ANSWER: A DEMOTION AND REDUCTION IN PAY CAN BE A “REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION” UNDER THE AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT!
A deputy needs her shooting hand!
Brigid Ford was a deputy in the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. She started as a deputy sometime around the year 2000. In 2008 she began working as a sworn deputy sheriff locating and arresting people with outstanding warrants. Brigid A. Ford v. Marion County Sheriff’s Office, No. 18-3217 (7th Cir. Ct. App., November 15, 2019).
In 2012, while on duty, Deputy Ford’s patrol vehicle was hit by a car that ran a red light. “The crash severely injured Ford’s dominant right hand.” She has never regained full use of her right hand.
The long arm of the law needs a good hand for making arrests!
After the accident, Deputy Ford was placed at various light duty assignments for about a year. Although she underwent extensive treatment, the condition of her hand made it physically impossible for her to resume her work as a sworn patrol deputy.
The Director for Human Resources for the Sheriff’s Office and the Chief Deputy met with Deputy Ford and presented her with three choices concerning her future with the Sheriff’s Department. Deputy Ford was told that she could either accept a civilian clerk position in the office at lower pay, or resign, or be fired. Deputy Ford sent the Director of Human Resources an email requesting accommodation of her disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. She said that she wanted to continue work and thought she could do so as a clerk in the Main Control office with reasonable accommodations for her disabilities.
Deputy Ford felt she couldn’t do the clerk’s job without accommodations, so she observed other civilian positions and found other possible jobs that would accommodate her disability. She ultimately accepted a job in the jail visitation department that paid less than her job as a patrol deputy serving warrants.
Eventually, Ms. Ford sued over the demotion for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. She alleged that she was the subject of disability-based harassment by co-workers. She also alleged the Sheriff’s Office had refused to accommodate her scheduling needs and discriminated against her in denying promotions.
Handcuffed by a demotion as a reasonable accommodation for a disability?
Ms. Ford said that the demotion to jail visitation clerk and the cut in pay violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Everyone agreed, however, that she could no longer serve as a sheriff’s deputy.
The court stated: “A demotion can be a reasonable accommodation when the employer cannot accommodate the disabled employee in her current or prior jobs or an equivalent position.”
Ms. Ford clearly did not like the visitation clerk job. But the court stated: “It is well-established that an employer is obligated to provide a qualified individual with a reasonable accommodation, not the accommodation he would prefer.”
Detained in a hostile work environment?
Ms. Ford complained about several of her co-workers. Some of her written and e-mail complaints claimed that her co-workers were harassing her based upon her disability. The court thought that most of the alleged conduct by the co-workers was not “sufficiently severe or pervasive to have altered the conditions of her employment such that it created an abusive working environment.”
In addition, prompt and appropriate corrective action by the employer can defeat a hostile work environment claim. The three co-workers about whom Ms. Ford complained the most were all transferred to other positions where they would not interact with Ms. Ford.
Arrested by failures to promote?
Ms. Ford submitted four applications for promotion in less than a year. To prove a claim for discrimination in failing to promote, Ms. Ford needed to show: “(1) she belongs to a protected class, (2) she applied for and was qualified for the position sought, (3) she was rejected for that position, and (4) the employer granted the promotion to someone outside of the protected group that was not better qualified than the plaintiff.” Using these standards, Ms. Ford was required to compare herself to successful applicants for each job. She failed to show she was more qualified and the court said “Ford’s purported evidence of discrimination is irrelevant under these standards.”
By the time the case went to trial, Ms. Ford had obtained a transfer to the Sex and Violent Offender Registry Unit in the Sheriff’s Office. (Whether or not that was a promotion was not addressed by the court.)
Punishing rotating schedule instead of a fixed schedule?
The same day that the Sheriff’s Office replaced two of the co-workers that Ms. Ford complained about, it switched her from a fixed to a rotating schedule. She stated that she needed to stay on a fixed schedule because the rotating schedule “exacerbated her complex regional pain syndrome.” The Human Resources Department refused the request to return to a fixed schedule. The jury agreed that Ms. Ford did not prove that she needed the accommodation of a fixed work schedule.
Tips for dealing with difficult employees.
From at least the time of her accident, Ms. Ford seems to have been a chronic complainer about almost everything associated with her job. When such complaints are couched in terms of alleged discrimination, employers need to tread carefully.
The Sheriff’s Office was very patient and followed appropriate processes and procedures. Most importantly, the Sheriff’s Department seems to have carefully documented all of its discussions about reasonable accommodations for Ms. Ford. Carefully documenting that all of the laws and rules were followed is key to an employer prevailing against such claims of discrimination.
Let me know if you need assistance in drafting, adopting, or applying proper employment policies and practices.
Michael R. King Gammage & Burnham, Attorneys at Law