Court: Officer’s Fitness for Duty Exam OK With ADA

August 3, 2010

The city of Yakima, Wash., did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act when it required a police officer to take a “fitness for duty” exam (FFDE) before returning to work.

According to court documents in Brownfield v. City of Yakima, Oscar J. Brownfield began working as a police officer for the Yakima Police Department in November 1999. About a year later, he suffered a closed head injury in an off-duty car accident. He recovered from the injury but had “reduced self-awareness” and returned to duty in July 2001. Although he received positive performance evaluations and several commendations over the next three years, in 2004 Brownfield got into a heated discussion with his community partner, as well as “disruptive” arguments with other officers and his estranged wife. Based on those four incidents, and Brownfield was placed on administrative leave and forced to undergo a FFDE.

A doctor diagnosed Brownfield as “suffering from ‘mood disorder due to a general medical condition with mixed features,’ which manifested itself in ‘poor judgment, emotional volatility and irritability,'” which could be related to his 2000 head injury. The doctor concluded that Brownfield was unfit for police duty and that his disability was permanent. He was transferred from administrative leave to FMLA leave.

Then in 2005, Brownfield suffered another off-duty car accident in which he suffered minor back and neck injuries. His primary care physician later signed a release form saying he could perform the physical activities described in the job analysis. The PCP did not address Brownfield’s mental health qualifications.

The city of Yakima then held pre-termination hearings and scheduled an exam with another doctor for a FFDE, which Brownfield refused to attend. Based on his lack of cooperation, the city determined he was insubordinate and unfit for duty. He was terminated in April 2007.

In 2008, Brownfield filed a lawsuit against the city alleging violations of the ADA and FMLA, First Amendment retaliation and related state law claims.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city and dismissed Brownfield’s claims. Brownfield appealed.

And the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the city did not violate Brownfield’s rights under the ADA by requiring a FFDE after he repeatedly exhibited emotionally volatile behavior, and said his FMLA claim lacked merit.

“We agree with the district court that the city had an objective, legitimate basis to doubt Brownfield’s ability to perform the duties of a police office,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Undisputed facts show that Brownfield exhibited highly emotional responses on numerous occasions in 2005, four occurring in a single month … Police officers are likely to encounter extremely stressful and dangerous situations during the course of their work. When a police department has good reason to doubt an officer’s ability to respond to these situations in an appropriate manner, an FFDE is consistent with the ADA.”

And although Brownfield argued that the district court erred in dismissing his FMLA claim because his PCP had certified him to return from FMLA leave, the Court of Appeals said Brownfield’s retaliation claim lacked merit.

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