Court Affirms Dismissal of Disability Discrimination Claim

By Matthew D. Stefany December 8, 2020
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​The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that an employer did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it placed one of its employees on paid administrative leave after he made an implied threat of violence against a co-worker.

The plaintiff worked for the sheriff's office of Dunn County, Wis. A military veteran, he had a history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from his service. On April 1, 2016, a fellow officer entered the plaintiff's office and initiated an argument during which he called the plaintiff a liar. When the officer did not immediately comply with the plaintiff's instructions to leave his office, the plaintiff expressed something to the effect of "If you call me a liar again, we are going to take it outside." This implied threat of violence violated Dunn County's workplace violence policy and was overheard by multiple witnesses.

Thereafter, the sheriff placed the plaintiff on paid administrative leave pending the results of a fitness-for-duty evaluation. The plaintiff subsequently sued the county under the ADA, alleging that:

  • He was placed on administrative leave and required to submit to a fitness-for-duty evaluation because of his disability.
  • The mandatory fitness-for-duty examination was not job-related or consistent with business necessity.

The district court granted the county's motion for summary judgment, and the 7th Circuit affirmed. Of note in its decision, the court recognized the plaintiff's placement on paid administrative leave as an adverse job action. Although the plaintiff received his regular salary plus an additional 27 hours of overtime pay during his leave period, the court held that the plaintiff could have expected to work at least double the amount of overtime hours had he not been on leave, based on a comparison of the same time period during his previous two years of employment.

Nonetheless, the 7th Circuit agreed with the district court's determination that the plaintiff could not demonstrate a causal connection between his PTSD and his placement on leave and mandatory fitness-for-duty evaluation. Noting that the plaintiff was the only one who made an implicit threat of violence, the court found there was no evidence that the sheriff placed him on leave for any reason other than his unprofessional conduct.

The court also recognized the special work environment inherent in law enforcement positions that affords supervisors greater leeway to order job-related fitness-for-duty evaluations. Although the sheriff could have reasonably chosen to simply reprimand the plaintiff without requiring a fitness-for-duty evaluation, the court ruled that the sheriff's decision was equally reasonable in a situation where there was "no one right answer."

Kurtzhals v. County of Dunn, 7th Cir., No. 19-3111 (Aug. 10, 2020).

Professional Pointer: The ADA prohibits employers from requiring medical examinations of employees with a disability unless the examination is job-related and consistent with business necessity. Here, the implicit threat of violence and safety-sensitive position constituted an appropriate basis for the sheriff to require a fitness-for-duty evaluation. These determinations, however, remain fact-specific inquiries that should be undertaken carefully within the context of the employee's job requirements. Ultimately, employers must be prepared to articulate the job-related reason for the medical examination, based on objective evidence that should be consistent with prior decisions in similar circumstances.

Matthew D. Stefany is an attorney with Allen Norton & Blue P.A., the Worklaw® Network member firm in Florida.

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