5th Cir. : ADA failed to protect employee who sleepwalked into co-worker’s bed

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Diving Brief:

  • NextGen Healthcare did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing a salesperson with a sleep disorder after sleepwalking in a male colleague’s hotel bedthe United States 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (Harkey v NextGen Healthcare, Inc.no. 21-50132 (15 July 2022)).
  • Around midnight, during an out-of-town sales conference, a male NextGen employee heard a knock on his hotel room door, court records show. Thinking it was his male colleagues, he opened the door and saw the salesman wearing only a dressing gown. She dropped the bathrobe, walked in, climbed into bed, and fell asleep. The employee called the human resources manager, who arrived and woke up the salesperson. She explained that she had to be a sleepwalker, which she had been doing since she was a child. NextGen fired her a week later. She was diagnosed with sleepwalking, a sleepwalking disorder, the following week.
  • The vendor sued NextGen for violating the ADA. The 5th Circuit upheld its judgment for NextGen. The saleswoman could not prove that she was fired because she suffered from a sleepwalking disorder, the court explained. On the contrary, she was fired because of what she did while sleepwalking, he said.

Overview of the dive:

It’s a concept that can be difficult to grasp: Under the ADA, employers cannot take action against someone because of their disability. But they can sanction someone for conduct caused by a disability.

In explaining its decision, the court pointed to several previous cases with similar circumstances. In one case, a man with post-traumatic stress disorder had a profane, angry confrontation with his supervisor. The outburst was no doubt caused by his PTSD, but the employer was not responsible for firing him because his behavior violated company policy, the court heard.

In a second example, an employee, who suffered from bipolar disorder, verbally assaulted his supervisor for refusing his vacation request. He was fired, then he sued under the ADA. The court agreed with the employer. Although his reaction could be attributed to bipolar disorder, he could not use the ADA to avoid responsibility for his own actions, the court noted.

“While the case is heartbreaking, it is consistent with what the courts say about misconduct,” David K. Fram told HR Dive in a phone interview. Fram is the Director of ADA and EEO Services for the National Institute of Labor Law and helped formulate ADA guidelines when he was an attorney for the EEOC.

Even if the employer believes the dismissal is justified, it’s important for HR professionals to be sensitive and understand that the employee had no control over what happened, Fram said. “For this woman, it was very real,” he said. “She had no intent of misconduct.”

According to the court filing, the human resources manager exercised force with both the salesperson and the male co-worker. Although the saleswoman was embarrassed and apologized and explained that she had a problem with sleepwalking, the human resources manager allegedly told her that “she had very big problems”, called her a “manager” on several occasions. times and told her she should “call a doctor”. The male colleague said he wanted to speak to a lawyer before providing a statement to NextGen because of the accusing questions the human resources director asked him, according to court documents.

In tense situations, it’s always a good idea to step back, take a deep breath, and then act in a caring and sympathetic way to enforce the rules, Fram suggested.

He also warned HR against suggesting that an employee questioned about misconduct seek medical attention. Keep the misconduct and the medical issue separate and base your disciplinary decision on the misconduct, Fram said. Telling someone to see a doctor can sound like you’re asking for medical information or a medical diagnosis. It’s dangerous to do so before you’ve made a decision to fire because of what the information may show – suggesting the medical diagnosis was part of your decision, Fram warned.

The Job Accommodation Network has more information on sleep disorders and how they can be reasonably accommodated. For example, depending on the employee’s limitations, work environment, and job, an employee with a sleep disorder might suggest a flexible schedule, drinking cold water during the day, periodic breaks to walk around or telecommute if employment permits, Linda Carter Batiste, attorney and legislative specialist at JAN, suggested in an email to HR Dive.

Generally, a the employer does not have to ask an employee whether a reasonable accommodation is needed if an employee has not requested one, Batiste noted in a JAN article. “If HR doesn’t know if the employee has a disability, the best approach might be to focus on what’s going on (i.e. inappropriate behavior) and ask if there’s anything what HR can do to help resolve the issue,” Batiste said in the email. Then focus on how the disability creates the problem that needs to be solved, she said.

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