Under ADA, Employer’s Inconsistency May Negate Physical Standards For The Job

Roy Johnson was a sergeant for the City of Pontiac, Michigan Police Department. On November 1, 2003, Johnson sustained a severe fracture of his left leg and ankle while making an arrest. Johnson was hospitalized, had multiple surgeries on his ankle, and underwent extensive physical therapy to regain use of his leg and ankle. Johnson remained off work and received total disability compensation from November 2, 2003 through February 8, 2004.

On February 9, 2004, Johnson returned to work with physician-prescribed limitations, including no running, sudden movement, or contact with prisoners. When Johnson was first returned to duty, he was placed on light-duty status, which limited him to administrative-only work assignments. Johnson worked in a light-duty capacity until October 28, 2004, when his physician, following a scheduled visit, indicated that Johnson would be permanently restricted from running and making sudden movements.

Johnson was again placed on medical leave on October 29, 2004, and reluctantly submitted his application for disability retirement to the Police and Fire Retirement System on November 1, 2004. The Retirement Board approved Johnson’s application for duty disability retirement, after which Johnson sued the City for failing to reasonably accommodate his disability.

The key question in the case was whether Johnson was, in the parlance of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), able to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. The City contended that running and sudden movements are essential functions of a sergeant’s position since the basic duties of a patrol officer are essential duties of every Pontiac police officer regardless of position or rank held. The City argued that its policy was that all officers must be able to effectuate a forcible arrest and be fit for duty.

A federal court rejected the City’s attempt to dismiss Johnson’s lawsuit. The Court found that “the issue is not whether the City has the right to require all its officers to meet what it determines are essential functions of police work within the Department. It is whether Johnson presented a factual question about whether the requirements that defendant has designated as essential for its police officers are actually imposed on all officers. The City has demonstrated that running and making sudden movements are an integral part of being a Pontiac patrol officer. However, the City has not submitted sufficient evidence demonstrating that there is a consistent policy within the City of Pontiac Police Department that, regardless of position or rank, each officer must be able to perform the basic duties of a Patrol Officer.”

Johnson v. City of Pontiac, 2007 WL 1013247 (E.D. Mich. 2007).

This article appears in the June 2007 issue