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The Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) could not obtain dismissal of a trooper applicant's claim that it rejected him for employment after investigating his mental health history and a charge of discrimination that he filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against a previous employer, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida ruled.
Ronald Capps was a detention technician with the Broward County, Fla., Sheriff's Office (BCSO) and a former United States Army serviceman who applied for employment as a state trooper with the FHP on Feb. 6, 2016. On March 29, 2016, Capps met with Trooper Elliott Rosen, who was assigned to conduct a background investigation of Capps for consideration for employment with the FHP. During that meeting, Capps became uneasy and upset at the way Rosen was conducting the interview and the insulting way he felt Rosen was speaking to him. Rosen advised Capps that he should withdraw his application from the selection process.
The following day, Capps sent Rosen an e-mail stating that he would be providing his official college transcripts that he had not brought with him to the interview. Rosen responded by e-mail that day, telling Capps that he had sent Capps' file back to Tallahassee, Fla., to be placed on inactive status based upon Capps' alleged request to withdraw from the process.
On March 31, Capps contacted Rosen's supervisor, Captain George Crotta, to complain about Rosen's behavior during the interview and to inquire about the status of his application. Crotta informed Capps that his application was placed on inactive status due to the allegations Capps had made against Rosen.
At the same time, the FHP continued its background investigation of Capps. During the investigation, Rosen contacted Capps' employer, the BCSO, and inquired about a pending claim Capps had filed with the EEOC against the BCSO. Rosen also contacted officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to inquire about Capps' prior medical and/or psychological treatment at the VA, which included treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Persons with Psychiatric Disabilities]
According to Capps, the information Rosen received from the BCSO and the VA was disseminated among the FHP to render Capps unsuitable for employment.
At no time during the background investigation did the FHP provide Capps with a conditional offer of employment. He filed a lawsuit with the Broward County Circuit Court claiming that he was not hired by the FHP because of the unfavorable information obtained by the FHP about his medical and/or psychological history and the EEOC claim he filed against the BCSO. Capps alleged that the FHP made an unlawful medical inquiry under the Americans with Disabilities Act, retaliated and discriminated against him in violation of the Florida Civil Rights Act, and invaded his privacy under Florida law.
The FHP removed the lawsuit to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida and filed a motion to dismiss all of Capps' claims for failure to state a plausible claim for relief. Capps filed a motion to send his state law claims back to state court, which the court rejected, finding that the claims all arose from the same set of facts and thus had to stay in federal court.
In support of its motion to dismiss, the FHP claimed that Capps' claims were inconsistent in asserting that the FHP rejected his application because of an unlawful background investigation when his application was placed on inactive status early in the investigation process. The FHP claimed that Capps withdrew his application after meeting Rosen and thus he was no longer an applicant when the investigation occurred.
The court disagreed with the FHP and found that Capps' claim of an improper medical inquiry under the ADA—made prior to a conditional offer of employment—were valid and that the FHP rejected his application because of its discovery of his EEOC charge and his PTSD. However, the court found that Florida law did not provide a private cause of action for invasion of privacy and thus dismissed that claim.
Capps v. Florida Highway Patrol, S.D. Fla., No. 17-cv-60365-BLOOM/Valle (April 24, 2017).
Professional Pointer: While applicants for positions of public trust, such as law enforcement officers, are typically subject to background investigations, there are limits as to the scope and timing of such investigations. When investigations stray into protected or irrelevant areas such as mental health and prior charges of discrimination, employers can become liable under state and federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination and retaliation.
Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.
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