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.
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.
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.
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.
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.