Court Rejects Claims of Disability Discrimination by Indianapolis Firefighter

An Indianapolis firefighter who was terminated in 2020 for being absent without leave, has lost his federal court lawsuit. Sanjiv Neal claimed the department violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, plus committed wrongful termination, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligent supervision, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The suit was filed in November, 2020 in US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. As explained in the decision:

  • During his employment with IFD, Neal suffered from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • At the academy, he was bullied and ostracized by other trainees and his superiors.
  • This abuse continued even after he completed the academy.
  • On August 2, 2018, Neal was physically injured during a training exercise.
  • As a result, he could not immediately return to work.
  • On January 22, 2019, Neal attended a Fitness for Duty Evaluation.
  • The IFD’s physician made inflammatory comments during the evaluation, so Neal left the evaluation early.
  • Neal notified IFD Deputy Chief of Administration Timothy Robinson that he had ended the evaluation early.
  • Chief Robinson suspended Neal for twenty-four hours for failing to complete the Fitness for Duty Evaluation.
  • Neal was deemed unfit to return to full duty due to both his physical injuries and his psychological conditions, so Neal was placed on limited duty.
  • He began his limited duty on June 17, 2019.
  • Neal experienced difficulties with his anxiety, depression, and PTSD while on limited duty.
  • Yet he never requested any type of accommodation during his employment with the IFD.
  • Neal does not recall when, but he took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act on one occasion to assist his ailing mother.
  • Neal’s depression caused him to be late for or miss work multiple days while on limited duty.
  • On August 13, 2019, he failed to report for duty without notifying any of his superior officers.
  • The next day, Chief Robinson suspended him for forty-eight hours and emailed Neal about the suspension.
  • All of Chief Robinson’s emails to Neal were sent to Neal’s official IFD email address.
  • Neal was scheduled to return to work on August 22, 2019, but again failed to report without notice.
  • Chief Robinson suspended Neal for one hundred twenty hours on August 27, 2019.
  • On September 6, 2019, Chief Robinson notified Neal that he would be recommending his termination.
  • Around that time, Neal spoke with Chief Robinson and IFD Chief Abernathy about the difficulties caused by his disability.
  • In response, Chief Abernathy recommended that Neal seek inpatient treatment at a facility in Florida called Florida House Experience, and Neal received time off to seek treatment there.
  • Around the time Neal was in treatment, he changed addresses.
  • Although Neal gave Florida House his new address and believed that Florida House would relay that information to the IFD, he did not directly notify the IFD of the change.
  • Neal completed treatment with Florida House in early November 2019 and returned to Indianapolis.
  • Florida House recommended that Neal seek additional treatment at a facility in Indianapolis, but when Neal reached out to the recommended facility… Neal was “turned away.”
  • IFD learned that Neal completed his treatment both through a telephone call from Neal to Chief Abernathy and through a letter from Florida House to the IFD.
  • However, after returning from Florida, Neal never reported back to work and never contacted anyone at the IFD about returning to work.
  • Chief Robinson emailed Neal instructing him to attend a meeting on December 6, 2019, but Neal did not respond to the message or attend the meeting.
  • Chief Robinson then sent a letter to Neal notifying him of a one hundred twenty-hour suspension and instructing him to attend a meeting on December 30, 2019.
  • But because Neal had not updated his address with IFD, the letter was sent to an outdated address, and Neal did not receive the letter or attend the December 30, 2019 meeting.
  • Chief Robinson then recommended Neal’s termination.
  • Neal was terminated from the IFD for being absent without leave and failing to maintain his EMT certification, which was required for his position, effective February 27, 2020.
  • Neal alleges the Defendants discriminated against him on the basis of his mental disability (anxiety, depression, and PTSD), failed to accommodate his disability in violation of Title I of the ADA, and discriminated against him in his use and enjoyment of the IFD’s facilities in violation of Title III of the ADA.
  • He further alleges the Defendants’ discrimination and failure to accommodate created a hostile work environment.
  • He argues that by failing to take affirmative steps to identify and accommodate his disability, the Defendants violated the Rehabilitation Act and evidenced a widespread practice that violates the constitutional rights of mentally disabled employees under Section 1983.
  • Neal also asserts state law tort claims for wrongful termination, negligent supervision, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
  • Defendants seek summary judgment on Neal’s ADA, hostile work environment, and Rehabilitation Act claims because Neal was not “qualified” for his job and because a fire station is not a “place of public accommodation.”
  • They contend that Neal cannot show a discriminatory policy, custom, or practice under Section 1983.
  • As for Neal’s state law tort claims, Defendants argue they should be dismissed because Neal failed to serve a notice of his tort claims as required by the ITCA.

The court concluded that regular attendance at work is an essential function of being a firefighter in Indianapolis, and that Neal cannot establish his ability to meeting this requirement even with an accommodation. Thus, his ADA disability claim failed. The court rejected his discrimination claims concluding that even if Neal could show he was subjected to a hostile work environment, he could not establish that it was on account of his disability. His § 1983 claim was rejected because Neal could not establish a policy, custom, or practice that violated his constitutional rights. The state law claims were rejected because he failed to comply with the notice requirements of the tort claims act.

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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