For 17 years, Tina Milton worked as a clerk at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Wynne Unit. Her job was to pore over inmate mail in search of coded gang messages, and she did it just fine until late 2006.
That's when she returned from a sinus surgery and found that she could no longer stand the plug-in air fresheners and scented candles that her colleagues used to mask the overwhelming mustiness of the century-old building. They aggravated her asthma and caused headaches, nausea, coughing and tightness in her chest.
She complained to the unit's assistant warden. When that accomplished nothing, she filed a formal request under the Americans With Disability Act, which requires employers to require "reasonable accommodation" to disabled employees. Her request mentioned, rather vaguely, "No plug in or candles. Strong [odors]."
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TDCJ denied that request, too. The next month, January 2007, Milton requested time off under the Family Medical Leave Act, citing a swollen face, pain and scent-induced illness that made it impossible to do her job. Her doctor submitted certification that she was indeed sick and did the same thing the next month. But TDCJ never received certification for March, and it fired Milton.
Milton filed a wrongful termination suit against TDCJ in federal court, arguing the agency had violated the ADA and FMLA by failing to accommodate her disability and subsequently firing her. A judge issued summary judgment in favor of the state, leaving Milton to appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court made its decision on February 8, and the ruling did not go in Milton's favor.
"Although there is ample evidence that Milton's condition affects her life activities, we generally have not recognized disabilities based on conditions that the individual can effectively mitigate," the court writes, continuing on to say Milton's discomfort "was narrowly restricted in time and place and could be avoided in the larger context outside of the particular workplace at a particular employer."