Failure To Act On Doctor’s Advice Can Be Sign Of Discrimination

Patricia Denhof and Renee LeClear were police officers with the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Denhof and LeClear were participants in a gender discrimination lawsuit against the City in 2001. Subsequently, the City requested that Dr. Glen Peterson, a psychologist, evaluate both Denhof and LeClear. Peterson diagnosed each as suffering from a personality disorder. As a result, the City effectively placed both officers on unpaid leave of absence.

Denhof and LeClear filed a lawsuit against the City, alleging that their treatment was the product of retaliation for their participation in the gender discrimination lawsuit. After a two-week trial, a jury returned a verdict for the officers, awarding each of them $1 million in compensatory damages, plus back pay and “front pay” (lost wages from the date of the jury’s award forward). When a trial judge subsequently overturned the jury’s verdict, Denhof and LeClear appealed.

A federal appeals court reinstated the jury’s conclusion that the officers were the victims of retaliation. The main issue before the Court was whether there was any evidence of discrimination upon which the jury’s award could be based. The Court held that such evidence existed.

What the Court referred to as “troubling” was the fact that Denhof and LeClear each went to their personal physicians after receiving Dr. Peterson’s opinion, obtained reports and recommendations from their personal physicians, and that the City did nothing in response to those reports and recommendations. In Denhof’s case, her psychologist reported to the City that Denhof did not suffer from a personality disorder that rendered her unfit for duty. Denhof’s psychiatrist refused to prescribe psychiatric medication for Denhof as Peterson, a psychologist without the ability to prescribe medication, had recommended; Denhof’s psychiatrist did not believe that Denhof fit the criteria for being treated with such medication.

In LeClear’s case, her psychologist reported that LeClear was “very stable and not dealing with any clinically diagnosable mental health disorders.” The psychologist specifically refuted Peterson’s diagnosis of personality disorder and advised the City that there was no “clinical or diagnostic” reason to keep LeClear off duty.

This chain of events clearly troubled the Court of Appeals. The Court concluded that “the City ordered the officers to receive treatment from their own doctors, and when those doctors reported that there was nothing wrong with them, the City did nothing for the next two-and-a-half years while the officers remained suspended without pay. This lack of response provided a more than sufficient basis for the jury to conclude that the City was not acting out of concern for its employees, but was instead doing whatever it needed to do to prevent the officers from returning to work. In light of all this evidence, we hold that a reasonable jury could have concluded that the City did not reasonably rely on Peterson’s recommendations regarding the officers and was instead retaliating against them for the claim of discrimination against the City.”

The Appeals Court did side with the City on the size of the awards, and reduced them from $1 million to $350,000. The Court observed that the $1 million awards exceeded the demands of Denhof’s and LeClear’s own lawyers.

Denhof v. City of Grand Rapids, 2007 WL 627819 (6th Cir. 2007).

This article appears in the May 2007 issue