Houston Captain Loses Fear Disability Claim

A Houston fire captain whose fear prevented him from entering structure fires has lost his bid to claim the city discriminated against him. Captain Shayn Proler claimed that fire officials wrongfully transferred him to a training assignment in 2004 and 2006, and then refused to return him to a suppression unit because of his disability.

The condition, which was formally diagnosed as “global transient amnesia”, causes a person to have a sudden temporary memory loss and an inability to mentally function normally. [Note: we call it vapor-lock]

Captain Proler challenged the city’s refusal to return him to a line position, and a hearing officer agreed. The city appealed to District Court, prompting Captain Proler to counterclaim under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Texas Labor Code alleging discrimination on the basis of his disability.

A jury agreed with Captain Proler awarding him $362,000 in attorneys fees and enjoining the city from any further acts of discrimination. The Texas Court of Appeals partially reversed and the case was then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

In an opinion notable for a series of colorful analogies and one-liners, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city finding that there was not a “scintilla” of evidence on which a jury could have found that Captain Proler was disabled.

The language of the ruling is worth reviewing, so here are the highlights in the court’s own words:

  • Proler testified that, in 2004, a fellow firefighter complained that Proler would not enter a burning apartment building. Proler disputed this accusation. He was reassigned to the firefighter training academy. He objected to the reassignment and was eventually transferred back to a fire suppression crew.
  • In March 2006, Proler arrived at a house fire and was unable to put on his firefighting gear. He was unable to take orders and had difficulty walking. Someone escorted him to a house next door and sat him down on a bucket. He went to a hospital and was diagnosed with “global transient amnesia.”
  • [A]n assistant chief again assigned Proler to the training academy.
  • Proler filed an administrative grievance seeking reassignment to a fire suppression unit. On administrative appeal, a hearing examiner sided with Proler, who was reassigned to fire suppression. The City appealed this decision to the trial court…
  • Proler counterclaimed for disability discrimination under federal and state law.
  • The jury found that the City had discriminated against Proler in reassigning him to the training academy after the March 2006 incident but awarded no damages. The trial court rendered a judgment in favor of Proler that enjoined the City from further acts of discrimination and awarded Proler attorney fees of approximately $362,000, together with costs. The court of appeals reversed [in part].
  • At the outset, we note that the law prohibiting disability discrimination does not protect every person who desires employment but lacks the skills required to adequately perform the particular job. Lacking the required mental, physical, or experiential skill set is not necessarily a disability. Were the law otherwise, any person who, for instance, wishes to be a ballerina or professional basketball player could routinely sue for disability discrimination if the Bolshoi or the San Antonio Spurs declined employment.
  • In reviewing the legal sufficiency of the evidence, the test “must always be whether the evidence at trial would enable reasonable and fair-minded people to reach the verdict under review.” A challenge to legal sufficiency will be sustained if the evidence offered to establish a vital fact does not exceed a scintilla. Evidence does not exceed a scintilla if it is “so weak as to do no more than create a mere surmise or suspicion” or “so slight as to make any inference a guess.”
  • There is no evidence from which a reasonable and fair-minded jury could conclude that Proler was disabled.
  • The jury heard evidence of two incidents where Proler was allegedly unable to provide useful help to his firefighting team during actual fires at two residential buildings. Being unable to set aside the normal fear of entering a burning building is not a mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.
  • In determining disability, the issue is whether Proler was “unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people’s daily lives,” not whether he was “unable to perform the tasks associated with [his] specific job.”
  • [I]f one considers the NBA, the capacity to play professional basketball is an ability; the rest of us do not suffer from a disability because we cannot play at that level.
  • [T]here is no evidence from which a reasonable and fair-minded jury could find that the City perceived Proler to be suffering from a mental impairment that substantially limited a major life activity. The evidence was entirely to the contrary—indicating Proler was removed from a front-line firefighting position only because City decision-makers had received information that Proler had frozen at two fires, and he was therefore perceived to be unable to do his particular job as captain of a firefighting crew.
  • Fighting fires is not a major life activity; it is a job requiring highly specialized skills, unique training, and a special disposition.
  • A reluctance to charge into a burning building is not a mental impairment at all; it is the normal human response. Such a reluctance cannot be characterized as an “impairment,” much less an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, if it does not limit “the ability of an individual to perform . . . as compared to most people in the general population.”

Here is a copy of the ruling: Houston v Proler

Thanks to Dave Statter for letting us know about this one. Here is Dave’s take.

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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