No Obligation To Continue Fire Captain In Long-Term Light-Duty Job

Robert Czarnecki became a firefighter for the City of Trenton, New Jersey in August 1983, and was eventually promoted to the position of fire captain. Over the course of his career, Czarnecki injured his back in a series of work-related incidents, including a car accident, being knocked backwards by flames, and having an oxygen tank fall on his back. After discussing his illnesses with Czarnecki, the Department decided to accommodate him by assigning him as the system administrator of the Department’s computer-assisted dispatch (CAD) function. The Department’s intent was to accommodate Czarnecki only until 2002, when he would reach his minimum retirement age.

In 2002, when Czarnecki had not yet submitted his application for retirement, the Department began termination proceedings against him. On October 23, 2002, the City’s Public Safety Director found that, based on the medical evidence, Czarnecki was unfit to return to his previous assignment as a captain of a firefighting company, and should be terminated on the basis of his inability to perform the essential functions of the job.

Czarnecki challenged his termination through the court system, arguing that he was being discriminated against because of his disability. Czarnecki argued that he had proven he could do all duties of a CAD administrator and could continue in that job indefinitely.

An appeals court in New Jersey sided with the City. The Court found that “the medical evidence unquestionably established that Czarnecki is physically unable to perform the essential functions of a firefighter. These limitations are permanent in nature, and render him unfit and unqualified for the position he seeks. The City is not legally obligated to create or maintain a light-duty assignment, initially offered as a temporary accommodation for what was then perceived to be a temporary job-related disability.”

Czarnecki v. Merit System Board, 2007 WL 2066508 (N.J.Super. A.D. 2007).

This article appears in the September 2007 issue