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Employment Law Alert: Strange ADA Case

In a recent case decided by the U.S. District Court in Oregon, the Court held that a 911 dispatcher who was fired for sleeping on the job could proceed with his ADA claim. The dispatcher, a long-term employee of the City of Salem, Oregon, suffered from sleep apnea, which he claimed caused him to occasionally fall asleep while working. The City had accommodated the plaintiff’s condition by excusing him from the night shift and providing him with a fan, after his doctor suggested that warm temperatures in the workplace may be contributing to his problem. However, when the plaintiff fell asleep on two more occasions, he was terminated for that reason, as well as other misconduct.

Although the Court noted that the plaintiff "engaged in unacceptable and dangerous behavior by sleeping on the job in his position as a 911 dispatcher," and that the City had "valid concerns" about the risks of the plaintiff's continued employment, the Court inexplicably denied the City's motion for summary judgment. The Court concluded that summary judgment was improper because the City may have "classified a symptom of [the plaintiff's] disability as misconduct" in terminating him. In reaching this result, the Court cited to a Ninth Circuit case (also out of Oregon) in which an epileptic heavy equipment operator was allowed to proceed on his wrongful termination claim after he was fired for reckless driving he presumably claimed was caused by his condition.

Bottom Line

This case (and the Ninth Circuit case, for that matter) flies in the face of the general proposition -- as recognized by both the EEOC and numerous other courts -- that disabled workers are to be held to the same standards of conduct as their non-disabled counterparts, and should not be excused from discipline resulting from workplace misconduct on the basis that "their disability made them do it." I would assume that the City will appeal and will, hopefully, be successful.

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