If an employee gets a doctor’s note saying she can’t participate in training because of a physical limitation, does that make her disabled? It might if you treat her like she is—at least that is what the Eleventh Circuit ruled last month in Lewis v. Union City, Georgia when it reversed summary judgment in favor of the Union City Police Department (UCPD) on claims of race, gender and disability discrimination.

The Facts

Detective Jacqueline Lewis, an African-American female, was scheduled for taser training. She brought a doctor’s note stating that due to a past mild heart attack, she should not participate in training that included officers receiving a five-second shock. Her employer, UCPD, put Lewis on indefinite unpaid leave until her doctor released her for duty. During the ensuing 21 days, Lewis said she attempted to get an accommodation and also tried to get information from her doctor to the department. However, on the 21st day, the UCPD terminated Lewis claiming that she had exhausted her accrued leave and had failed to turn in any FMLA paperwork.

Lewis filed suit alleging disability, race and gender discrimination. In support of her race and gender claims, she pointed to two white male officers who were put on administrative leave after failing physical fitness tests, but then were given 90-day and 449-day leave periods before being terminated.

The district court dismissed Lewis’s disability claim on the basis that she had not shown she was a “qualified individual” under the ADA and dismissed her Title VII claim on the basis that the white male comparators were not similarly situated. The court also noted that the detective position would put her in proximity to Tasers and therefore she could not be accommodated. Ms. Lewis appealed.

Eleventh Circuit Opinion

The Eleventh Circuit first looked at the basic case required under the ADA. They agreed with the lower court that Lewis’s mild heart condition did not substantially limit a major life activity, so she wasn’t disabled. However, the court did find that the UCPD’s putting her on administrative leave until she got a letter from her doctor showed that she was “regarded as” having a disability, which also meets the ADA standard. With regard to the qualified individual prong of her ADA case, the Eleventh Circuit did not agree with UCPD’s claim that she could not perform the essential function of the detective job solely because she might be exposed to a Taser shock. The court pointed out that the written job description did not mention anywhere that it was necessary for a detective to be exposed to a Taser shock. As such, the issue of whether it was an essential function of the job should be left to a jury.

The Eleventh Circuit also addressed UCPD’s claim that under Title VII, the two white male officers were not proper comparators because they failed physical tests while Lewis failed weapons training. On this issue, the court found that it was a much closer call but noted that both the weapons training and physical tests were essential functions of the job. At best, this created an issue of fact about whether the men were proper comparators and therefore summary judgment was not proper. Regardless, the court went on to state that there was enough circumstantial evidence of discrimination surrounding Lewis’s termination (placed on involuntary leave after notifying them of a medical condition, using exhaustion of that involuntary and indefinite leave as the reason for termination, etc.) that summary judgment should not have been granted.

What Did We Learn?

This opinion touches on numerous issues:

  • First, it re-emphasizes that an employer can get itself into trouble simply by treating someone as if they are disabled, even if the facts later show that the alleged disability was not enough to impact a major life function.
  • Second, it shows (again) how important accurate and extensive job descriptions are in ADA cases. Job descriptions should constantly be reviewed and revised, if necessary.
  • Finally, it points out that it may look bad to put someone on unpaid indefinite administrative leave over their objection and then later use their failure to show back up to work as a reason to fire them.