Court Dismisses Sleeping Employee’s Disability Discrimination Claim

Kollman & Saucier
Kollman & Saucier

An airline employee who was terminated after being observed sleeping in a company breakroom during his shift may not bring a disability discrimination claim. Rejecting the employee’s argument that his nap was actually a “dissociative state” stemming from an undisclosed anxiety disorder, the court refused to let his claims get off the ground. Paolino v. U.S. Airways, Inc., No. cv-14-01672-PHX-NVW (D. Ariz. Jan. 26, 2016).

Jonathan Paolino was hired as a station coordinator in April 2013. Paolino explained during his pre-employment drug screening that he was taking medication for a generalized anxiety disorder that he had been diagnosed with the previous year. Paolino also later informed his direct supervisor about the same medication. Significantly, however, he never notified upper management of his disorder, nor is there any indication that he disclosed his condition to Human Resources or the equivalent appropriate office at U.S. Airways.

In May 2013, Paolino experienced heart attack-like symptoms, which he believed to be a panic attack, and was escorted from his workplace by paramedics. Neither Paolino’s supervisor nor upper management, however, were aware that the incident may have been related to his anxiety disorder.

Several months later, Paolino’s second-level supervisor, senior manager Tim James, was summoned to the employee breakroom. James observed Paolino reclining in a chair with his eyes closed and head back, and called Paolino’s name without a response. After James tapped Paolino’s arm, Paolino became alert.

It will come as a shock to nobody that James concluded that Paolino had been asleep. Paolino confirmed as much in an e-mail to his supervisors later that day, apologizing for “falling asleep…at work … against company policy” and stating, “I realize my actions most likely will result in my termination as there is no excuse for falling asleep at your place of employment.” James, too, believed that falling asleep on the job was an immediately terminable event. After reviewing Paolino’s employment file, James made the decision to terminate Paolino and gave Paolino a letter the following day. (Incidentally, James had terminated another employee in Paolino’s former department for falling asleep during a 2012 training, as well.)

By July 2014, though, after speaking with a lawyer, Paolino had changed his tune and filed a lawsuit. He now claimed that he was not napping but had instead suffered a “dissociative episode” stemming from his anxiety disorder that closely resembled sleep. By the same token, he alleged, it was not his conduct that violated (company) policy; it was U.S. Airways that had violated the ADA by terminating him based on his disability.

The district court rejected this claim and granted U.S. Airways’ motion for summary judgment. The court concluded that, regardless of whether Paolino was napping or having a sleep-like “dissociative episode,” the decision-maker (James) sincerely believed that Paolino was asleep on the job. Furthermore, because James had no knowledge of Paolino’s previously diagnosed anxiety disorder, his termination decision could not have been a pretext for discrimination based on that unknown disability. Although Paolino’s immediate supervisor knew about his disorder, the court concluded that this knowledge could not be imputed to James for purposes on whether James acted with discriminatory intent. (By contrast, an employer may be found to have knowledge of an employee’s disability for purposes of providing a reasonable accommodation when the employee notifies his or her supervisor.)

Barring an appeal, the case has now been put to bed. The decision reaffirms that it is the responsibility of employees to notify the appropriate individual(s) or office(s) within their employer of any disability they may have. Employers cannot willfully ignore accommodation requests, but they can hopefully rest easier knowing that the interactive process is indeed a two-way street.

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