Court Decisions Brief
A project of the Southeast ADA Center and Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University

Carter v. Ridge

No. 07-20275, 2007 WL 4104349
November 19, 2007

Facts of the Case

Plaintiff Don Carter served as a pilot for the United States Customs Service, a division of the Department of Homeland Security (the Agency) from 1987 until his dismissal in 2004. In 1998, Carter was involved in a crash while piloting a light piston driven aircraft. As a result, he experienced significant anxiety, apprehension, unease, and hesitation while piloting similar airplanes, and flew only turbine driven airplanes. In 2000, the Agency reassigned Carter to a light piston driven aircraft, and he again experienced significant anxiety. The Agency offered additional training and referred him to the Employee Assistance Program, but still required he fly the light piston aircraft. In 2001, an independent physician diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), resulting from the 1998 crash. Upon learning of Carter's diagnosis, the Agency transferred him to a non-flying position. A fitness for duty examination found Carter was psychologically fit to serve as a pilot, but recommended that he not pilot light piston driven aircraft.

In March 2002, Carter filed an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint alleging that his transfer to a non-flying position amounted to discrimination based on his PTSD diagnosis, and alleging retaliation for his participation as a witness at a co-worker's EEO hearing. In June, the Agency gave Carter a directed reassignment, because “he was unable to fly two types of aircraft as specified in the position description.” The directed reassignment offered Carter the choice of two non-pilot positions, without any change in pay, grade, or promotion track, however both required relocation. Carter declined both “and requested a hardship allowance to remain in Houston because of his son’s medical problems.” The Agency denied the exemption, and in January 2004, removed Carter from federal service for failure to accept the directed assignment.

Carter dismissed his EEO complaint and filed an action before the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), an independent quasi-judicial board that reviews actions of federal employees to preserve the merit system in federal employment. The MSPB board affirmed Carter’s removal. Carter then filed suit in the federal district court for the Southern District of Texas, alleging that his employer denied him accommodations for his disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act, and engaged in retaliatory activities in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Court found in favor of the Agency, and Carter brought this appeal.

Issues of the Case

  1. Whether Carter was a qualified individual with a disability for purposes of the Rehabilitation Act.
  2. Whether Carter raised an issue of fact as to whether the Agency’s stated reason for terminating Carter (refusing to accept a directed reassignment) was a pretext for discrimination.

Arguments & Analysis

1. Rehabilitation Act

To bring a claim under the Rehabilitation Act, Carter needed to show that he had a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited a major life activity. Carter claimed he was substantially limited in his abilities to work and to sleep. For an impairment to substantially limit work, it must limit Carter’s ability to engage in work generally. Carter was able to pilot other types of aircraft. The Court found that Carter’s PTSD did not substantially limit his ability to work, because his impairment limited him only as to a narrow range of jobs.

Regarding other major life activities, an impairment may be substantially limiting if it restricts the duration or manner in which an individual can perform that activity as compared to an average person’s ability to do so. The Court determined Carter’s sleep disturbance was not significantly restricted as compared to the sleep patterns of an average person in the general population. Therefore, Carter failed to show he was significantly limited in the major life activity of sleeping.

2. Civil Rights Act

Carter claimed that the Agency violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act when they removed him from federal service, allegedly in retaliation for his testimony in a co-worker’s EEO claim, and for filing his own EEO complaint. In order to prevail, Carter needed to rebut the Agency’s given reason for termination with evidence creating an issue of fact as to whether that reason was true or merely intended to cover up discriminatory conduct. The Agency stated that Carter was terminated for refusing to accept a directed reassignment. Carter’s argument that other pilots were permitted to fly only one type of aircraft failed because it was irrelevant to the issue at hand.

Rulings

Judgment in favor of the Agency on all counts. The Court concluded Carter was not a qualified individual with a disability because he was not substantially limited in any major life activity, and that the Agency provided a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating his employment.

Policy & Practice

Sleep as a Major Life Activity

The Fifth Circuit did not address whether sleeping constitutes a major life activity. This case did not require a determination on the subject, since Carter’s claim regarding sleep failed. Several circuits, however, have determined that sleep is a major life activity (i.e., Second, Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh).

The Eleventh Circuit has said that a plaintiff must show that his sleep disturbance is worse than that suffered by a large part of the general population. Vague assertions of sleep disturbance or a need for medication are not sufficient to show that an impairment significantly limits sleep. The Eighth Circuit has found that sleeping two and a half hours at a time and five hours a night does not demonstrate a substantial limitation.

Disclaimer:

These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time.  In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.

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