Doctor’s Note Requirement Does Not Necessarily Trigger Discrimination Claim

Written on 07/09/2022
Will Aitchison

Jason Cooling is a police officer in the City of Torrington, Connecticut. In February of 2004, Cooling joined the United States Marine Corps. In 2006 and 2011, Cooling served in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. As a result of those military tours of duty, Cooling suffered multiple disabling injuries including PTSD.

On January 18, 2017, the City began an internal investigation into Cooling’s excessive absenteeism as a result of his use of sick leave. As part of the inves­tigation, Cooling was directed to write a memo regarding his use of sick time. In the memo dated February 4, 2017, Cooling detailed that he was suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and chronic migraines. He cited these disabil­ities as the reasons for requiring the use of his contractually allowed sick time.

This was the first time the City was made aware of Cooling’s disabilities. On February 15, 2017, Cooling received a written reprimand from the City and was found to have engaged in conduct unbecoming a police officer. The inves­tigation found that Cooling used sick time in close proximity to other paid time off on more than three occasions in direct violation of Section 15 of Article V of the agreement between City of Torrington, Connecticut and Torrington Police Union Local 442. The City placed Cooling on sick leave probation in accor­dance with the contract, a requirement that obligated Cooling to produce a doctor’s note justifying each use of sick leave in conjunction with his days off.

On March 8, 2017, Cooling’s psy­chiatrist wrote a letter to the City stating that Cooling was being treated for anxiety and depression and that he was receiving prescription medication and supportive therapy. The psychiatrist opined that Cooling was stable and capable to func­tion properly as a police officer with the help and support of his family. The psy­chiatrist specifically recommended that “in order to continue with the proper daily function it would be recommended that Cooling have regular daily shift schedule and/or no weekends as increased time spent with his family would go a long way for his ongoing stability.”

Meetings resulted, but little changed except that the City finally reprimanded Cooling for his excessive sick leave use. Cooling eventually resigned to take a job as an Emergency Management Specialist with the Yale New Haven Health System. Cooling then sued, claiming the City violated Connecticut’s law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability.

The core issue for the Court was whether Colling has suffered the nec­essary “adverse employment action” necessary to trigger the applicability of the disability discrimination law. A court found that he had not.

The Court wrote that “a plaintiff sustains an adverse employment action if he or she endures a materially adverse change in the terms and conditions of employment. To be materially ad­verse, a change in working conditions must be more disruptive than a mere inconvenience or an alteration of job responsibilities. An adverse employment action has been defined as a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, re­assignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.

“The City has presented undisputed evidence that the investigation, resulting in a written reprimand and sick time probation, did not result in a materially adverse change in working conditions for Cooling. The sick leave probation did not result in a change in benefits, loss of promotion, nor did it result in a significant alteration in Cooling’s responsibilities. In fact, Cooling testified in his deposition that he continued to use sick time after the six-month probation was put in effect.

“The only change was that he needed to procure a doctor’s note if he used sick time in conjunction to a scheduled day off. The reprimands and admonishments alleged by Cooling, in the absence of evidence showing that he was terminated, demoted or given diminished responsibilities, or that he suffered a decrease in salary or material loss in benefits, do not constitute an adverse employment action.”

The Court ended up dismissing all of Cooling’s disability discrimination claims.

Cooling v. City of Torrington, 2022 WL 1051372 (Conn. 2022).

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