Workers Claim Disability Discrimination Based on Sleep Apnea

Employment laws in New Jersey prohibit discrimination based on disability. Most employment statutes include an exception for situations in which a particular individual’s specific disability prevents them from performing the ordinary duties of a particular job, even with reasonable accommodations by the employer. Several recent lawsuits claiming disability discrimination based on the medical condition known as sleep apnea have raised questions about whether the condition falls under this exception. Different courts have reached different conclusions about whether sleep apnea constitutes a “disability” under employment anti-discrimination laws.

CPAPThe New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) offers a broad definition of “disability,” which includes both mental and physical conditions that impede “normal” functioning. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-5(q). A “physical disability” or “infirmity…which is caused by…illness” qualifies as a disability under the NJLAD. Id. The definition provided by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) focuses on whether a condition “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A).

Both statutes bar employers from denying employment to a person, or firing them, on the basis of a disability. The NJLAD provides an exception in New Jersey disability discrimination cases in which an employer can “clearly show[] that a person’s disability would prevent such person from performing a particular job.” N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5:29.1. The ADA includes this exception in its prohibition on discrimination by specifying that it only applies to “qualified individuals,” defined as people who “can perform the essential functions of the employment position” that they have or want. 42 U.S.C. §§ 12111(8), 12112(a).

Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person’s upper airway becomes obstructed during sleep, interfering with sleep cycles. The condition usually causes snoring, but the more important effect is a lack of sleep caused by repeatedly waking up due to obstructed breathing. Left untreated, sleep apnea can cause drowsiness and fatigue in the short term. In the long term, it can contribute to a variety of serious of serious conditions, including heart disease and cancer. The question in an employment discrimination context is whether it interferes with one’s ability to do their job. Many sleep apnea patients can function without much difficulty if they receive treatment, but symptoms of the condition—specifically, falling asleep on the job—have reportedly been connected to some serious public safety risks.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has informally expressed skepticism over whether sleep apnea meets the ADA’s definition of a disability. At least one federal appellate court has ruled that sleep apnea does not qualify under the ADA. Keyes v. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Phila., 415 Fed. Appx. 405 (3rd Cir. 2011). A federal judge in Kansas, however, affirmed a jury verdict of $1 million in a sleep apnea case over the defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. Michaels v. City of McPherson, 71 F.Supp.3d 1257 (D. Kan. 2014).

At the Resnick Law Group, our disability discrimination attorneys represent employees, former employees, and job seekers in disputes in New Jersey and New York. You can contact us today at 973-781-1204, at 646-867-7997, or online to schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our team.

More Blog Posts:

ADA Prohibits Discrimination by New Jersey Employers Because of Disability and Requires Them to Make Reasonable Accommodations, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, March 15, 2018

Court Ruling on Medical Marijuana Could Affect New Jersey Disability Discrimination Law, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, November 16, 2017

Jury Awards $11.8 Million to Former Employee in New Jersey Disability Discrimination Case, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, September 12, 2017

Photo credit: PruebasBMA [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

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