Court Holds Open Possibility Of Light-Duty Jobs As Accommodation Under ADA

With the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), many predicted that the courts would require that public safety agencies have light-duty jobs. Those predictions have not proven out, however, as virtually every court to consider a “light-duty” claim under the ADA has held that a public safety employer need not accommodate individuals with a disability by either creating or maintaining a light-duty job.

In a large enough public safety agency, there exists the possibility that not every police officer or firefighter would necessarily be required to do the “core” functions of the job. In the case of law enforcement officers, the “core’ function would be effectuating forcible arrests. In the case of firefighters, the “core” function would be engaging in fire suppression.

A recent lawsuit in Philadelphia involving the Philadelphia Police Department further indicates that larger public safety agencies may be on a different footing with respect to the obligation to have light-duty jobs available for individuals with disabilities. The case involved four police officers, all of whom had been on light-duty status for some period of time. One, Lawrence Keys, tore the medial meniscus and the anterior cruciate ligament of one of his knees while making an arrest. Keys served in a light-duty job for four years before the City terminated him for being unable to perform the core functions of a police officer.

The second officer, Melvin McKellar, was shot in the right groin, right hip, and left calf by a suspect during an altercation. As a result of the injury, McKellar underwent the amputation of his right leg. McKellar was on light duty for 14 months when he was fired by the City for being unable to perform the core functions of the job of a police officer.

The third of the officers, Michael Roman, suffered hip, back, and neurological injuries when his car was rear-ended in an on-the-job injury. Roman had performed a light-duty job for more than five years when he was terminated.

The fourth officer, Joseph Schrank, was injured on the job when a truck sideswiped his motorcycle. Schrank suffered a bladder rupture, wrist fracture, pelvic fracture, a concussion, and a hernia. Schrank was in a light-duty job for four months when he was terminated by the City.

All four officers brought a lawsuit under the ADA contending that the City was obligated to reasonably accommodate their disabilities by maintaining them in the light-duty jobs they were performing before their termination. The City sought to dismiss the lawsuit, contending that “patrol duties and the ability to physically combat crime are essential job functions required of all uniformed members of the Philadelphia Police Department.”

A federal trial court refused to dismiss the lawsuit. The Court noted that all four officers “testified that active patrol duties were not required in jobs they held prior to their terminations and that they were performing all the essential functions of those positions – even the marginal functions – without accommodations. This evidence creates a factual dispute that underlies the City’s legal argument as to the essential functions of every police officer position in the City of Philadelphia. Any determination as to whether it would be an undue burden to the City to permit the officers to continue in their respective administrative positions in spite of their disabilities, or whether permitting the officers to remain on the job would constitute a ‘direct threat’ to public safety, is a triable question of fact.”

Keys v. City of Philadelphia, 2005 WL 3234847 (E.D.Pa. 2005).

This article appears in the January 2006 issue