Friday, April 8, 2016

Chicago Fire Department Defeats Firefighters’ ADA Lawsuit

Recently, in Roberts and Hill v. City of Chicago, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ federal employment claims. Plaintiffs Steven Hill and Sean Roberts filed suit in federal court against the City of Chicago alleging discrimination in employment under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA prohibits discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures and hiring.  

Plaintiffs are two African-American men who applied for firefighter positions with the Chicago Fire Department.  Plaintiffs were both members of a class action lawsuit (Lewis v. City of Chicago) brought by African-American applicants who were denied employment based on their examination scores. The class action contended that the City’s hiring process had an unjustified adverse impact on African-American applicants resulting in an order that the Chicago Fire Department (“CFD”) hire the first 111 class members to complete (and pass) the court-mandated hiring process which included a background investigation, physical abilities test, drug and medical examination. The class action order imposed strict deadlines for this process and set a firm start date of March 16, 2012 for firefighter candidate training, a fact both plaintiffs were aware of.

On February 23, 2012, plaintiffs Hill and Roberts received notice of offers of employment conditioned on their passing a medical screening.  On February 24, 2012, the City conducted a medical examination of Hill  and based on the results informed him he would need to undergo more testing and to submit additional documentation related to his past problems with a hernia and kidney stones. Hill fully complied with the City’s requests by March 16, 2012. Despite finding Hill medically qualified for the position, he was never hired.  Similarly, on February 27, 2012, Roberts submitted to a medical examination but failed a pulmonary function test. The City asked Roberts to provide further medical documentation and blood work by March 15.  Roberts did as instructed, but the City never contacted Roberts and never hired him.

Plaintiffs Hill and Roberts filed charges of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). The EEOC issued plaintiffs right-to-sue letters and plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit  alleging that the City discriminated against Roberts on the basis of bronchitis and against Hill on the basis of his asthma and past problems with a hernia and kidney stones. 

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ complaint because it did not sufficiently allege that plaintiffs were not hired because of their actual or perceived disabilities. In order for the plaintiffs to state claims under the ADA, they must demonstrate that the City discriminated against them “on the basis of disability.”  In other words, plaintiffs were required to show that the City would have hired them “but for” their disability. 

After reviewing the evidence, the Seventh Circuit found that the plaintiffs failed to allege sufficient facts of discrimination although it noted that plaintiffs’ disabilities disadvantaged them in the “first-come first serve hiring process” ordered by the class action court because their medical issues delayed their medical clearance.  However, to prove their case, the plaintiffs must show that they were not hired because of their disabilities, not because of a delay in medical clearance even if that delay was caused by their disabilities.  In addition, plaintiffs could not allege that the medical requests themselves violated the ADA as the law permits an employer to condition an offer of employment on the results of a medical examination if all entering employees in the same job category are subjected to such an examination or inquiry regardless of disability.