[co-author: Ryan Behndleman]
Seyfarth Synopsis: Do employers have to let employees sleep on the job as a reasonable accommodation for a disability? While far from being decided, a recent federal case in the Southern District of New York addresses the issue.
Let’s face it, we all get tired from time to time. While on the clock, however, sleeping at work is a practice that employers invariably frown upon. Earl Beaton learned this the hard way when he was fired from his job with New York City’s Metro Transit Authority (MTA) after briefly nodding off during his shift. But Mr. Beaton’s situation is not as clear as it seems because he fell asleep due to a side effect caused by his necessary prescription medication. Mr. Beaton did not intend to take his termination lying down, so he filed suit against his former employer for discriminating against his disability.
Mr. Earl Beaton was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depressive disorders in 1985. Without medication, Beaton is prone to psychotic episodes and delusions. To counteract these symptoms, Beaton was prescribed an anti-psychotic medication called Fluphenazine, which can cause drowsiness.
Beaton disclosed his illness to his employer in 1995, and was able to work for many years without incident while taking the medication as prescribed. In 2000, Beaton was even promoted to a position as a station agent. Then, during the overnight shift on December 23, 2013, Beaton encountered a problem. Around 1 a.m. Beaton experienced severe schizophrenic symptoms and took a pill to counteract those symptoms. Three hours later, the symptoms had not subsided, so he took another pill. The high dosage made Beaton extremely drowsy, and it appeared that he briefly nodded off. It was at this moment that Beaton’s supervisor approached and caught him sleeping on the job.
After disciplinary hearings, although Beaton denied that he was actually sleeping, MTA terminated his employment. He then filed a charge with the EEOC and soon thereafter filed suit in the Southern District of New York.
MTA’s Motion To Dismiss
Upon service of the complaint, MTA filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. In this stage of a case, the court generally relies on the allegations made by the plaintiff to decide whether there are enough facts to sustain plausible claims. Using this standard, the court dismissed Beaton’s failure to accommodate claim but allowed the discrimination and retaliation claims to survive.
Many employers may learn of this decision and think, “What?! I can’t terminate an employee for sleeping on the job?” But rest assured, this case is far from decided. When a court decides a motion to dismiss, it looks for one key issue: Does the plaintiff have plausible claims based on what the plaintiff alleged in his complaint? Further, the court must view these allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.
In his judicial opinion, Judge Edgardo Ramos assessed Beaton’s discrimination claim by using a well-established four-part test: 1) Was the plaintiff a member of a protected class? 2) Was the plaintiff qualified for the position? 3) Did the plaintiff suffer adverse employment action? and 4) Is there some minimal evidence to support an inference of discrimination? As you can see, the bar is extremely low for what will pass muster under this test. While MTA argued that Beaton’s need to sleep made him unqualified for his position, the court noted that his 13 years of satisfactory performance established that he was qualified to perform the essential functions of his job.
As for the retaliation claim, to survive a motion to dismiss the plaintiff only needs to show that he engaged in protected activity (i.e. filing a grievance with a labor union or filing an EEOC claim) that the employer was aware of, and that it caused the employer to take adverse employment action against him. Judge Ramos noted that this claim survived because there is the possibility that the termination decision occurred after Beaton engaged in protected activity, and that was enough to raise a plausible claim.
So What Happens Next?
This case is far from over. The surviving claims will enter the discovery phase to allow each side to collect evidence to support their claims or defenses. The case could be decided on summary judgment or settled at any stage of the litigation process.
It is important to note that in his opinion regarding the motion to dismiss, Judge Ramos did not decide whether employers need to allow their employees to sleep on the job as a reasonable accommodation. So what should employers do? Just as before, employers should engage in an interactive process if an employee or applicant with a disability requests an accommodation to determine if the employee can be reasonably accommodated without causing an undue hardship. Employers should also carefully review and consider consulting with an attorney before taking adverse employment action where the underlying behavior at issue is tied to a disability. But at this point, there is no need to lose any sleep over this case.