Oscar Brownfield began working as a police officer for the Yakima, Washington Police Department in November 1999. Approximately one year later, he suffered a closed head injury in an off-duty car accident. After recovering from symptoms including reduced self-awareness, Brownfield returned to full duty in July 2001. He received positive performance evaluations and was awarded several commendations over the next three years.
In June 2004, Brownfield began having problems with his partner. Eventually, Brownfield met with his lieutenant and his sergeant to detail his concerns. During the meeting, Brownfield used an expletive in stating that he needed to talk to a union representative. Despite an order from the lieutenant to remain in the room, Brownfield stood up and left. When the sergeant found Brownfield speaking to another officer, Brownfield swore at him and demanded he leave the room. Brownfield was temporarily suspended for insubordination as a result of this incident. He later explained that he had expected to meet with the Chief and was concerned that the meeting included the lieutenant, who was the subject of some of his complaints. Brownfield stated that he was “consumed” with anger and fear, and that he recognized that he needed to take a break.
In September 2005, four incidents occurred that, together with the above-described confrontation, led the Department to refer Brownfield for a fitness-for-duty evaluation. First, Brownfield engaged in a disruptive argument with another officer during muster. A sergeant reported that when Brownfield learned that the Department was investigating him – but not the other officer – he became visibly upset, was swearing, and was “just not really speaking full sentences.”
Second, Brownfield reported that he felt “himself losing control” during a traffic stop. According to a sergeant, Brownfield reported that a young child riding in a vehicle he pulled over began taunting him during the stop. Brownfield became upset, his legs began shaking, and he “wasn’t sure what he was going to do.” Brownfield calmed down when a back-up officer arrived.
Third, the Department received a domestic violence call from Brownfield’s estranged wife, who reported that she and Brownfield began arguing when she stopped at his apartment to see their children. As she was backing out of a doorway, Brownfield allegedly struck her by slamming the door. Brownfield disputed this version of events, and no charges were filed. Finally, another officer reported that Brownfield made comments such as “It’s not important anyway,” “I’m not sure if it’s worth it,” and “It doesn’t matter how this ends.”
The doctor conducting the fitness-for-duty evaluation diagnosed Brownfield as suffering from “Mood Disorder due to a General Medical Condition with mixed features,” which manifested itself in “poor judgment, emotional volatility, and irritability” and which could be related to Brownfield’s 2000 head injury. Dr. Decker concluded that Brownfield was unfit for police duty and that his disability was permanent. Brownfield was transferred from administrative to FMLA leave.
After some time, Brownfield’s doctor weighed in, opining that Brownfield was fit for duty. In response, the City scheduled a second fitness-for-duty evaluation. When Brownfield refused to participate, the City informed Brownfield that he would likely be terminated unless he cooperated in the examination, but Brownfield again refused. The City terminated Brownfield on April 10, 2007.
Brownfield filed suit in federal court alleging that the City violated the ADA by requiring him to submit to the fitness-for-duty evaluations. Under the ADA, an employer may not require a medical examination to determine whether an employee is disabled “unless such examination or inquiry is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.”
Brownfield’s main argument was that the business necessity standard could not be met without a showing that an employee’s job performance has suffered as a result of health problems. The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.
The Court found that “prophylactic psychological examinations can sometimes satisfy the business necessity standard, particularly when the employer is engaged in dangerous work. However, we must be keen to guard against the potential for employer abuse of such exams. The ADA prohibits employers from using medical exams as a pretext to harass employees or to fish for non-work-related medical issues and the attendant unwanted exposure of the employee’s disability and the stigma it may carry. We hold that the business necessity standard may be met even before an employee’s work performance declines if the employer is faced with significant evidence that could cause a reasonable person to inquire as to whether an employee is still capable of performing his job. An employee’s behavior cannot be merely annoying or inefficient to justify an examination; rather, there must be genuine reason to doubt whether that employee can perform job-related functions.”
The Court found that “the City had an objective, legitimate basis to doubt Brownfield’s ability to perform the duties of a police officer. Undisputed facts show that Brownfield exhibited highly emotional responses on numerous occasions in 2005, four occurring in a single month immediately prior to his referral: He swore at a superior after abruptly leaving a meeting despite a direct order to the contrary; he engaged in a loud argument with a coworker and became extremely angry when he learned the incident was being investigated; he reported that his legs began shaking and he felt himself losing control during a traffic stop; his wife called police to report a domestic altercation with Brownfield; and he made several comments to a coworker such as ‘It doesn’t matter how this ends.’
“Moreover, our consideration of the evaluation’s legitimacy is heavily colored by the nature of Brownfield’s employment. Police officers are likely to encounter extremely stressful and dangerous situations during the course of their work. When a police department has good reason to doubt an officer’s ability to respond to these situations in an appropriate manner, a fitness-for-duty evaluation is consistent with the ADA. Reasonable cause to question Brownfield’s ability to serve as a police officer was present here.”
Brownfield v. City of Yakima, 2010 WL 2902503 (9th Cir. 2010).
This article appears in the September 2010 issue