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Jan 17, 2014

By Carolyn A. Pellegrini

I previously cautioned employers about sending employees packing when they are found sleeping on the job due to the possibility that the employee’s catnap is disability-related.

I’m sure some readers thought, “yeah, like that situation would ever happen in real life.”

Well, it did – and it does not look good for the employer.

On Jan.13, 2014, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Chicago published an opinion in Spurling v. C&M Fine Pack, Inc., addressing just that issue.

A medical condition causing work issues?

Ms. Spurling was a night shift employee who received several disciplinary warnings related to sleeping on the job and was suspended for sleeping in the bathroom. Upon being suspended, she told several managers that her sleepiness was caused by a prescription medication. Ms. Spurling was then found sleeping yet again on April 15, and the HR manager recommended in an e-mail to the company’s vice president that she be terminated.

On April 16, Ms. Spurling told the HR manager that her performance issues might be related to a medical condition. The HR manager provided ADA paperwork, and Ms. Spurling’s doctor reported that she had a disability covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act  and was undergoing medical care.

The company received the completed ADA paperwork, but went ahead and terminated Ms. Spurling on April 28. Approximately one month later, Ms. Spurling was diagnosed with narcolepsy which was manageable with medication.

Discuss medical issues with employees first

In her lawsuit, Ms. Spurling alleged violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the ADA. The lower court found that the termination occurred on April 15 (the date the HR manager recommended she be terminated), before the employer received the completed ADA paperwork.

Therefore, the employer could not have discriminated against her based on her disability.

The Seventh Circuit determined that because the HR manager’s email recommendation for termination was not an “unequivocal notice of termination,” the termination did not occur on April 15, but rather occurred on April 28 – after Ms. Spurling provided documentation of her disability.

Therefore, the Seventh Circuit found that Ms. Spurling’s ADA claim was viable and remanded for further proceedings on that basis.

Moral of the story: Have a disability-related discussion with your sleepy employee before showing them the door.

This was originally published on Montgomery McCracken’s Employment Law Matters blog.

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