Baltimore Prevails in Disability Discrimination Suit

The US District Court for the District of Maryland has dismissed a disability discrimination and retaliation suit brought by an EMT with the Baltimore City Fire Department who sought to become a firefighter. Matthew Schaeffer was originally hired by the city in 2015.

Schaeffer sought a firefighter position in 2018 and again in 2020. As explained by Judge Catherine C. Blake:

  • According to Mr. Schaeffer, he disclosed his disabilities, bipolar disorder and depression, to PSI during his 2015 medical exam.
  • In June 2018, Mr. Schaeffer applied for the EMT/FF position with BCFD because, according to Mr. Schaeffer, it “awards a higher salary, a less strenuous job load, better working conditions, and considerably further promotional opportunities.”
  • The selection process included “a multiple choice test, a physical ability test; and a structured interview.”
  • Mr. Schaeffer describes the move from EMT to EMT/FF as a “promotion.”
  • Mr. Schaeffer seems to view the re-hiring process as unnecessary, and notes that it is unique to a change from EMT to EMT/FF.
  • The City views the fact that the positions are entry-level roles in different departments as dispositive.
  • The parties agree that the Civil Service rules require completion of the full new-hire process for all EMT/FF candidates.
  • BCFD extended Mr. Schaeffer a conditional offer of employment in the EMT/FF position.
  • The offer was conditioned “on the results of medical exam [sic] and drug/alcohol screening,” which was scheduled at PSI on September 24, 2018.
  • Mr. Schaeffer reported for his exam and PSI “deferred [a conclusion] pending further examination.”
  • PSI gave Mr. Shaeffer a “Request for Information” form requiring that he submit a note from his psychiatrist about his “mental health to include diagnosis, treatment prescribed and any limitations to physical to work [sic] as Baltimore City Firefighter,” along with “medication compliance,” within ten days.
  • The request noted that “[i]f the documentation is not received within 10 business days, the department will be notified that you have not provided information needed to complete the evaluation[.] . . . Failure to respond to those requirement(s) will cause your application process with the Baltimore City Fire Department to be suspended and/or closed.”
  • Mr. Schaeffer followed up by submitting a “verification of treatment” letter from his psychiatrist which described his diagnoses and medications but did not comment on how his condition would impact his ability to serve as a firefighter nor his medication compliance. According to the City, Mr. Schaeffer did not submit this letter until January 23, 2019, and the letter bears two signatures reflecting that date.
  • PSI called Mr. Schaeffer on January 24, 2019, after he submitted the verification letter, and left a voicemail asking him to return the call.
  • Because the verification letter did not include all the requested information, PSI marked Mr. Schaeffer’s examination result “info not received” on February 1, 2019, and sent that determination to BCFD.
  • Mr. Schaeffer got in touch with PSI on February 8, 2019, and PSI informed him that he needed to provide a fully compliant “‘medical clearance’ from his psychiatrist by Monday, February 10th.”
  • Mr. Schaffer claims that he noted he had given PSI an open waiver to access his medical history and PSI responded that he needed to procure the clearance.
  • The timeline for approval was apparently cramped at this point, as BCFD published a General Order on February 14, 2019, listing transfers to the fire academy.
  • Mr. Schaeffer did not submit medical clearance by February 10, and, accordingly, BCFD withdrew his conditional offer of employment on February 12, 2019, and omitted his name from the February 14 General Order.
  • Mr. Schaeffer filed a complaint with the EEOC “alleging that the Departments [sic] refusal to promote the plaintiff was due to an illegal, unnecessary, and unwarranted medical examination; and further, the Department had no claim that the plaintiff’s disability was adversely effecting [sic] his job performance.”
  • Ultimately, the DOJ declined to bring a case and issued a right-to-sue letter on March 29, 2022.
  • While his EEOC complaint was pending, Mr. Schaeffer re-applied for the EMT/FF position in a subsequent hiring round.
  • According to Mr. Schaeffer, he did so at the suggestion of BCFD. Mr. Schaeffer completed the steps of the application process in late 2021 and early 2022.
  • At the oral interview stage, in which three interviewers score candidates from 1-5 on their “Verbal Communication Skills,” “Interpersonal Skills,” and “Decision-Making Skills,” Mr. Schaeffer received scores of 3/3/3, 3/2/3, and 3/3/2, below the passing average overall score of three.
  • On February 9, 2022, BCFD notified Mr. Schaeffer that he had failed the oral interview requirement and would therefore not be hired as an EMT/FF.
  • “To establish a claim for disability discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must prove ‘(1) that she has a disability, (2) that she is a “qualified individual” for the employment in question, and (3) that her employer discharged her (or took other adverse employment action) because of her disability.'”
  • The City contends that Mr. Schaeffer has failed to make out a prima facie case of disability discrimination.
  • Everyone agrees that Mr. Schaeffer has a disability. The parties dispute whether Mr. Schaeffer’s failure to complete the comprehensive medical examination rendered him “unqualified” for the position.
  • In the court’s view, the better question is whether Mr. Schaeffer would have likely passed the medical examination had he completed it, and therefore was “qualified” to perform the tasks of the position.
  • Although he offers no corroborating evidence, the court will assume that Mr. Schaeffer would have passed the medical examination and was otherwise qualified for the EMT/FF position, given that he had passed a comparable medical examination a few years before.
  • Although he offers no corroborating evidence, the court will assume that Mr. Schaeffer would have passed the medical examination and was otherwise qualified for the EMT/FF position, given that he had passed a comparable medical examination a few years before, and a second medical clearance for a return to duty more or less contemporaneously with his hiring process for the EMT/FF position.
  • Accordingly, Mr. Schaeffer has shown that he was qualified for the EMT/FF position.
  • Mr. Schaeffer’s prima facie case nevertheless fails at the causation element.
  • There is simply nothing in the record to show that the BCFD officials in charge of hiring for the EMT/FF position were aware of Mr. Shaeffer’s disability.
  • Mr. Schaeffer’s medical records were held by PSI, and his detailed examination results were never provided to BCFD.
  • PSI informed BCFD that Mr. Schaeffer’s medical examination results were deferred pending additional information, but there is no evidence that PSI described why it was requesting more information.
  • Moreover, Mr. Schaeffer’s ultimate denial was not due to a medical determination that he was unfit to perform the EMT/FF role, but rather followed from his technical failure to fully comply with PSI’s request for additional information.
  • Mr. Schaeffer implies the existence of a conspiracy that would suggest BCFD’s knowledge of his disability.
  • At bottom, speculation without evidence is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.
  • Mr. Schaeffer has not introduced proof to establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination, and summary judgment is therefore warranted.
  • But even if he had shown a prima facie case, Mr. Schaeffer’s claims would fail.
  • The main dispute in this case is whether BCFD wrongfully denied Mr. Schaeffer’s application for the EMT/FF position when he did not complete the required medical examination.
  • Mr. Schaeffer’s failure to satisfy the requirement was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for refusing to hire him.
  • Mr. Schaeffer’s failure to complete the required medical examination is a legitimate reason for denying him the EMT/FF position.
  • Mr. Schaeffer also brings a claim for retaliation based on BCFD’s rejection of his second application for the EMT/FF position.
  • There is no dispute that Mr. Schaeffer’s EEOC complaint was protected activity, and that his rejection was an adverse employment action. But again, Mr. Schaeffer fails to provide evidence of causation or pretext in the face of BCFD’s proffered legitimate reason for denying his application.
  • Put simply, nothing other than speculation connects Mr. Schaeffer’s EEOC complaint to his subsequent denial.

Here is a copy of the 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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