It goes without saying that employees in any industry are generally expected to remain conscious while at work. But what happens when an employee falls asleep on the job claiming that a disability is to blame? The Fifth Circuit in Clark v. Champion National Security, No. 18-11613 (5th Cir. 1/14/20), examined this issue, holding that it was not unlawful for an employer to discharge a sleeping employee who could not perform the essential functions of his job with or without a reasonable accommodation.
In this case, plaintiff Clark worked in Champion’s HR department, ironically with responsibilities to provide training and enforcement of Company procedures, including its “alertness policy.” That policy was not complicated. Employees were expected to stay awake at work. Clark failed to do so. When Clark got caught, he blamed it on his diabetes (for which he was already receiving accommodations) and left the office to go the hospital. He was fired via phone while at the ER.
Clark sued, claiming his termination was disability discrimination under the ADA. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, holding Clark could not prevail because he wasn’t “qualified” for the job. Under the ADA, a plaintiff can establish he is a “qualified individual” by showing that he could perform the essential functions of the job with or without an accommodation at the time of termination. Clark failed in this regard.
First, Clark argued that sleeping on the job did not pose a safety risk to others. Even if that was true the Court explained, it did not satisfy Clark’s burden to prove he could perform the essential functions of the job. Second, Clark argued that Champion failed to present evidence of his general poor performance. That argument was not helpful to Clark either. Even assuming Clark could perform his job well while he was awake, he could not– by his own admission– perform his job well while he was asleep. And as the Court explained, “maintaining consciousness is a basic element of any job.”
Finally, Clark failed to show that he requested an accommodation for loss of consciousness due to his diabetes. That other accommodations were provided to Clark related to the same condition was further proof that Champion’s reasons for terminating Clark were unrelated to any disability.