had to continue on their route, and Green continued to do his job assisting the special needs students on and off the bus.  After the shift ended, Barcena reported the incident to his supervisor. On September 16, 2011, Green was terminated because, according to DCS, he “engaged in unprofessional conduct while on a DCS school bus” by urinating on himself and in a water bottle, thus “[failing] to protect the health and safety of the students boarding at the next scheduled stop from exposure to bodily fluids.”

At trial, both parties agreed that Green has a disability and was otherwise qualified for the position with DCS. The only remaining question for the jury was whether DCS terminated Green because of his disabilities, which the jury answered in the affirmative. DCS appealed, and the court of appeals found in DCS’s favor, reversing the trial court’s decision on the basis that there was no evidence that Green’s congestive heart defect caused his termination. The appellate court held that Green’s only disability was congestive heart failure, so, without evidence that his heart condition or the medication he was taking for it caused the incontinence for which DCS fired him, Green could not establish that he was fired “because of” his disability.

Green appealed to the Supreme Court of Texas, arguing that the court of appeals erred by concluding that the only disability a jury could have found was congestive heart failure. Green claimed that he did submit evidence that he had “several disabilities,” including congestive heart failure and urinary incontinence. The Supreme Court of Texas agreed with Green, holding that the court of appeals erred in holding that Green had to prove that his congestive heart failure caused his urinary incontinence.

In summary, DCS conceded, and the jury was instructed, that Green was a qualified individual with a disability. Therefore, the jury’s task was to decide whether DCS improperly terminated Green “because of” a disability. No one disputed that DCS fired Green because of his urinary incontinence. The court held that, based on the jury charge and the evidence presented, the jury could have found Green’s incontinence was itself a disability. Accordingly, the Texas Supreme Court reversed and remanded the court of appeals’ judgment.

If you believe that your employer has taken an adverse employment action against you because of a disability, contact The Harman Firm, LLP, for a free assessment of your claims.