Question: I can only sleep two to four hours a night. A doctor says I can work only eight hours a day as a result of this. My employer says they’ll fire me if I don’t agree to work against doctor’s orders. Can they do this?
Answer: One’s failure to sleep well can be a disability, and one who suffers insomnia may be protected from employment termination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The ADA protects an employee from termination or retaliation based on an actual or perceived disability.
However, doctor’s orders don’t guide employers or courts – the facts on the ground do. The ADA defines a “disability” as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.”42 U.S.C. § 12102(a)(A). Thus, having a “physical or mental impairment” is not sufficient on its own to establish an ADA-cognizable disability, nor is showing that the impairment affects “one or more major life activities.” An individual must also show she is “substantially limit[ed]” as a result of the impairment. See Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471, 489 (1999).
The term “substantially” as used in the ADA, is “to be interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled.” Toyota Motor Mfg., Ky., Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184, 197 (2002). “[A]n individual must have an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives. The impairment’s impact must also be permanent or long term.” Id. at 198. As the Supreme Court explained: “It is insufficient for individuals attempting to prove disability status under this test to merely submit evidence of a medical diagnosis of an impairment. Instead, the ADA requires those claiming the Act’s protection . . . to prove a disability by offering evidence that the extent of the limitation [caused by their impairment] in terms of their own experience . . . is substantial.” Id.; see also Sutton, 527 U.S. at 482 (“A ‘disability’ exists only where an impairment ‘substantially limits’ a major life activity, not where it ‘might,’ ‘could,’ or ‘would’ be substantially limiting if mitigating measures were not taken.”).
This was the problem for the plaintiff in the recently decided case of Anderson v. Discovery Communications, LLC, No. 11-2195 (4th Cir. April 5, 2013). In that case, the plaintiff had a doctor’s note indicating that she should only work eight hours per day. Her employer terminated her, complaining that she had poor interpersonal skills and questionably honesty. She responded that this was a pretext for discrimination based on her medical condition. However, the court dismissed her case because she failed to show that she was “substantially” limited as a result of her impairment. Indeed, one of her former doctors noted that she awoke “refreshed” and there was no evidence that her fatigue affected her job performance in any way. For Ms. Anderson, her termination was sustained. However, it is easy to conceive of circumstances where one’s sleep disorder could give rise employment protections under the ADA.