Did disability bias motivate HR to fire an employee for sleepwalking into a colleague’s hotel bed?


Imagine getting the call sometime past midnight at an out-of-town national sales conference that you need to immediately investigate a complaint from an employee who says that his female co-worker has sleepwalked into a bed in his hotel room.

That wasn’t on the SHRM-CP exam. Then again, no one forced you to become a Human Resources professional.

At least you’ll have another good story for the next cocktail hour.

Sure enough, that’s what allegedly happened in this Fifth Circuit opinion I read last night.

We’ll pick things up with the “investigation.” The HR Director, who was attending the conference, arrives in the hotel room and tries to wake up the sleeping employee. Eventually, the HR Director succeeded, and hotel security helped escort the disoriented but apologetic employee back to her adjacent hotel room.

The next morning, the employee ran into the HR Director and had what the employee would describe as “a flashback.” The HR Director told the employee to sit down, that she “was in very big trouble,” and that they needed to discuss the events of the previous evening.

The employee described the events of the evening to the HR Director as she could recall them. The employee also mentioned that she had sleepwalked often as a child, but it rarely happened as an adult. The two chatted some more, after which the HR Director told the employee she was suspended with pay and should call a doctor.

Indeed, the employee contacted a physician immediately and updated the HR Director. A few days later, the employee emailed the HR Director that she had a doctor’s appointment for the following week. But, later that day, the company terminated the employee. Nonetheless, the employee went to her doctor’s appointment, and he diagnosed her with a sleepwalking disorder.

Not long after the diagnosis, the employee got a lawyer and became a plaintiff in a disability discrimination lawsuit against her now former employer.

So, did the defendant fire the plaintiff because of her disability? While the mention of getting a doctor could raise the question, both the lower court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that no reasonable jury could conclude that the plaintiff’s disability motivated the defendant to fire her. While the sleepwalking may have caused the problem, the plaintiff was still ultimately responsible for her behavior on the business trip. The Fifth Circuit emphasized that “the ADA does not give employees license to act with impunity.”

Employer wins.

The cold-hearted lawyer in me knows (and appreciates) that the court reached the right decision as a matter of law. But it seems pretty harsh to fire the plaintiff for something so unexpected and unlikely to repeat itself, especially with medical assistance.

“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”
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