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Posted on Thursday, August 29, 2013

How Important Is It To Stay Awake At Work?

A manufacturing engineer employee for a Roanoke lighting company suffered from sleep deprivation caused by his fibromyalgia, and would periodically fall asleep while on the job.  In response to counseling by his employer that it would not tolerate his sleeping on the job, the engineer told his supervisor that he could ably perform his job if the company accommodated him by waking him up when he fell asleep.  The next day the engineer again fell asleep on the job, and the company fired him.

The engineer sued his former employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on the basis that the company failed to accommodate his disability by not waking him up when he fell asleep at work.  The lighting company responded that staying awake on the job was an essential function of the engineer’s position, and asked the court to dismiss the case.

But a Roanoke federal judge denied the lighting company’s motion to dismiss, and allowed the engineer to proceed with his ADA claim.  The court recognized that it previously found in another case that an employee who could not stay awake at work would likely not qualify for ADA protection.  Nonetheless, the court was not willing in this case to find at the initial phase of the litigation that the engineer was unqualified for the position, even if he could not promise to always stay awake at work.

This case highlights the changes that occurred just a few years ago to the Americans with Disabilities Act, in which Congress made it much easier to qualify as disabled under the ADA.  The focus of the ADA since those amendments has been on the issue of whether a requested accommodation was reasonable.  One way for an employer to reject an accommodation is if the employee’s conduct presents a safety issue to either himself or to others in the workplace.  Perhaps the company can later argue that falling asleep in a manufacturing environment could cause harm to the sleeping employee or his co-workers, and therefore, is not accepted behavior in the workplace.

Declan Leonard is managing partner of the Washington, DC regional business law firm Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. He can be reached at DLeonard@BerenzweigLaw.com. http://www.BerenzweigLaw.com

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