Split Decision for Chicago Fire in Disability Discrimination Suit

The US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois handed down a split decision on a disability discrimination case filed by a paramedic candidate for the Chicago Fire Department. Donna Griffin filed suit after the Chicago Fire Department concluded she was “not medically fit” due to the medications she was taking for adjustment disorder and insomnia.

Griffin’s suit alleged discrimination and failure to accommodate under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act. The court granted the city’s request to dismiss the failure to accommodate claim, but allowed her discrimination claim to proceed.

In explaining its decision, the court held:

  • The ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating against “a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.”
  • To establish a disability discrimination claim, Griffin must show: (1) she was disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) she was qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation; and (3) her disability was the “but for” cause of the adverse action.
  • Griffin asserts her disability is her adjustment disorder with anxious mood and secondary insomnia.
  • The City does not challenge whether this qualifies as a disability within the meaning of the ADA.
  • However, the City challenges both whether Griffin was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job and whether Griffin’s disability constituted the “but for” cause for the City’s refusal to allow her to reenter the Academy and its ultimate termination of her employment.
  • Griffin argues that a question of fact exists as to whether she was a qualified individual for the role of a paramedic under the ADA.
  • To assert that Griffin was not a qualified individual, the City relies on the medical opinions of Dr. Wong and Dr. Marder, who concluded that Griffin’s long-term and ongoing use of alprazolam would interfere with her position as a paramedic.
  • Griffin challenges Dr. Wong and Dr. Marder’s conclusions with opinions from two other doctors—Dr. Loiacono and Dr. Schieber—who both determined that Griffin’s use of alprazolam would not influence her ability to perform her duties as a paramedic.
  • At its core, the different conclusions reached by all four doctors as to Griffin’s ability to perform her job duties based on her use of alprazolam present a material dispute of fact.
  • Accordingly, the Court finds that Griffin presented sufficient evidence to establish a material question of fact of whether she was a qualified individual.
  • Courts recognize that adverse actions taken against a disabled individual because of the medication they use to treat their disabilities violates the ADA.
  • The City nonetheless argues that it reasonably relied on Dr. Wong’s and Dr. Marder’s conclusions when removing Griffin from the Academy and terminating her employment.
  • Griffin has produced sufficient evidence to create a question of fact as to the reliability of Dr. Marder’s conclusion that she was not medically fit to perform her role as a paramedic, subsequently creating an issue of fact for the jury to determine whether the City acted reasonably in relying on Dr. Marder’s conclusion.
  • As such, the Court denies the City’s motion for summary judgment as to Griffin’s disability discrimination claim.
  • The City also moves to dismiss Griffin’s failure to accommodate claim, which Griffin bases on the City’s denial of her request to defer to a later academy class once she had been dismissed from the April 2019 Academy.
  • To establish failure to accommodate, Griffin must present evidence that (1) she is a qualified individual with a disability, (2) the City was aware of her disability, and (3) the City failed to reasonably accommodate her disability.
  • Generally, “a plaintiff must normally request an accommodation before liability under the ADA attaches.”
  • Here, the parties dispute whether Griffin’s request for accommodation constitutes admissible evidence, or if the Court must exclude it as privileged because the request occurred during settlement talks related to Griffin’s claims in [a separate case in which Griffin is involved, Livingston v. Chicago.]
  • Griffin argues that her request for accommodation, which she states she made on a phone call on April 11, 2019, occurred independent of any settlement conversation.
  • However, the record reflects that Griffin’s request occurred within the context of ongoing settlement discussions.
  • This leaves Griffin without admissible evidence of a request for accommodation, meaning that her failure to accommodate claim fails.

Here is a copy of the decision:

Incidentally the same court – the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois – on the same day (January 22, 2024), also handed down a decision in the Livingston v. Chicago Case. Here is a copy of that decision.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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