Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers cannot discriminate against an otherwise qualified individual with a disability or fail to provide reasonable accommodations that allow that person to perform the essential functions of their job. What happens, however, when the purported disability results in employee behavior that violates the employer’s rules of conduct? According to a new Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, employers may discipline employees for behavior caused by a disability.
In Harkey v. NextGen Healthcare, Inc., the plaintiff was attending a sales conference on behalf of her employer. After retiring for the evening, the employee knocked on the door of a co-worker, entered his hotel room, and crawled into his bed. The male employee reported this behavior to the company, and the plaintiff responded that she had experienced sleepwalking episodes since childhood. While waiting for an appointment with a specialist, the employer terminated the plaintiff. She was subsequently diagnosed with somnambulism and sued the employer, alleging that she was terminated due to her disability.
The Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit. The court noted that the defendant did not fire the plaintiff because of her disability. Instead, she was terminated because of “severely unprofessional conduct” while sleepwalking. The court noted that the ADA does not require employers to excuse employee conduct allegedly resulting from a disabling medical condition.
Most prior ADA cases that dealt with this issue involved confrontational, abusive, or even violent behavior that resulted from a purported psychiatric condition. Here, the Fifth Circuit refused to distinguish those cases from this one, where the plaintiff appeared largely unconscious during the encounter. Despite the lack of directly aggressive behavior, the court held that under the ADA, employers could address the behavior without excusing it based on a medical condition.