ADA guidelines: The case of the sleep deprived employee

by on December 16, 2008 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Change is constant in ADA guidelines

Hannah Rose-Green felt as though she’d been punched in the stomach.

“You can’t fire me,” she told her boss, Bob Kagan. “I have a doctor’s note that says I have a disability.”

A year earlier, Hannah had been diagnosed with severe allergies that caused itching, pain and – often – an inability to fall asleep before 4:00 AM.

Bob kept cool. The last thing he wanted was to aggravate Hannah. “Your doctor didn’t mention anything about sleep deprivation in his note,” Bob said. “And you’ve repeatedly shown up for work late. I’m sorry, but we have to let you go.”

Challenging ADA guidelines

“For five years I was allowed to come to work whenever I wanted,” said Hannah. “I got good performance reviews, I had zero attendance problems and I did my job.”

Bob shook his head. “But you’ve got a new manager now and your duties have changed. Before, your job didn’t require you to interface with clients as often as it does now. That’s why you were told you had to be in the office no later than 9:30 in the morning.”

Hannah snorted defiantly. “Yeah? Well let’s see you make it in by 9:30 when you can’t fall asleep until almost 6:00 in the morning!”

Bob recounted how the company had tested the office for allergens and made some environmental changes. “We accommodated your allergies,” he explained. “But I don’t see why we should allow you to report to work whenever you see fit. Sorry, but you were warned repeatedly.”

Hannah disagreed. “But you used to let me come in late. That was an accommodation, wasn’t it?”

“Absolutely not,” said Bob. “We never accommodated your sleep problem. You simply used to have more flexibility because your job allowed it. Now it no longer does.”

Hannah was fired, then she filed an ADA lawsuit. Did she win her case?

The decision

No. Hannah lost her case.

Although her previous manager gave her a remarkable degree of flexibility in her work schedule, the new manager made it clear that such flexibility was no longer permitted. This decision was communicated to Hannah and to all other employees. The change was made across the board. Hannah wasn’t singled out for discrimination.

Reasonable accommodation under ADA guidelines?

Second, it was true that Hannah’s doctor had written a note about Hannah’s skin condition, not her sleep habits. Previously, no one bothered to question when Hannah arrived because everyone in her department had the same degree of flexibility. When Hannah’s job changed it became evident that she could no longer perform its essential functions.

In this case, reporting to work whenever the employee felt like it was not reasonable.

No one disputed that Hannah was suffering from an ADA disability. But in her role she now had to spend significant time with clients – an activity that could be conducted only during business hours.

ADA guidelines says that an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to a disabled employee. In this case, reporting to work whenever the employee felt like it was not reasonable.

This case shows that an employer may take away a benefit that appeared as though it was an accommodation under ADA law – if it has a good business reason for doing so and if such a change is made evenhandedly across the entire firm.

Cite: Haynes v. Anthony Williams, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, No. 01-454, 8/26/03. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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