Court Rules Illinois Firefighter With Epilepsy Cannot Prevail Under ADA

A judge has ruled that an Illinois firefighter who resigned in 2015 after being diagnosed with epilepsy has not been discriminated against by his former fire department on account of his disability. Derek Reihart claimed he resigned because the Hanover Park Fire Department refused to accommodate his medical condition.

Reihart, who was hired as a full-time firefighter in 2011 after several years of part-time service, suffered a seizure in early 2015. His physicians prohibited him from driving, “climbing heights, using heavy machinery and engaging in activities that would put people surrounding him in danger were he to have a seizure.” At a meeting with village officials to discuss his future, he turned in his resignation.

After he resigned, Reihart sued under the Americans With Disabilities Act, claiming the fire department failed to provide a reasonable accommodation, such as excusing him from having to drive.  According to the decision, Reihart testified that he only had to drive 20% of the time and that it would have been a major imposition on the department.

According to deposition testimony, Hanover Park established that driving and climbing heights were essential functions of being a firefighter. As explained by US District Court Judge Jorge Alonzo:

  • The ADA makes it unlawful to “discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to . . . the . . . discharge of employees . . . and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.”
  • Included in the definition of discriminate is “not making reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability.”
  • Thus, based on the plain language of the statute, a plaintiff must, in order to establish either type of discrimination, establish he is a “qualified individual.”
  • The ADA defines “qualified individual” as meaning “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.”
  • In this case, it is undisputed that defendant’s job description for plaintiff’s position as firefighter-paramedic listed driving as an essential function.
  • The upshot is that plaintiff was not a qualified individual with a disability, because it is undisputed he was restricted from driving, on account of having suffered a seizure.
  • In addition, plaintiff was restricted from climbing, which defendant (unsurprisingly, given the nature of a firefighter’s work) also lists as an essential function of plaintiff’s job.
  • Plaintiff put forth no evidence to suggest climbing ladders is not an essential function of the job of firefighter/paramedic.
  • Under the facts of this case, no reasonable juror could conclude that driving and climbing ladders were not essential functions of the job of firefighter.
  • It is undisputed that plaintiff was restricted from performing those functions.
  • An employer is not required to reassign essential functions to another person, because that is not a reasonable accommodation, as a matter of law.
  • Plaintiff’s claims under the ADA fail.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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