Disability Law

Sleepwalking employee who got into next-door colleague's hotel bed isn't protected by disability law, 5th Circuit rules

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An employee who was fired after sleepwalking into her colleague’s bed in a next-door hotel room is not protected by disability law, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New Orleans ruled against NextGen Healthcare Inc. employee Jennifer Harkey in an unpublished per curiam opinion July 15.

The 5th Circuit ruled against Harkey on her claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act.

The sleepwalking incident happened in October 2018, when Harkey, a sales specialist, was attending a national sales conference for NextGen Healthcare at a St. Louis hotel. The 5th Circuit described the facts in the most favorable light to Harkey.

Around midnight, Harkey knocked on the door of another employee attending the conference, Scott O’Donnell. He had just returned to his hotel room, and he assumed that the person knocking was one of the men he had been socializing with in the bar. O’Donnell didn’t recognize Harkey and stepped backward.

O’Donnell told Harkey that she was in the wrong room and had to leave, but she said nothing.

Harkey was wearing only a black robe. She walked over to a made bed, got in it and pulled the sheets up to her face. Harkey was unresponsive to O’Donnell’s requests to leave.

“O’Donnell was concerned,” the 5th Circuit said. “He was a married man on an out-of-town business trip, and a woman was in a bed in his hotel room. He called his supervisor.”

The supervisor called the director of human resources. The HR director couldn’t wake Harkey at first. Harkey was disoriented when she finally awoke. Hotel security was called, and Harkey was helped back to her room.

Harkey said she must have been sleepwalking, a problem that she occasionally had since an early age.

Harkey saw the HR director the next day and explained that she had been sleepwalking. The director told Harkey that she was being placed on paid leave. and she had to see a doctor. Harkey was fired less than a week later.

A doctor who examined Harkey said she was suffering from somnambulism, otherwise known as sleepwalking disorder.

Harkey sued. A judge granted summary judgment to NextGen Healthcare, and the 5th Circuit affirmed.

The ADA and Texas disability law bar discrimination because of disability.

“The dispositive question here is whether Harkey suffered an adverse employment action because of her disability,” the 5th Circuit said. “She did not. Even if her sleepwalking disorder was a ‘disability’ under the ADA, she was fired because of what happened when she sleepwalked.”

Hat tip to Legal Dive, which had coverage of the opinion.

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