Jacqueline Lewis, an African-American police detective in Union City, Georgia, was terminated abruptly from her position in 2010, after about ten years of service. In January 2009, Lewis suffered a small heart attack. The episode was unusual in that a cardiac catheterization showed “no clot and no disease” in Lewis’s heart, although heart attacks generally are caused by a “clot inside the coronary arteries.” And while Dr. Arshed Quyyami, a Harvard-trained cardiologist who treated Lewis at Emory University’s cardiology clinic, described the damage to Lewis’s heart as being “miniscule to small,” enzyme levels confirmed the diagnosis of a heart attack. Lewis’s primary care physician, Dr. Erinn Harris, cleared her to return to work without any cardiac restrictions because there “weren’t any blockages to her heart.”
On June 14, 2010, Lewis was told to report for Taser training on June 17, 2010. Lewis, concerned that her prior heart attack might increase her risk of injury from a Taser shock, saw Dr. Harris to discuss the issue. Dr. Harris advised the Department that she “would not recommend that a Taser gun or oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray be used on or near Lewis secondary to her chronic conditions.”
In response, the Department placed Lewis on “administrative leave without compensation until such time as your physician releases you to return to full and active duty.” Lewis wrote the Police Chief, asking permission to resume her duties as a detective, and explaining that she was only asking for an accommodation on the Taser and OC training.
Weeks later, an assistant chief terminated Lewis without contacting the City’s human resources director or Dr. Harris. Lewis responded by filing a federal court lawsuit, alleging disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and race and gender discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII.
A federal appeals court allowed Lewis’s claims to be heard by a jury. With respect to the ADA, the Court began by reciting the ADA’s general requirements that to prove disability discrimination, “a plaintiff must produce sufficient evidence to permit a jury to find that she (1) is disabled, (2) is a qualified individual, and (3) was discriminated against because of her disability. The ADA defines the term ‘disability’ as (1) a physical or mental impairment that ‘substantially limits one or more’ of an individual’s ‘major life activities,’ (2) a ‘record of such an impairment,’ or (3) ‘being regarded as having such an impairment.’”
While the Court concluded that Lewis was not actually disabled, it did find that she raised a jury question as to whether the City regarded her as being disabled. As the Court commented, “there was ample evidence here to raise a genuine issue of fact as to whether the Department regarded Lewis as disabled. The Assistant Chief referred to her chronic conditions and instructed her to complete Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) paperwork, suggesting that he believed Lewis had a medical condition warranting medical leave. Next, the assistant chief’s July 1 letter forbade Lewis from returning to work until ‘everything is cleared up with your doctor,’ said that ‘your doctor’s letter essentially makes it impossible for you to work or be at work,’ and concluded that Lewis could not return ‘until your doctor releases you for duty.’ Indeed, the Department’s own stated reason for putting Lewis on leave – that it feared for her safety in view of her heart condition – demonstrates the Department’s belief that Lewis’s medical condition set her apart from other police officers.”
The Department next argued that Lewis could not be a “qualified individual with a disability” because of her inability to be exposed to OC spray and Taser shocks. The Court disagreed, finding that “there is significant evidence that cuts against the contention that exposure to OC spray and Taser shocks are essential functions of the job of police detective. The City’s written job description for the position of detective nowhere mentions that it is necessary for a detective either to carry or to be exposed to OC spray or a Taser shock.
Indeed, there is no such mention in an entire paragraph listing various physical demands of the job. The ‘work environment’ section states that a detective ‘must be willing to carry a firearm on and off the job and be mentally and physically capable of using deadly force, if justified,’ but contains no reference to OC spray or Tasers. Further, Lewis offered evidence that detectives previously were permitted a choice of what nonlethal weapon or weapons to carry. Moreover, neither party disputes the fact that Taser International does not require trainees to receive a shock in order to become certified in Taser use.
“In these circumstances, a jury would be justified in concluding that receiving a Taser shock was not an essential function of Lewis’s job, in which case it would follow that she was a ‘qualified individual.’ In the last analysis, the evidence before the district court might have yielded any number of conclusions. Perhaps Lewis was terminated simply because the Department regarded her as disabled, thus violating the ADA. Perhaps she was terminated because it concluded, rightly or wrongly, that Lewis was shirking to avoid the Taser shock and had enlisted her doctor to provide unwarranted support in attaining that goal.
“Perhaps her fate – which a jury might find was the result of disparate application of Union City’s leave policies as between Lewis and white male officers who were sufficiently comparable to Lewis in all material respects save race and gender – was a product of, or influenced by, race and/or gender. Perhaps her termination was the product of an amalgam of such considerations. At bottom, however, the ultimate decision in this case is for a properly instructed jury that has seen the witnesses and heard all of the evidence.”
Lewis v. City of Union City, 2017 WL 6397619 (11th Cir. 2017).