January 1994

Workplace Labor Update - Sleep Disorders – January 1994

2 min

Discharge for Considering Abortion May Be Religious Bias

Highlighting the kinds of claims that can arise under laws prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities, a Maryland Commission on Human Relations administrative law judge (ALJ) recently concluded that an employer can lawfully discharge an individual with narcolepsy if efforts to accommodate that condition have proven fruitless under the circumstances. The case, Prior v. State of Maryland, Department of the Environment, OAH No. 92-CHR-X-205-08 (October 28, 1993), is one of the few but increasing numbers of cases involving sleep disorders.

Narcolepsy is a complex, permanent neurological disorder that can propel a person into sudden, uncontrollable bouts of sleep at any time. Prior was a narcoleptic who began her employment with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) in 1972. Prior's job was clerical in nature, requiring her to review, process and update large amounts of environmental information. Throughout her employment, she used prescribed medication to control her narcolepsy. Although the medication alleviated most of her symptoms, Prior often fell asleep at her desk and was habitually tardy. Over the course of her employment at MDE, Prior requested and received several changes in her schedule which moved her arrival time back. Despite the schedule changes, Prior's tardiness persisted. She was relieved of her duties in January, 1991 after MDE exhausted a course of progressive discipline as a result of continued tardiness and poor performance.

In March 1991, Prior filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, alleging unlawful handicap discrimination under article 49B of the Maryland Code. The heart of her claim was that MDE failed to accommodate her need for flexible starting times. While recognizing that Maryland law imposes a duty upon employers to accommodate handicaps, the ALJ rejected several different theories advanced by Prior in support of her contention that MDE failed to accommodate. The ALJ found that MDE had gone to considerable lengths to accommodate Prior by adjusting her schedule. Just because the accommodations proved unsuccessful did not mean that MDE failed in its duty to accommodate. The ALJ also concluded that while employers have a duty to investigate the kind of accommodation required by a handicapped employee, the employee must provide any necessary documentation requested by the employer. Specific information about narcolepsy and its effects is required in order for an employer to accommodate affected employees, but no such information was provided by Prior or her physicians despite MDE's repeated requests. In sum, MDE fully accommodated Prior under the circumstances, but she still failed to properly carry out her duties. Hence, her termination was upheld.