How The ADA Has Expanded: A Case In Point

Mickel Hoback was a police officer with the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 2002, Hoback took a brief leave from the Department to enter basic training for the United States Army. Following basic training, Hoback returned to the Department until June 22, 2004, when his National Guard unit was activated and deployed to Iraq. Hoback served in Iraq until being honorably discharged on November 27, 2005. In February 2006, Hoback resumed his duties as a police officer.

At some point after returning from Iraq, Hoback was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. On April 13, 2009, Hoback met with Dr. Estella Acosta of the VA. During the course of the meeting, Dr. Acosta became concerned that Hoback was suicidal and dangerous. She filled out a Certificate of Need for Involuntary Commitment, which stated Hoback was “depressed and despondent and states that he is feeling suicidal,” and further said that “Hoback indicated using a gun although he stated he does not own a gun.” Hoback was not involuntarily committed, however; apparently he slipped out the back door of the clinic while Dr. Acosta was making arrangements for his committal.

After leaving the VA clinic, Hoback drove himself to the VA hospital in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and checked himself in. He was kept overnight, and released the next day. The Department became aware of the attempted involuntary commitment of Hoback on April 14, 2009. After some investigation, the Department discovered Hoback had already checked himself into the VA hospital, and promptly relieved him from duty, placing him on administrative leave.

When the Department terminated him, Hoback filed a lawsuit contending his rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) were violated. Hoback asserted that the City wrongly “regarded him as disabled” under the ADA. A jury returned a verdict in favor of Hoback, awarding him $130,000 in back pay, $300,000 in front pay, and $250,000 for emotional distress, for a total award of $680,000. The City then objected to the verdict, contending it was within its rights under the ADA.

The City’s essential argument was that it only regarded Hoback as incapable of performing the functions of a police officer, and did not regard Hoback’s condition as substantially limiting any major life activity as required by the ADA. As the Court noted in rejecting the City’s contentions, “this argument would have been convincing, and perhaps determinative, if the relevant events in this case occurred before January 1, 2009. However, because the events occurred after January 1, 2009, the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) applies to the City’s conduct.

“To be liable under the ‘regarded as’ prong as amended by the ADAAA, an employer need not regard an individual as substantially limited in a major life activity. An employee must only show that he was subjected to an action because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits a major life activity.

“A reasonable jury could have concluded the City terminated Hoback because of the reports submitted to the Department management regarding Hoback’s PTSD. In fact, the City admits Hoback’s termination was based on the Police Chief’s belief that Hoback’s PTSD disqualified him to perform the essential functions of a police officer. Based on the evidence submitted at trial, a reasonable jury could conclude the City regarded Hoback as disabled, and terminated him on the basis of an actual or perceived mental impairment.”

The City also argued that to be protected under the ADA, Hoback had to show that he could perform the essential functions of the job of a police officer, and that he posed a “direct threat” to others. The City cited Hoback’s diagnosis with severe PTSD by the VA, involuntary commitment by a VA psychiatrist, Hoback’s medication, and Hoback’s VA counselor’s notes detailing Hoback’s descriptions of various violent thoughts and acts.

The Court disagreed, finding that the jury was in a position to consider it with the testimony of Hoback himself and the Police Chief. Most notably, on direct examination, Hoback detailed his version of multiple events mentioned in the VA’s notes and relied on by City’s doctor, which convinced the Chief to terminate Hoback’s employment. Included in Hoback’s testimony was discussion of embellishments he made to the VA in order to receive larger benefits from the VA. He also noted the only side effects from his medication were headaches and nausea. Further, Hoback detailed some of his experiences in the military, on which a reasonable jury could rely to conclude he was capable of withstanding the types of stresses the Chief acknowledged in his essential functions discussion.”

The Court acknowledged that the events Hoback related to the VA “would concern any supervisor, particularly a supervisor of a police officer. But the question presented to the jury was whether Hoback could perform the essential functions of the position. A reasonable jury could have heard all the evidence and placed significant weight on Hoback’s explanation of the VA’s notes, discounted his embellishments to his VA counselor, weighed the credibility of the testifying mental health professionals, and concluded the evidence presented was sufficient to show Hoback could perform the essential functions of the position.”

The Court did slightly reduce the award to Hoback, finding that the jury’s award should have taken into account wages Hoback earned between termination and trial.

Hoback v. City of Chattanooga, 2012 WL 3834828 (E.D. Tenn. 2012).