Tuesday, December 15, 2015

City Must Pay $1 Million to Police Officer Fired for Sleeping on the Job

Employers may want to think twice about firing an employee who habitually sleeps on the job. The City of McPherson, Kansas, found that out the hard way. The City was recently ordered to pay a police officer it fired for sleeping on the job $1 million. A jury found that the City’s firing of the habitually napping officer was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that the officer was entitled to $1 million worth of compensation for this violation. 

The officer claimed that he suffered from sleep apnea, a sleeping disorder that makes it difficult to sleep throughout the night. The officer claimed that his inability to sleep well at night caused him to fall asleep repeatedly throughout the work day. The officer eventually received treatment for his sleep apnea and stopped falling asleep at work. However, the City fired him because it claimed he was insubordinate and argued with superiors. 

In its termination memo, the City referenced the officer’s habit of falling asleep at work as a reason for his firing. The officer sued, alleging that this was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

The ADA prevents an employer from firing an employee due to that employee’s disability. A law passed in 2009 requires the definition of disability to be construed broadly, which means that pretty much every medical condition is covered. There is an exception to the prohibition against firing an employee due to his or her disability. If the employee cannot perform his job even after the employer attempts to provide him with a “reasonable accommodation,” which means a change in the way a job is normally performed to allow the employee to work despite his disability, then an employer will probably be permitted to fire the employee due to his disability. 

Here, the City did not allege that it attempted to provide the officer with a reasonable accommodation. In fact, it appears from the termination memo that its author slipped in the fact of the officer’s sleeping on the job as an afterthought, as it is not referenced as the primary reason for the officer’s firing. Nevertheless, a jury found the termination memo to be evidence that the City discriminated against the officer by firing him due to his disability, and awarded him $1 million. 

There are two lessons that employers can take from this case. First, do not fire (or at least admit to firing) an employee based on a medical condition. With the broad scope that courts have given to the ADA, that almost certainly will lead to a lawsuit alleging a violation of the employee’s rights under the ADA. Employers may want to have any termination memo reviewed by an attorney to make sure that it does not run afoul of any law. 

Second, if an employer sees an employee struggling on the job, the employer should see if it is due to a medical condition. If so, the employer should attempt to work with the employee to formulate a plan that will allow the employee to perform his job despite the condition. I suspect that whoever wrote the termination memo in this case did not realize that the officer had a medical condition that made him sleep on the job. Had the author realized this, he probably would not have referenced it in the memo. 

Firing an employee is a process wrought with potential landmines for employers. Employers may want to consider retaining an experienced attorney for advice on how to best do so.