Professor’s Hostile Work Environment & Sleep-Related Disability Discrimination Claims Dismissed as Insufficiently Pled

In Epstein v. County of Suffolk & Suffolk County Community College, No. 14-CV-0937, 2016 WL 4257349 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 11, 2016), the court dismissed plaintiff’s claims for, e.g., age discrimination, disability discrimination (failure to provide reasonable accommodation), and hostile work environment.

In this post I’ll discuss the court’s evaluation of plaintiff’s failure-to-accommodate-disability and hostile work environment claims.

Disability Discrimination / Failure to Accommodate

Here are the alleged facts, taken from plaintiff’s complaint, relating to plaintiff’s disability-related claim:

Plaintiff allegedly suffers from achalasia, severe drowsiness, insomnia, and extremely high blood pressure, the medication for which also contributes to sleep disorders and fatigue. Achalasia is a digestive disorder that affects a person’s ability to swallow food. Because of his achalasia, Plaintiff has severe problems falling asleep, sleeping undisturbed, and … remaining awake when driving long distances. In fact, he must sleep semi-upright to avoid night time acid reflux. Because Plaintiff is too tired to safely drive to SCCC campus, Plaintiff requested to teach most of his course load and hold office hours remotely, via distance learnin[g]. Defendants denied the requested accommodation.

In order to plead a failure-to-accommodate claim, plaintiff must establish two requirements: that he suffers from an impairment that limits a major life activity, and “the limitation must be substantial.”

Plaintiff failed to satisfy the requirement “that he suffers from a substantial disability.” Specifically: “Although sleep is undoubtedly a major life activity, [plaintiff’s] Amended Complaint lacks any inferences that Plaintiff’s difficulties produce[d] the kind of chronic, profound insomnia typically required to establish a substantial limitation.”

The court also held that even if plaintiff’s “disability was substantial,” he failed to show “a causal link between the specific condition which limits a major life activity and the accommodation requested.” Notably, plaintiff’s complaint did “not assert that teaching at SCC triggers Plaintiff’s sleep-related disorders. In other words, Plaintiff will ostensibly suffer from his achalasia whether he teaches at home or on campus.”

Hostile Work Environment

The court held that “[p]laintiff has not adequately plead his hostile work environment claim.” The law, as explained by the court:

To [adequately plead a hostile work environment claim], a plaintiff must produce evidence that the alleged conduct (1) is objectively severe or pervasive–that is, creates an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive; (2) creates an environment that the plaintiff subjectively perceives as hostile or abusive; and (3) creates such an environment because of the plaintiff’s sex or another protected characteristic. Whether a work environment is hostile depends on the totality of the circumstances, including the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance. Courts in [the Second] Circuit have recognized that a plaintiff’s burden is remarkably high. … [A] court is more likely to find a hostile work environment when there is evidence of sexual assaults, unwanted physical contact, obscene language, and unwelcome sexual solicitations.

Plaintiff’s complaint “fails to indicate the type of severe and pervasive harassment required under this Circuit’s precedent. Essentially, Plaintiff alleges that he was denied stipends and threatened with discipline. In light of the Second Circuit’s remarkably high standard, those allegations do not suffice.”

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