By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.
Two African-American applicants for firefighter positions who renewed their applications as the result of a court order in a race bias case but were ultimately not hired could not revive their disability bias lawsuit on appeal to the Seventh Circuit. Although the applicants’ delays in achieving required medical certification were related to their disabilities—asthma, hernia and kidney stone surgery, and bronchitis—it was the delay, and not the disabilities themselves, that caused them not to be hired. The appeals court affirmed the judgment of the district court (Roberts v. City of Chicago,
March 31, 2016, Flaum, J.).
First-come, first-served process.
In 1995 the two applicants applied for firefighter positions and were not hired because of their scores on the required examination. A class action lawsuit resulted in a 2011 order requiring the city, based ultimately on who completed all of the pre-hire requirements first, to hire over 100 class members who had been denied employment because of their examination scores. The applicants were among the group who were notified that they would be considered for a position and advised that the needed to complete a background check, a physical abilities test, and a drug screening. They were told later they also needed to pass a medical screening.
Medical screening delays.
Both applicants had problems during the medical screening. One had abnormal numbers and was asked to provide a release from his doctors for an earlier hernia surgery and kidney stone removal. He submitted the documents and was told he would need to undergo additional testing and submit additional documentation. He provided the last bit of documentation on the same date as the start of firefighter candidate training. Although assured that he was "still in the running," he was never hired. The second applicant, who suffers from bronchitis, failed the pulmonary functions test and was asked to provide further medical documentation and undergo additional blood work. He did so but was never contacted or hired.
Both applicants filed administrative charges and later filed suit alleging that the city discriminated against them based on their various medical conditions. The city moved to dismiss the complaint and the district court granted the motion, holding that the applicants failed to state a plausible claim for relief because the applicants had not alleged that they were not hired because of their actual or perceived disabilities. The applicants appealed.
Causation is the problem.
The appeals court agreed that the applicants' allegations did not plausibly state that the city discriminated against them because of their disabilities. Although the applicants acknowledged that the city could require some medical testing, they argued that it could not be designed in such a way as to create an "obstacle course" for individuals with disabilities. Indeed, the appeals court agreed that the applicants' disabilities had "disadvantaged them" with regards to the "first-come-first-serve hiring process" ordered as a result of the race discrimination lawsuit. However, the court explained, to prove causation they had to show that they were not hired because of their disabilities, rather than the delay in their medical clearance.
Prior decisions illustrated this distinction.
For example, in one of the court's earlier decisions, Matthews v. Commonwealth Edison Co
., the court had considered the claim of an employee discharged based on a performance rating that was lower than normal because of a heart attack that had resulted in him working only part time. The court concluded that although he would not have received such a rating but for his heart attack, there was still no evidence that he had been laid off because he was disabled. This case, the court explained, was "indistinguishable" from the earlier one. The applicants alleged that they were not hired because of the medical requests, which were "a consequence
of their disabilities." That was insufficient to support causation, the court concluded. Although the applicants might have been able to argue that the requests were a pretext for intentional discrimination, they had not attempted to do so.
Requests were not violation.
They also did not "plausibly allege" that the requests themselves were a violation. The ADA allows an employer to condition offers of employment on medical examination results as long as it is applied to all entering workers. In that situation, the medical examination does not need to be job-related. Even if the medical clearance requests were "unreasonable" as the applicants contended, and even if applicants with disabilities were not given adequate time for compliance, the statute still would not have been violated.
Moreover, to the extent that the applicants' allegations resembled a disparate impact claim the court found that their complaint failed to state a plausible claim. No facts were alleged that tended to show that the process used by the employee had caused a relevant and significant disparity between those applicants who were disabled and those who were not. The judgment of the district court was affirmed.