A contentious case involving a change in the light-duty practices of the Baltimore Police Department has produced a major ruling under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as to an employer’s obligation to reasonably accommodate disabled officers.
For many years, the Baltimore Police Department had a light-duty policy allowing injured officers to remain on the job. Eventually, 169 officers – or 5% of the police force – were not available for full-duty police work due to chronic medical conditions of a permanent nature.
In August 2004, the City implemented a new light-duty policy. The Policy mandates that all officers must be “capable of performing the full duties and law enforcement responsibilities of the sworn member, to include the ability to make forcible arrests. . .” The Policy allows for 12-month temporary light-duty assignments for those who are ill, injured, or under disciplinary investigation. Apart from that exception, the Policy does not envision any light-duty assignments.
In March 2005, as a result of negotiations between the Police Department and the Fraternal Order of Police, the Policy was amended to allow an officer up to 12 months to return to work from the date of the determination that the officer was medically unqualified. The amended Policy also provided that no such determination would be made prior to 12 months from the original date of injury if the injury was incurred in the line of duty.
A third significant change in the Policy dealt with officers who applied for but did not receive a pension benefit. The amended Policy allowed such officers to be retained as a police officer in their current classification until the officer qualified for a retirement benefit of 50% of his highest 18-month salary. The fourth change in the Policy required officers whose applications for a pension benefit were granted to immediately retire.
Several officers sued the City, alleging that both the original Policy and the amended Policy violated the ADA. The centerpiece of the litigation was whether the City had the right to establish as an essential function of the job the making of a forcible arrest. Under the ADA, an individual is not protected by the law unless the individual can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.
The Court found that the Department was within its rights in listing the ability to make a forcible arrest as an essential function of the police job. As the Court put it, “even if the evidence showed that officers working in administrative positions were never called upon to make forcible arrests, that fact would not be material to any reasonable jury’s determination of the fundamental job duties of a police officer in Baltimore. No reasonable jury could find that the Police Department exceeded the broad bounds afforded it under the ADA to decide as an employer that being capable of making forcible arrests, driving vehicles under emergency conditions, and firing weapons of deadly force are essential qualifications for serving as a police officer.”
Allen v. Hamm, 2006 WL 436054 (D.Md. 2006).
This article appears in the April 2006 issue