Firefighter’s Inability To Run May Provide Basis For ADA Claim

James Davis was a firefighter with the City of Grapevine, Texas. Davis was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Davis’ doctor sent a letter to the City describing Davis’ condition. The letter stated that Davis had a mild difficulty with balance, he would not consistently be able to climb ladders, and he could not consistently be required to drive emergency vehicles. The doctor sent a follow-up letter indicating that although Davis was able to perform well on many occasions, there could be instances where he would be limited in terms of balance, rapid responsibility, and coordination.

Davis later brought a lawsuit against the City alleging that he was forced to resign his job as a firefighter, and that his forced resignation was because of his disability. Davis’ lawsuit was filed under the Texas Labor Code, which uses standards similar to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Under the ADA, to be disabled an employee must not only prove that he suffers from a physical or mental impairment, he must also prove that his impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities. The debate in the Texas Court of Appeals over Davis’ case largely centered over whether Davis’ symptoms, which were still in the mild stage, prevented him from performing one or more major life activities.

Davis argued that he was unable to run, and that running should be considered to be a major life activity. The City rejoined that the ADA itself does not list running as a major life activity, and that running is not of “central importance to most people’s daily lives” and thus is not a major life activity.

The Court sided with Davis. The Court observed that the United States Supreme Court had impliedly held that running was a major life activity in the case of Sutton v. United Airlines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999). In Sutton, a majority of the Supreme Court held that disability should be evaluated using mitigating measures such as eyeglasses or medication. The dissenting judges in Sutton argued that such an approach would mean that individuals who use prosthetic devices or wheelchairs would not meet the statutory definition of disability under the ADA. The majority opinion responded by saying that the dissenters’ argument was incorrect, explaining that “individuals who use prosthetic limbs or wheelchairs may be mobile and capable of functioning in society but still be disabled because of a substantial limitation on their ability to walk or run.”

The Court found that this “dicta” from the Supreme Court was persuasive. The Court also ruled that the list of “major life activities” in the ADA and its regulations were not meant to be exhaustive and that running fit within the ADA’s definition of what was a “major life activity.”

Having found that Davis met the definition of having a “disability,” the Court remanded the case to trial to determine the extent, if any, that the City failed to meet its obligations to reasonably accommodate Davis’ condition.

Davis v. City of Grapevine, 2006 WL 563219 (Tex.App. 2006).

This article appears in the May 2006 issue