Do retail employers really need to tolerate employees who sleep on the job?? The plaintiff in Beaton v. Metropolitan Transportation Authority New York City Transit, (S.D.N.Y. June 15, 2016), was an overnight Station Agent at a New York subway station who was terminated after he was found sleeping at his work station. While he admitted that it appeared that he was sleeping, plaintiff denied that he was actually sleeping. Rather, he informed his supervisor that he was drowsy due to the high dosage of anti-psychotic prescription medication that he took after he experienced severe schizophrenia symptoms at work that night. Despite informing his employer of his disability, and presenting medical corroboration that his medication caused drowsiness, plaintiff’s employment was terminated. Plaintiff initiated his lawsuit asserting that the termination of his employment was an act of disability discrimination in violation of the ADA and New York State Law.
Upon receipt of plaintiff’s Complaint, the defendant employer moved to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that plaintiff could not establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination because sleeping on the job prevented him from performing the essential functions of his job and rendered him not qualified for the position. The employer also argued that plaintiff could not raise an inference that his employment was terminated because of his disability given the fact that it appeared to the employer that he was sleeping, even if he was not. Surprisingly, the Court sided with the slumbering plaintiff, denying defendant’s motion and refusing to dismiss plaintiff’s Complaint. The Court considered the fact that plaintiff was a long-term employee who worked for the defendant for years without incident in concluding that he was qualified for the position. The Court also found that it was plausible that plaintiff’s employment was terminated because of his disability in light of the fact that plaintiff’s employment was terminated even though he informed his supervisor of his mental ailment and that drowsiness was a side-effect of his medication.
The result is largely attributable to the early stage of the proceeding. The Court forecast that the defendant “may very well have evidence of non-discriminatory reasons for the termination … but such evidentiary disputes are not appropriate at this stage of the case.” Thus, the Court’s decision hinged, as is expressly stated in the Opinion, on “the minimal threshold” that plaintiff faced in response to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. However, the Court’s refusal to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) evidences a desire by the Court to see some proof that the employer engaged in good faith in the interactive process before imposing discipline, especially where the employee presents appropriate medical information to support his claim of disability. This decision does not mean that retail employers must tolerate employees who sleep on the job. Indeed, Courts have repeatedly upheld discharges for sleeping on the job, and retail employers remain entitled to enforce their discipline process against employees found sleeping on the clock. However, retail employers are well-advised to not summarily dismiss dozing employees who offer some medical explanation for their mid-shift hibernation, but to consider the explanation offered by the employee before taking action.