Sixth Circuit Says City Allowed to Suspend Police Officer After Brain Surgery

An employer’s obligation to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act and refrain from discriminating against employees with disabilities places certain limitations on what an employer can and cannot do. One obligation an employer does not have under the law is to accommodate an employee if that accommodation would mean that the employee would pose a health or safety risk to himself or others. The existence of this risk was what doomed a policeman’s case in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The case is helpful for Tennessee employers in assessing how to deal with employees who are potential risks.

The employee in the case, Todd Michael, had been a policeman with the City of Troy, Michigan, for two decades when others around him began noticing instances of odd behavior. The police chief began an investigation of Michael. The chief eventually suspended the investigation in 2009 when Michael informed the chief that he needed brain surgery.

Due to the aberrant behavior, the department required Michael to pass a psychological evaluation before he could return to work. The patrolman saw a series of doctors, some of whom pronounced him fit for duty, but several others said he was not. The patrolman sought out a neuropsychology professor from the University of Michigan for an evaluation. That doctor concluded that Michael’s functioning was such that a job involving the use of weapons and high-speed driving posed real safety risks.

Even though Michael did not give the department the report of the university doctor’s findings, the employer kept him on unpaid leave anyway, based in large part upon the other negative evaluations. The patrolman sued the city, alleging that the employer committed disability discrimination by refusing to allow him to return to work. The city asked the trial court to award it summary judgment and won.

The patrolman appealed but to no avail. To have a successful disability discrimination case, the employee must show that he is a “qualified individual” and that his employer discriminated against him based upon his disability. The law considers qualified individuals to be people who, with or without reasonable accommodations, can perform the essential duties of their jobs. The law, however, creates a specific exception that defines as “not qualified” any employee who “poses a ‘direct threat’ to the health or safety of others which cannot be eliminated by a reasonable accommodation.”

How does an employer decide if an employee represents a “direct threat?” The court explained that the employer must act in an objectively reasonable manner in making that assessment. Relying upon an objectively reasonable medical professional’s opinion meets this requirement. Even if the doctor’s opinion upon which the employer relies conflicts with other doctors’ opinions, that does not necessarily mean that the opinion is unreasonable for deciding if the employer is in compliance with the ADA.

Additionally, the court pointed out that employers can still be considered to be acting in an objectively reasonable manner even if they have no doctors’ opinions at all. In some situations, testimonial evidence is all an employer may need to support its case that the employee represented a health or safety risk to himself or others. In Michael’s case, the police department had both types of evidence. The employer had two objectively reasonable doctors who declared the patrolman a risk, and it also had the “aberrant behavior” that department employees had witnessed directly.

For knowledgeable answers to your ADA questions, rely on the skill and experience of the Tennessee employment discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Whether you are an employee or an employer, they are here to help you deal with your disability discrimination issues.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Eleventh Circuit Rejects Employee’s Disability Discrimination Case Due to Proposed Accommodation’s Lack of Reasonableness, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Oct. 6, 2015

Employer Not Required to Offer Telecommuting Accommodation to Employee Who Could Not Perform Job’s Essential Functions, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Sept. 9, 2015

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