WASHINGTON (CN) – The D.C. Circuit allowed a former student of the FBI Academy to challenge his dismissal on the basis that he suffered insomnia as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, a disability protected under federal law.
Martin Desmond claimed the FBI Academy discriminated against him by dismissing him from the academy after he told his supervisor about his post-traumatic stress disorder. Judge Tatel defined sleeping as a “major life activity” under the Rehabilitation Act, making Desmond’s sleeplessness a disability.
Desmond said he was set to graduate from the FBI Academy’s special-agent training program when he told his supervisor, James Cochran, about his post-traumatic stress disorder. He claimed Cochran immediately acted “dismissive” and “hostile” toward him.
Desmond’s insomnia started two years before he joined the academy when, at 24, an armed robber, later dubbed the “Tommy Hilfiger rapist,” held him at gunpoint while he was alone in his mother’s house, threatening to kill him and return to rape his mother. He said the academy exacerbated his sleeping problem by assigning him to a training division in Chicago, instead of Cleveland, where his mother lived.
The appeals court ruled that Desmond had demonstrated that his sleep loss was significant, both compared to his life before the robbery and compared to an average person, making it a substantial limitation under federal law. The average person sleeps five to eight hours per night, while Desmond was sleeping two to five hours a night.
Four days before graduation, Cochran found a letter on Desmond’s desk, in which Desmond railed against the FBI Academy’s “deceit and lies” and its refusal to accommodate his “family issues.” Desmond claimed the letter was a therapeutic exercise and wrote an immediate retraction, but Cochran still filed a report highlighting Desmond’s inadequacies as a trainee, citing lax work habits and “frequent and often unexplained crying episodes,” but failed to mention post-traumatic stress disorder. The report concluded that Desmond lacked the cooperativeness and emotional maturity of special agent, leading to his dismissal.
Desmond claimed the government’s report was merely pretext to discharge him on the basis of a mental disability – in his case, sleep loss.
The three-judge panel concluded that Desmond had presented enough evidence to survive summary judgment on his disability discrimination claim.