Las Vegas POA

Corrections Officer Terminated For Dishonesty, Not Disability

Written on 01/06/2021
Will Aitchison

Brad Sandefur was a corrections officer for the Sheriff of Cook County, Illinois. He suffers from disk desiccation in his spine and osteoarthritis in his knees. Both conditions can cause intermittent pain for weeks at a time.

In 2011, Sandefur applied for and received a handicapped parking placard from the Illinois Secretary of State. His application identified his qualifying disability as osteoarthritis or a “knee condition.” The application asserted that he could not walk without using an assistive device such as a cane or walker or receiving help from another person, and that the impairment was permanent.

In 2015, at age 55, Sandefur applied for and was accepted to the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Academy, which offered a path for him to move from corrections officer to a job as a police officer. On the first day of training, an instructor noticed the handicapped parking placard hanging from the rearview mirror of Sandefur’s car. When the instructor asked about the placard, Sandefur said it was there for his wife.

When a second officer asked about the placard, Sandefur said that it was his wife’s but that he also used it. Wanting to confirm that Sandefur was medically cleared to participate in the Academy’s physical training, Academy officials met with Sandefur. He explained that his doctor had approved the placard because of his osteoarthritis but that he was not requesting any accommodations in the Academy course.

In the face of Sandefur’s inconsistent explanations, the Sheriff’s Office eventually opened a formal investigation into his acquisition and use of the placard. Sandefur’s explanations did not improve or become more consistent. For example, Sandefur said that he believed his initial placard application had been authorized for the wrong condition and admitted that he had used his placard for years based on convenience rather than medical necessity.

When the Department terminated Sandefur, he filed a federal court lawsuit alleging that he was terminated for his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that the Department also violated the ADA by seeking medical information from both he and his physician. The federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of Sandefur’s claims.

The Court began with the proposition that “the ADA limits the ability of covered employers to investigate the health of their employees or to test their physical fitness. These provisions of the ADA strike a balance. On one hand, the law protects employees with disabilities from being screened out of jobs they could perform with or without reasonable accommodations. On the other hand, many jobs are physically demanding, and employers are entitled to evaluate whether applicants for those jobs are physically capable of performing them. The key point is that such tests and requirements must be job-related and ‘consistent with business necessity.’

“Police officers hold jobs with relatively high physical demands, at least for many job categories and classifications. It is difficult for us to imagine, for example, how a person who cannot walk without assistance could perform the essential functions of a patrol officer. Many employers might have little or no business investigating an employee’s or applicant’s use of a handicapped parking placard, but a police force would seem to have good reason to raise the questions that the Sheriff’s Office raised here about Sandefur’s ability to meet the physical demands of the Academy and working as a police officer.

“Turning to the core claim of discrimination, we agree with the district court that Sandefur failed to offer evidence that would support a finding that he was removed from the Academy because of his disability, real or perceived. Given Sandefur’s conflicting statements, arguments, and justifications for his handicapped parking placard, as well as the nature of the work he was seeking and the importance that a police officer be honest and obey the law, it was only natural, and not a violation of the ADA, for the Sheriff’s Office to seek further information and clarification.

“We stress that our analysis depends on the fact that Sandefur was seeking a law enforcement job with demands for both physical fitness and integrity. Each Academy recruit must satisfy physical fitness requirements to become a police officer. These requirements help to safeguard officers themselves, their colleagues, and the general public. Second, a law enforcement employer has a strong interest in ensuring that its employees obey the laws that they are responsible for enforcing.

“In Sandefur’s case, these two concerns, physical fitness and integrity, are both present. So while most employers would be well-advised to look at the ADA before investigating an employee’s use of a handicapped parking placard, Sandefur has not offered evidence that would allow a jury to find that the Sheriff’s Office’s investigation violated the ADA. The undisputed facts show that Sandefur failed to provide a consistent account of his reasons for having and using a handicapped parking placard.”

Sandefur v. Dart, 2020 WL 6481677 (7th Cir. 2020).

The post Corrections Officer Terminated For Dishonesty, Not Disability appeared first on Labor Relations Information System.