Officer’s Night Blindness Triggers ADA Claim

Ryan Lougheed was a patrol officer with the Village of Mundelein, Illinois. Lougheed’s field training officer (FTO) observed that during the night shift, Lougheed had trouble seeing the keys on the mobile data terminal’s keyboard in his vehicle as well as difficulty seeing numbers and letters on license plates. The FTO informed Lougheed that he may need glasses and suggested he get his eyes checked.

An optometrist determined that Lougheed had 20/20 daylight vision but was unable to examine his night vision. The optometrist referred Lougheed to an ophthalmologist, who reported that Lougheed had night vision problems and that he was in the process of establishing a diagnosis. The note also stated that Lougheed “should avoid night driving until [they] establish a diagnosis.”

The Department immediately placed Lougheed on unpaid medical leave and told him that he needed to submit a medical release signed by a doctor to return to work. The Chief told the ophthalmologist that “police officers must be able to respond in dark buildings” and that he needed to know “when Lougheed can be expected to return to full unrestricted duty.” Lougheed told the Department that tests performed were inconclusive and that he had another exam scheduled for six days later. Rather than wait for the results, the Department terminated Lougheed.

Lougheed sued the Department, claiming his termination violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). An employee is disabled under the ADA if he is “regarded” by the employer as having “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of major life activities.” The term “major life activities” is defined as “functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working.”

The Court rejected the Village’s attempt to have Lougheed’s lawsuit dismissed. The Court noted that “the evidence shows that the Village believed that Lougheed’s night vision problems extended beyond simply driving at night. For instance, the Chief testified that he understood the doctor’s note to mean that Lougheed was not able to do various activities at night, including driving, going into dark buildings, and doing area searches in the dark. The Chief also testified that the note restricted Lougheed from working in the day because ‘if there’s a situation that occurs in a warehouse or the [sic] kind of an environment, even a residential home that requires him to be able to go in and do searches or make observations. The doctor’s note identified that there was a shortcoming in his ability to do that.’

“The evidence supports a finding that the Village regarded Lougheed to be substantially limited in his vision or ability to see, which is a major life activity. Disability discrimination requires a plaintiff to show that he suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability. The Village contends that it terminated Lougheed not because of his vision problems, but because he exhibited poor judgment by showing up to work on May 8, 2006 despite his doctor’s instructions and because he lied on the pre-employment application form. Lougheed claims that the Village’s proffered reasons are a pretext for discrimination.

“Pretext may be established directly with evidence that the defendant was more likely than not motivated by a discriminatory reason, or indirectly by evidence that the employer’s examination is not credible. The Village expressed its concern about Lougheed’s vision, sought to know when he could return to full unrestricted duty, and stated that failure to receive more information could result in discipline up to and including termination. Lougheed also states that higher-ups in the Police Department made statements to him suggesting they would fire him because of his poor vision. Based on the evidence, a jury could find that the Village fired Lougheed because it believed his vision disabled him rather than for the reasons the Village cites.”

Lougheed v. Village of Mundelein, 2010 WL 2836973 (N.D. Ill. 2010).

This article appears in the November 2010 issue