Fifth Circuit Rules Sleepwalking Employee Who Crawled Into Bed With Coworker Cannot Prove Disability Discrimination
On July 15, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s ruling that a female employee who crawled into a male coworker’s bed while “sleepwalking” and was subsequently discharged failed to establish disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA). Specifically, the Fifth Circuit held in Harkey v. NextGen Healthcare, Inc., that the employee’s termination did not occur because of her sleepwalking condition but because of her behavior while sleepwalking.
Jennifer Harkey, a former employee of NextGen Healthcare, Inc., attended an out-of-town sales conference on October 10, 2018. That evening, after having dinner and drinks with a female coworker and returning to her own hotel room, Harkey left her room and knocked on the door of a male coworker’s room in the same hotel. The male coworker opened the door and observed Harkey wearing nothing but a “black cotton robe.” Harkey then entered the room belonging to her male coworker, got into his bed, and “pulled the sheets all the way up to her face,” at which point she became “‘nonresponsive.’” Hotel security ultimately came to the room, awakened Harkey, and assisted her back to her room. The male coworker also notified NextGen’s human resources department.
The next morning, NextGen’s human resources director suspended Harkey and placed her on a paid leave of absence. That same day, Harkey contacted a diagnostician to discuss the incident but was unable to secure an appointment for some time. Before Harkey was able to see the diagnostician, NextGen terminated her employment. Subsequently, the “diagnostician diagnosed her condition as somnambulism, otherwise known as ‘sleep walking disorder.’” Harkey sued NextGen, alleging her termination violated the ADA and TCHRA, but the district court granted summary judgment for NextGen.
The Fifth Circuit’s Analysis
The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for NextGen, concluding that even if Harkey’s sleepwalking disorder was a cognizable “disability” under the ADA, NextGen terminated her employment “because of what happened when she sleepwalked,” not because of the disorder itself. Her disorder caused her misbehavior—“[s]he entered a male co-worker’s room…, uninvited and wearing only a robe, and got into his bed”—but did not excuse it.
The Fifth Circuit’s decision is helpful precedent to establish that basing an employment decision on misbehavior is legitimate and nondiscriminatory, even if a disability caused the misbehavior. Because every situation is different, employers may want to analyze each one carefully.