Can you snooze on the job and blame it on a disability?
Under some circumstances, employees with severe insomnia or sleep apnea may be disabled and entitled to reasonable accommodations. But generally speaking—given that many Americans live sleep-deprived lives—it takes more than a mere sleep-disorder diagnosis to show that someone has a disability that can excuse nodding off at work.
In a recent case, a rehabilitation caseworker said he had sleep apnea. He was disciplined for snoring loudly during a mandatory training seminar. He then disclosed his disability to his supervisors and said it wasn’t his fault he fell asleep and shouldn’t be fired. He sued, alleging he had been discriminated against because he had a disability. He testified that he often couldn’t fall asleep until 2 a.m. and woke at 6 a.m., which made him sleepy during the day. But, he couldn’t point to any work or personal tasks he couldn’t perform because he was sleepy. The court pointed out that in many prior cases, employees who got just three hours of sleep at night weren’t deemed disabled. It also pointed out that Tate ignored his doctor’s suggestions that he lose weight and wear a special sleeping mask to help him stay asleep.
Taken together, this was enough for the court to conclude this employee wasn’t any more affected by sleep apnea than millions of other tired Americans who still manage to stay awake during important training sessions. According to EEOC, sleeping is a major life activity that may be limited by mental impairments. An impairment substantially limits an individual's ability to sleep if, due to the impairment, his/her sleep is significantly restricted as compared to the average person in the general population. These limitations must be long-term or potentially long-term as opposed to temporary to justify a finding of ADA disability. For example, an individual who sleeps only a negligible amount without medication for many months, due to post-traumatic stress disorder, would be significantly restricted as compared to the average person in the general population and therefore would be substantially limited in sleeping. Similarly, an individual who for several months typically slept about two to three hours per night without medication, due to depression, also would be substantially limited in sleeping. By contrast, an individual would not be substantially limited in sleeping if she/he had some trouble getting to sleep or sometimes slept fitfully because of a mental impairment. Although this individual may be slightly restricted in sleeping, she/he is not significantly restricted as compared to the average person in the general population.
As expected, the case was dismissed. All disability claims are assessed based on the individual. He or she must show that the person’s disability impairs a major life function. This employee’s choice not to take suggested remedial action, per doctor orders, doesn’t permit him to sleep on the job and blame it on a disability.
This information should not be construed as “legal advice” for a particular set of facts or circumstances. It is intended only to be a practical guide for participants familiar with this subject. Users should seek appropriate legal advice tailored to address their specific situation.