A year ago I did a post entitled “Don’t Be Chained To ‘Fears, Biases or Stereotypes’ Against People With Disabilities.” Apparently the Austin police department learned this the hard way.
An Austin-based detective with narcolepsy was awarded more than $240,000 by a jury in an Americans With Disabilities Act (”ADA”) “failure to accommodate” and retaliation case.
She had worked for the PD since 1997, was promoted to detective, but in 2009 was diagnosed with narcolepsy. She produced a doctor’s certification that this did not interfere with her job duties, and asked for accommodations which involved later regular start times and (preferably) no evening or night shifts. She was ultimately fired.
The Mayo Clinic notes that “Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder characterized by overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep. People with narcolepsy often find it difficult to stay awake for long periods of time, regardless of the circumstances. Narcolepsy can cause serious disruptions in your daily routine. … Narcolepsy is a chronic condition for which there’s no cure.”
A pharmaceutical web site states that “Narcolepsy is a chronic disorder involving nerve cells and chemicals in the brain. Unfortunately, it’s frequently not understood, and approximately half of the people affected by it remain undiagnosed.”
Plaintiff’s lawyer said that “One of the biggest challenges in this case was overcoming the stereotypes, media portrayals, and public perception of individuals with narcolepsy.”
This is something that I’ve tried to drive home to employers seemingly forever: “fears, biases or stereotypes” against people with disabilities is at the core of lawsuits and charges filed under the ADA. An EEOC attorney said recently that “It’s not only bad business to forgo hiring a qualified employee simply because of fears, biases or stereotypes against people with disabilities, it’s also a violation of the law.”
Another EEOC attorney said that “People with disabilities have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Providing equal employment opportunities to all job applicants – including those with disabilities – is not just the law, it is good for our economy and our workplaces.”
Takeaway: The ADA provides that an employer must engage in an “interactive process” with an employee (or applicant) who is claiming a disability, towards the end that a reasonable accommodation is provided. That is, it must engage in meaningful discussions as to the proposed accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual. The EEOC, and the courts, have consistently held that an employer has an “affirmative duty” to engage in this interactive process with the employee.