Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Circuit reinstates disability claim for injured police officer

The Court of Appeals has given a disabled police officer another chance to prove that he was discriminated against on the basis of his disability in violation of the Americans With Disability Act.

The case is Price v. City of New York, decided on February 13. The opinion is not clear as to whether he was fired or denied an accommodation due to his injury. The employer's defense was that Price was not covered under the ADA because patrol duties are an essential function of a full-time police officer's job. Generally, under the ADA, if a certain responsibility is essential to the position, then it is not discriminatory for the employer to change the employee's job assignment because of his inability to perform that responsibility.

The district court dismissed the claim. The Second Circuit reversed because the record is not clear whether patrol duties are, in fact, an essential job function for New York City police officers.

The Court of Appeals noted that the relevant factors in determining whether job functions are essential include "the employer’s judgment, written job descriptions, the amount of time spent on the job performing the function, the consequences of not requiring the plaintiff to perform the function, mention of the function in any collective bargaining agreement, the work experience of past employees in the job, and the work experience of current employees in similar jobs."

In addition, the Federal regulations state that "The consequences of failing to require the employee to perform the function may be another indicator of whether a particular function is essential. For example, although a firefighter may not regularly have to carry an unconscious adult out of a burning building, the consequence of failing to require the firefighter to be able to perform this function would be serious. . . . A court must give considerable deference to an employer’s judgment regarding what functions are essential for service in a particular position.’”

No single factor outlined above determines whether a job function is "essential" under the ADA. Here, the trial court did not perform the right analysis, according to the Second Circuit. "The district court, in focusing on the policies of the police department in general, failed to allow sufficient discovery as to whether patrol duty constituted an essential function of the PPO position in particular under all of the factors set forth above, as well as any other factors that may be relevant to such a determination."

This case was a summary order, which means it generally is not precedential and lawyers may only rely on it under certain circumstances. The decision does shed light on the Second Circuit's thinking in this area. Additional guidance is available from the precedential ruling that the Court relied on in this case is Stone v. Mount Vernon, 118 F.3d 92 (2d Cir. 1999).

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