Worker with Narcolepsy Fails to Show Disability Bias

By Joanne Deschenaux, J.D. February 19, 2019
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Worker with Narcolepsy Fails to Show Disability Bias

​A hospital in Montgomery County, Ala., did not act unlawfully in discharging an information technology department team head with narcolepsy after he let the hospital's software licensing expire, incurring a penalty of over $300,000, a federal district court ruled.

The employee could not prove that the hospital terminated him because of his disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the court said in granting the hospital's motion to dismiss the employee's lawsuit before trial.

Narcolepsy Qualifies as Disability

The hospital first alleged that the plaintiff did not have a disability under the ADA, but the court rejected this claim. Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that affects the control of sleep and wakefulness. People with narcolepsy experience excessive daytime sleepiness and intermittent, uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep during the day.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]

It is clear, the court said, that narcolepsy is a physical impairment. The plaintiff said that, although he was still able to work and participate in other life activities, he had increased sleepiness and memory loss. Certain work schedule changes, such as an earlier start time, would have made it difficult or impossible for him to do his job due to his disability. Therefore, the court said, the narcolepsy substantially limited a major life activity; this qualified the condition as a disability under the ADA.

However, the court said, there was no evidence that the hospital official who fired the plaintiff knew of the plaintiff's disability at the time of the termination decision. It is well-established, the court said, that "a decision-maker who lacks actual knowledge of an employee's disability cannot fire the employee because of that disability."

Reason Given for Termination Was Not Pretext for Bias

The court went on to say that even if the plaintiff could show that the decision-maker knew of his disability, the hospital was still entitled to have the case dismissed before trial because the plaintiff could not establish that the reason given for his termination was a pretext for unlawful discrimination.

According to several hospital officials, the plaintiff was discharged for letting licenses lapse. The plaintiff argued that this alleged reason for termination was pretextual because the letter informing him of his termination did not cite the licensing issue.

But, the court said, this alone does not show that the stated reason was pretext. Nothing suggested that the decision to terminate the plaintiff "was anything but a business decision, motivated by the defendant's financial and operational interests," the court said. The plaintiff presented no evidence to establish that his termination was motivated by disability discrimination and did not show that the defendant's reason for the termination was pretext.

Reasonable Accommodation Claim Also Fails

The plaintiff also claimed that the hospital violated the ADA by refusing his requests for reasonable accommodation. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that the hospital unlawfully rejected his request that he not be required to work at night.

The court noted that the ADA "envisions an 'interactive process' by which employers and employees work together to assess whether an employee's disability can be reasonably accommodated."

However, the court said, an employer's duty to provide a reasonable accommodation is not triggered unless a specific demand for an accommodation has been made. The plaintiff admitted that, although he informed his supervisor that he had been diagnosed with narcolepsy, he never requested any type of accommodation for it.

Therefore, the court said, the hospital could not be liable for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

Corbin v. Jackson Hospital & Clinic Inc., M.D. Ala., No. 2:16-cv-800-SRW (Dec. 3, 2018).

Professional Pointer: This case shows that to be allowed to take a disability-bias claim to trial, a plaintiff must do more than show that he has a disability and that the employer took some adverse action against him. The plaintiff must show some connection between the disability and the adverse action.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on the Americans with Disabilities Act.]

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