ADA v ADAAA: Firefighter loses discrimination claim

Plenty of people in Wisconsin have a disability but are still able to work. The Americans with Disabilities Act serves to protect citizens with disabilities from discrimination. Amendments to the act were passed in 2009 to offer even broader protections.

Still, courts sometimes struggle with lawsuits that involve the ADA and ADAAA. Before a court can decide if a plaintiff has experienced discrimination, it must make a determination about the types of disabilities that were previously protected under the act and additional disabilities that are now protected under the amended act.

For instance, a firefighter who had previously suffered a knee injury and was confined to light duty sued the fire department because he was denied a promotion to fire district chief. He knew he had scored second out of all of the other firefighters applying for the position. After being passed over for the job several times, he finally retired on disability and proceeded to sue the city.

The federal trial court ruled against the firefighter. At the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal, two of the three judges on the panel decided that the plaintiff was not covered under the ADA. They felt that although he had a medical issue, the firefighter had also been able to work light duty in a number of different areas. Therefore, he was not restricted in a major life activity, which was the criterion when the act was first passed.

The court also considered whether the department chief had discriminated against this firefighter in particular. Again, the court split and ruled against the firefighter.

It is possible that the decision would have gone the other way if the court had used the criteria of the amended act. The dissenting judge said there was plenty of evidence pointing to bias; it was clear to that judge that the chief believed the firefighter would not be able to his job after the surgery, even if his doctor cleared him.

Source: HR.BLR.com, “ADA regulations: Was firefighter less qualified?” Aug. 10, 2012

Our firm handles similar situations to the one discussed in this post. If you would like to learn more about our practice, please visit our Milwaukee disability discrimination page.

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