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Employee’s Sleep Apnea not a Qualifying Disability Under the ADA

A registered nurse suffered from sleep apnea and was repeatedly late for work as a result. The employee allegedly informed his employer that he was having difficulty sleeping and disclosed his suspicions regarding the possibility of having sleep apnea. The employee was subsequently given a verbal warning for excessive tardiness. The employee continued to arrive late, resulting in a suspension without pay and a threat of termination. These measures remedied the employee’s tardiness issue. However, months later, the employee had a verbal altercation with another co-worker and mentioned fatigue due to sleep apnea as one of several reasons. After being asked if he needed some time off to deal with his sleep apnea issues, the employee informed the employer that his “heart and soul were not in this job anymore.” The following day he was terminated. Subsequently, the employee received medical confirmation that he suffered from severe obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. He sued the employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. The employer argued that the employee was not disabled under the ADA. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed, and held that the employee was not a “qualified individual with a disability.” The court ruled that the employee’s sleep apnea did not “substantially limit” a major life activity because there was little evidence that the employee’s sleep was severely disrupted and the employee conceded that his sleep apnea did not impair his ability to do his job. Employers may take adverse action against employees who are performing inadequately, but must ensure that adverse action is never based on an employee’s disability. Additionally, with the recent issuance of the final regulations implementing the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), employers should be mindful that many conditions not previously considered “disabilities” under the ADA may now qualify and in most situations, employers should proceed cautiously by engaging in a good faith interactive process with their employees.

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