Employment Law, Municipal Liability, Publications

Vehicle Legroom Accommodation Dispute Ends with Appellate Court Affirming In Favor of Employer

September 5, 2018

Employers face a constant struggle to assess and accommodate employees with temporary or long-term health conditions.  In this case, the Seventh Circuit Appellate Court affirmed a district court’s decision granting the defendant-employer's motion for summary judgment in plaintiff-employee's Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation claim. The plaintiff alleged that defendant improperly failed to grant his request to accommodate pain in his hip by assigning him to a SUV squad car, and that defendant retaliated against him by reassigning him to courthouse duty because he subsequently filed an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) complaint.

Overview: For two months, plaintiff requested an SUV police vehicle, including with his request a letter from his physician stating that, “if available…a squad car with more legroom, like an SUV, would be preferable.” The request for a vehicle with more legroom was made to alleviate plaintiff’s hip pain.  In response, employees of the Sheriff’s Department measured the legroom in plaintiff’s current squad car, a Crown Victoria, and in an SUV owned by the Department. The Department determined the SUV offered no additional legroom (though plaintiff contends the wrong measurements were considered) and denied plaintiff’s requests. A few months later, plaintiff submitted another request for the SUV and another letter from his physician.  The letter stated that plaintiff was otherwise able to fulfill his job requirements.  The request and letter were accompanied by an EEOC complaint alleging discrimination under the ADA. The next day, plaintiff was reassigned to courthouse duty, which required no time in a squad car.  Eventually, plaintiff had hip surgery and returned to courthouse duty after the operation.  He applied for and was granted a transfer back to the law enforcement unit and ultimately was assigned to his original day-time shift.  Plaintiff sued, alleging the Department failed to provide reasonable accommodations pursuant to the ADA. He also claimed the Department retaliated against him for filing the EEOC complaint.

Outcome: The Appellate Court ruled in favor of the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s accommodation claim.  The Appellate Court found that plaintiff's hip condition did not qualify as a claim under the ADA because his disability did not affect a major life activity. The Appellate Court also ruled in favor of the lower court’s granting summary judgment in favor of defendants on plaintiff’s retaliation claim. Their ruling was based on three issues: (1) lateral transfer to courthouse duties did not constitute significant alteration of plaintiff's police duties; (2) plaintiff conceded that transfer was motivated by defendant's desire to accommodate plaintiff's hip pain; and (3) plaintiff failed to present evidence that proffered reason for transfer was pretext for unlawful retaliation. Moreover, defendant's temporary removal of plaintiff from active special operations duty and temporary assignment to third-shift were not material adverse acts that would support retaliation claim.

For more information on this case, click here.

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