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.
Recent case: Edgar Tate worked as a rehabilitation caseworker. He has sleep apnea, a condition he claimed was a disability under the ADA.
When Tate was disciplined for snoring loudly during a mandatory training seminar, he told his supervisors about his condition and said it wasn’t his fault he fell asleep. Therefore, he said, he shouldn’t be punished. He was fired anyway.
Tate 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 Tate wasn’t any more affected by sleep apnea than millions of other tired Americans who still manage to stay awake during important training sessions. It tossed out Tate’s claim. (Tate v. Ancell, et al., No. 08-0200, SD IL, 2011)
Final note: All disability claims are assessed based on the individual. He or she must show that the alleged disability substantially impairs a major life function.
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