Is there any good excuse for falling asleep on the job or — worse yet — behind the wheel of a company vehicle?
Well, maybe not a good one. But this may be one that’s passable in a courtroom under certain circumstances: being a disabled individual who suffers from sleep apnea.
A federal jury appears to have let former police officer Matthew Michaels off the hook for sleeping on the job (and behind the wheel of his patrol car!).
The jury just ruled the City of McPherson, KS, has to pay him $921,657 in back wages, future wages and damages — plus interest, court costs and attorney’s fees, according to the McPherson Sentinel.
Not just a one-time thing
Here’s the background:
Michaels was employed by the McPherson Police Department for nine years before he was terminated.
Between April 2006 and July 2007 Michaels had three at-fault motor vehicle accidents while working the third shift, and he was placed on probation for them.
Then, in 2010, he was suspended without pay for repeatedly falling asleep on duty.
After that, he was suspended without pay and placed on probation after he was found asleep in his patrol car.
Following that incident, Michaels sought medical attention and was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. He received treatment and had no further incidents of falling asleep on the job.
But Michaels’ troubles at work didn’t end there. He was cited at least two other times for insubordination and arguing with his superiors.
In comes that ADA
He was eventually terminated at a city commission meeting, upon Chief of Police Robert McClarty’s recommendation. In a letter to the commission, the McClarty cited the following as the reasons for Michaels’ termination:
“Argumentative with Superiors, insubordination, conduct unbecoming an Officer, sleeping on duty, numerous other circumstances and situations where he was no longer viable to be a Police Officer.”
Following his termination, Michaels sued, claiming the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it terminated him on the basis of his disability — his sleep apnea condition.
As proof, he pointed to the “sleeping on duty” reference in McClarty’s letter to the commission.
The city tried to get his case thrown out, claiming there was no direct evidence of discrimination.
But the court said his ADA case should go to trial:
“Here, a jury could reasonably infer a causal connection between plaintiff’s termination and his disability because the undisputed evidence shows that McClarty included plaintiff’s prior discipline for sleeping on duty in the reasons for his termination. This is especially true because after plaintiff was diagnosed with sleep apnea and then received medical treatment, he had no further incidents. Thus, it is unclear why McClarty listed that plaintiff fell asleep on duty as a reason for his termination.”
At trial, Michaels won.
Think twice before dragging up medical issues
The mistake his former employer made? Dragging up past medical issues that were no longer effecting his work. It was a costly mistake, but one that’s easy for managers to make — especially those unfamiliar with the nuances of the ADA and its requirements.
After analyzing the case, employment law attorney Jon Hyman, writing on his Ohio Employers’ Law Blog, shared some good insight for employers:
“Unless an employee is absolutely unable to perform the essential functions of the job with (or without) reasonable accommodations, a medical diagnosis should never come into play as a reason for termination. In this case, the medical issues stopped impacting Michaels’ job performance once he began receiving treatment. Thus, there was absolutely no reason to mention the two-year-old (and under control) sleep issues in support of the termination decision.”