Court refuses to Dismiss Pittsburgh Lieutenant’s Epilepsy Disability Suit

A Pittsburgh fire lieutenant who sued under the Americans With Disabilities Act because he was placed on restricted duties due to concerns about his epilepsy, will have his day in court as a US District Magistrate Judge has refused the city’s request to dismiss the suit.

Lieutenant Robert Mahouski has a history of seizures and has been diagnosed with Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy. From the decision written by Magistrate Judge Maureen P. Kelly:

  • On May 12, 2016, while responding to a call, Plaintiff slipped and fell down some stairs and suffered a head injury.
  • The City incorrectly assumed that Plaintiff had an epileptic seizure during this incident. Plaintiff’s neurologist released him to return to work without restrictions on July 7, 2016. The City refused to clear Plaintiff for full firefighting duties and placed him on alternative duties.
  • As a result, Plaintiff was not allowed to teach at the training academy or to work overtime in his full position.
  • The City refused to return Plaintiff to his full-time position because of his disability for the period of July 7, 2016, to April 16, 2018..
  • As a result, Plaintiff suffered a significant loss of pay. The City reinstated Plaintiff to his full-duty fire-fighting position on April 16, 2018.

Lt. Mahouski filed suit alleging a violation of the ADA. The city sought to dismiss the case on two grounds, namely: (1) Lt. Mahouski’s condition failed to qualify him as having a disability under the ADA because it did not substantially limit major life activity; and (2) that he was not “otherwise qualified” to perform the duties of a firefighter because epilepsy posed a “direct threat” to his own safety and the safety of others.

In the court’s words:

  • In order to bring a claim of disability discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must establish “(1) he is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA; (2) he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and (3) he has suffered an otherwise adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination.”
  • In the ADA, “disability” is defined as “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of [an] individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment ….”
  • For purposes of defining disability … major life activities “include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.”
  • “[A] major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to … neurological … functions.”

Magistrate Kelly concluded that Lt. Mahouski had adequately alleged a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities, which if proven could be the basis for a finding that he was either disabled or perceived as being disabled. She also concluded that it was premature to rule on the direct threat issue, acknowledging that the burden of proof would be on the fire department.

Here is a copy of the ruling: Mahouski v. City of Pittsburgh 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1

Note: I get asked about epilepsy and firefighting on a regular basis, so it is a concern of many in the fire service. For those interested in this issue, the Mahouski case would be a good place to start. Here is another from a few years ago.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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