Sleeping on the Job? Wake Me Up!

Sidney Riddle worked for the Hubbell Lighting Company for more than two years as a manufacturing engineer.  He was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and told the company. Because of his condition, Riddle began sleeping poorly, grew tired at work, and on one or two occasions fell asleep at his workstation.

In response, the company advised Riddle that he would be allowed to call in and take unscheduled leave any day that he felt too tired to work.  Moreover, the company instructed Riddle that if he had flare ups of sleep deprivation that caused him to feel sleepy at work, he should notify his supervisor and would then be allowed to take unscheduled leave to go home. Riddle responded by suggesting that if he should fall asleep, the boss should wake him up so that he could get back to work. 

The very next day, Riddle fell asleep at his desk.  He was sent home and suspended. Three days later Hubbell fired him.

Riddle sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that he could ably perform the duties of his position if, when he fell asleep on the job, someone woke him up.  He alleged that waking him up was a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. In the suit Riddle sought reinstatement to his former position, back pay, front pay, benefits, $300,000 in damages for emotional distress and humiliation, interest, costs, and attorney fees.

To establish a prima facie case of failure to accommodate under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that he is disabled within the meaning of the statute, that his employer had notice of his disability, and that he can perform the essential functions of his position with reasonable accommodation.  This makes him a “qualified individual with a disability.”  To win, he must then show that his employer refused to make such an accommodation. 

Hubbell moved to dismiss the case, arguing that being required to wake up an employee is not a reasonable accommodation.   But the court found that it was too premature to decide such an issue in the pleading stage. That is, the court was unwilling to say that due to sleeping on the job Riddle was per se not a “qualified individual with a disability.”  Thus, the court denied Hubbell’s motion to dismiss Riddle’s ADA claim.  The case settled shortly after the court’s disposition.

This was just one district court judge’s preliminary opinion.  Since the case settled, we do not even have a finding that Hubbell violated the ADA.  When an employee is asking an employer to provide accommodations for a disability, both the employer and the employee must engage in the “interactive process,” an ongoing dialog through which the employee makes known his or her limitations and requirements, and the employer considers what options it is obligated to make available and what options are feasible in the workplace.  But it is worth keeping in mind that when an employee advises his employer that he has a sleep disorder, the employer might just be required to wake him up.  

The case is Sidney Riddle v. Hubbell Lighting Co., U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Roanoke Division, July 30, 2013. 

–This blog entry was prepared by Elizabeth L. Newman,