No ADA Violation for Dismissal, Despite Disability-Related Inquiries

By Brian M. O’Neal February 9, 2021
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disabled parking placard hanging from a car windshield

A police academy lawfully dismissed an individual from the academy for failing to be honest during questioning about his disabled-parking placard, according to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The plaintiff, who was a corrections officer for the sheriff of Cook County, Ill., had back and knee problems. In 2011, the plaintiff applied for and received a disabled-parking placard from the Illinois Secretary of State after indicating in the application that he had a permanent knee condition that prevented him from walking without using an assistive device such as a cane.

In 2015, the plaintiff applied for and was accepted to the police academy, which provided a potential path for him to transition from corrections officer to police officer. A police academy instructor asked the plaintiff about the disabled-parking placard after noticing it hanging in the plaintiff's car. The plaintiff provided inconsistent explanations when asked about the placard. He initially indicated the placard was for his wife, but then quickly shifted to an explanation that he sometimes used the placard because he had a disability as well.

Subsequently, the plaintiff indicated during further questioning that the placard had been authorized for him for the wrong condition, and he had used the placard based on convenience rather than medical necessity. The plaintiff further indicated he sometimes parked in spaces for people with disabilities out of convenience. He was later dismissed from the police academy because, after an investigation into his application for and use of the disabled-parking placard, it was determined he was not truthful in responding to basic questions about the placard.

After being dismissed from the police academy, the plaintiff sued the sheriff and Cook County (collectively "the sheriff's office"), asserting violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the 14th Amendment.

The 7th Circuit affirmed a decision of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of the sheriff's office. The sheriff's office dismissed the plaintiff from the police academy based on an honest belief that the plaintiff lied about his disability, rather than dismissing him because he had a disability, according to the district court.

In its opinion, the 7th Circuit noted that a police force seems to have good reason to raise questions about an individual's ability to meet the physical demands of the police academy and work as a police officer. Additionally, in light of the plaintiff's conflicting statements about and justifications for his disabled-parking placard, as well as the nature of the work and the importance that police officers be honest and obey the law, the 7th Circuit reasoned that "it was only natural, and not a violation of the ADA, for the sheriff's office to seek further information and clarification."

The opinion emphasized that the 7th Circuit's analysis depended on "the fact that [the plaintiff] was seeking a law-enforcement job with demands for both physical fitness and integrity." The 7th Circuit also highlighted the plaintiff's many inconsistent statements regarding his application for and use of the placard.

Sandefur v. Dart, 7th Cir., No. 19-2787 (Nov. 4, 2020).

Professional Pointer: This case could have had a different result if the job was not physically demanding with high expectations related to integrity. Employers should be careful with any disability-related inquiries and be able to justify any such questioning based on the circumstances and particular job.

Brian M. O'Neal is a partner with McMahon Berger PC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in St. Louis.

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