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.The 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.