Reasonable Accommodation And A Corrections Lieutenant’s Job

Written on 12/10/2022

Larry Tate has worked for the Sheriff of Cook County, Illinois, in the Department of Corrections since 2007. In his third year as a correctional officer, Tate suffered a back injury. He returned to work under medical restrictions that required him to “avoid situations in which there is a significant chance of violence or conflict.” After Tate was promoted to sergeant, the Sheriff’s De­partment agreed to accommodate this medical restriction by allowing him to work in the Classification Unit, where the possibility of violence or physical conflict was relatively remote.

But when Tate sought a promotion to lieutenant, he was told that the Department could not accommodate him in that position. Correctional lieutenants had to be “able to manage and defuse regular, violent situations involving inmates.” Since Tate’s medi­cal restrictions would prevent him from performing this essential function, the Sheriff’s Department decided he would remain a sergeant.

Tate sued for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act. When Tate lost at the trial court level, he ap­pealed to the federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court upheld the dismissal of Tate’s claims.

The case turned on whether the ADA required the Sheriff’s Department to provide Tate with a reasonable ac­commodation that would not include physically responding to emergencies. The Court noted that “whether re­sponding to violent emergencies is an essential function of the lieutenant position is a factual question, not a question of law. The employer’s judg­ment is a factor, and an important one, but it is not necessarily decisive. Our cases have often noted that some degree of deference is appropriate, but an employer’s stated judgments about which functions are essential may or may not be consistent with the job as actually performed, or perhaps even as set forth in written job descriptions. Careful attention to other evidentiary factors can counter the employer’s judgment.

“The job description here supports finding that responding physically to violent emergencies is an essential function of the lieutenant position. According to the description, a ‘Lieu­tenant ensures the safety and security of inmates, staff, and citizens through the enforcement of proper detention policies and procedures.’ And ‘Key Responsibilities and Duties’ include overseeing the receipt, care, and re­lease of inmates and their belongings, enforcing Cook County Department of Corrections policies and procedures, defusing and controlling disruptive behavior by appropriate verbal orders and/or appropriate use of physical force, and responding to emergency situations such as medical, fire, and security.’

“The special feature of this case is the role of correctional lieutenants in responding to emergencies, including those involving inmate violence. The crux of Tate’s argument is that respond­ing to violent emergencies is not an essential function for all correctional lieutenants because some assignments only rarely require the use of physical force. Tate argues that there is less need to respond to violent emergencies as a lieutenant because, as he sees it, ‘the higher up in rank that you go, the less inmate contact that you’ have. Retired lieutenants corroborated this view. Correctional jobs become less physical as one moves up in the chain of command. And some lieutenants have rarely, if ever, needed to respond with physical force to counter inmate violence.

“The relative frequency with which a lieutenant is required to use physical force depends in part on a lieutenant’s particular assignment. If the essential-function inquiry were about probabilities, Tate would have a stronger argument. Yet we cannot lose sight of the need for emergency responses in law enforcement and pub­lic safety agencies like the Department of Corrections. Many police officers never discharge their service weapons in the line of duty, but that does not mean that weapons proficiency for all is optional. Or similarly, as we have noted, while a firefighter may not often have to carry an unconscious adult from a burning building, failing to require that he ably perform this function when called upon would run counter to his duty to public safety.

“Under the ADA regulation on essential functions, we also examine the impact of not requiring the employee to perform the function. Here, the consequences of not requiring Tate to respond with physical force in violent emergencies could be innocuous, but they could also be grave.

“Considering all the evidence on all the relevant factors, we agree with the district court that even though violent workplace emergencies might be infrequent, the undisputed facts show that the ability to respond to violent emergencies is an essential function for correctional lieutenants. Although the Department may choose to accommodate a disability like Tate’s, the ADA does not require it to excuse Tate from the requirement that he be able to respond physically to violent emergencies.”

Tate v. Dart, 2022 WL 14229458 (7th Cir. 2022).

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