This past weekend, I became a proud first-time father of a beautiful baby girl! Among the many helpful and prescient pieces of advice my wife Mikah and I received from others during her pregnancy were variations on the theme of, “Get sleep while you can.” Words of wisdom, indeed.
Recently, however, a college professor argued that his difficulty in getting a restful night’s sleep was not only an inconvenience but one that rendered him disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Thankfully, the Eastern District of New York remained alert in dismissing his claim. Epstein v. City of Suffolk, Case No. 14-cv-0937 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 26, 2015).
Steven Epstein worked as a communications professor at the Suffolk County Community College (SCCC) beginning in 2003. Nine years later, he underwent an operation to relieve Achalasia, a digestive disorder that apparently made it difficult and painful for him to swallow. Since the operation, he slept in a reclining position that, according to him, “makes it difficult to obtain restful sleep.” When he asked the college for a reduced course load (and corresponding salary reduction) due to his condition, and provided supporting medical documentation, the college did not accommodate his request.
The professor then sued the college for disability discrimination and several other claims (including claims against fellow faculty individually). SCCC moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that it made no difference whether it accommodated Professor Epstein’s request because he was not “disabled” within the meaning of the ADA.
Agreeing with the college, the district court dismissed Professor Epstein’s claim. As the court noted, only individuals with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities are covered under the ADA. Sleeping is a major life activity. See 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2). Nevertheless, quoting the ADA regulations, the court noted that “[a] major life activity is substantially limited when an individual cannot perform an activity that an average person in the general population could perform.” Op. at 15 (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(ii)) (emphasis added). For this reason, “not every impairment will constitute a disability within the meaning of [the ADA].” Id.
As the Court explained, “whether a person is legally disabled because of an inability to fall asleep depends upon the severity of their condition.” Op. at 15. This is a difficult hurdle for employees to clear because much of the general population suffers from sleep difficulties, “especially the population of [parents] of newborns, many of whom get very little sleep for months.” Reilly v. Revlon, Inc., 620 F. Supp. 2d 524, 540-41 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). Because the professor merely claimed that his Achalasia “ma[de] it difficult to obtain restful sleep,” without providing facts to demonstrate the severity of his condition, the court ruled that the complaint did not adequately identify a statutorily covered disability. Good night, ADA claim.
The court’s conclusion makes clear common sense. In stark contrast to narcolepsy and other conditions where an employee risks falling asleep involuntarily in the workplace, it is illogical to think that conditions that make it difficult to sleep should be covered under employment anti-discrimination laws. (After all, as far as I’m aware, there are no jobs for which sleeping on the job is an essential function.)
As I recalibrate my internal sleep cycle to accommodate the path of parenthood, I can at least rest assured that I should not consider myself to have an ADA disability. I may not be getting all that much sleep in the coming weeks and months, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.