District Court in Pennsylvania Says Police Officer May Go Forward With Suit Against Department After He Was Terminated for DUI

By Erica Shelley Nelson and Sarah Burke

In Hoffman v. City of Bethlehem (Case), Hoffman v. City of Bethlehem (Court’s Order)  a federal district court in Pennsylvania denied a police department’s motion to dismiss a police officer’s disability discrimination claim. The district court ruled that the department’s reliance on a fitness for duty test before denying the officer reinstatement was enough to demonstrate they regarded him as disabled and provide him protection under the Rehabilitation Act.

Richard Hoffman became an officer with the City of Bethlehem in 2003. In 2013, Hoffman was arrested for a DUI and suspended from the force. In 2015, after arbitration, the department had Hoffman undergo a fitness for duty test by a psychologist who found that Hoffman was an alcoholic at risk of relapse. The psychologist recommended Hoffman be allowed to complete rehabilitative treatment and return to work, but the department refused to allow this treatment.

Hoffman sued the department under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provides that a plaintiff must show

(1) that he or she has a disability, (2) that he or she is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and (3) that he or she was nonetheless terminated or otherwise prevented from performing the job.

            The department argued that Hoffman was able to show these things because he had not established that department “regarded” him as having a disability and alternatively, the Rehabilitation Act excludes from coverage a certain category of alcoholics. Hoffman argued that the fitness for duty test that the department received was enough to demonstrate the department regarded him as having a disability. The district court agreed, finding that because Hoffman was not reinstated after the fitness-for-duty report was issued, it was reasonable to infer that he was not reinstated because of it.

The district court noted that the department was correct that the Rehabilitation Act does not cover certain types of alcoholics. Specifically, under section 504, coverage is denied to

any individual who is an alcoholic whose current use of alcohol prevents such individual from performing the duties of the job in question or whose employment, by reason of such current alcohol abuse, would constitute a direct threat to property or the safety of others.

However, because the department was seeking a motion to dismiss Hoffman’s claims the district court found it was not appropriate to consider the argument. Rather, the district court believed Hoffman could pursue his claims before a court.

This case illustrates the importance of having specific facts to support a claim of discrimination.  Had the officer in this case not told the court about the fitness for duty report where the department identified the officer as unfit based on alcoholism, the Court may well have said the Officer could not prove that it was his alcoholism as a disability which motivated the department not reinstate him.

On a practical note, while alcoholism is a disability for which one cannot be discriminated against, conduct which might result from alcoholism, such as drinking or  being drunk at work,  or not showing up for work due to a hangover,  is not protected activity and can be a cause for discipline or  termination.   The officer’s case here is helped by the fact that there no such conduct at issue here.  The failure to reinstate was based solely on the doctor’s opinion that the officer was an alcoholic in danger of relapse.

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