Michigan Police Officer Disability Claims Rejected Due to Aberrant Behavior

By: Loyd Willaford and Brittany Torrence

In Michael v. City of Troy Police Dep’t, the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected former Michigan police officer Todd Michael’s discrimination claims.  It ruled that, even though Michael suffered from a brain tumor, his “odd and disturbing” behavior and the opinions of two psychologists suggesting that he was no longer fit to do police work meant the City was justified in not allowing Michael to return to work.

Todd Michael began working for the City as a patrol officer in 1987.   In 2000, Michael was diagnosed as having a non-cancerous brain tumor. Surgeries to remove the tumor in 2000 and 2001 were only partially successful; each time the surgeons could not remove certain parts of the tumor, which then continued to grow. The City granted Michael paid medical leave for each surgery, and returned him to work once his surgeons cleared him.  Beginning in 2007, however, the City became aware of aberrant behavior on Michael’s part.  This behavior included: Michael accompanying a cocaine dealer to drug deals, suing the Chief of Police over several empty steroid vials that Michaels’s wife had turned over to the police, and secretly recording his wife and asking the City prosecutor to charge her with perjury.

The City had begun to investigate this behavior when Michael notified it that he needed brain surgery for a third time. The City tabled their investigation at the time, but informed Michael that he needed to pass a psychological evaluation before he returned to work. Michael gave his superiors the reports from the doctors.  The City decided to keep Michael on unpaid leave, because of its doctors’ conclusions and because Michael’s own behavior tended to confirm those conclusions.  Michael saw two other doctor’s related to his disability insurance claim.  These doctors concluded that Michael was fit to return to work.  Despite the conflicting evidence, the City refused to reinstate Michael.

Michael sued the City claiming it regarded him as disabled and discriminated against him on that basis. The district court granted summary judgment to the City, holding as a matter of law that Michael was not qualified for the position of patrol officer.

The main issue in this case was whether Michael was a “qualified individual” as a person who could, with or without reasonable accommodation, “perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” The court stated that although disabled, Michael was not qualified for an employment position “if he poses a ‘direct threat’ to the health or safety of others which cannot be eliminated by a reasonable accommodation.” This is properly determined by the “objectively reasonable” test.  A majority of the Court ruled that

The ADA requires only that the employer rely on an ‘objectively ‘reasonable opinion,’ rather than an opinion that is correct.

The majority held that the City’s determination was “objectively reasonable” because it relied on medical opinions, it was reasonably concerned about whether Michael could meet his responsibilities, and it was reasonable to conclude that the risk  of returning Michael to duty was too great to run.

This is a case of the old legal adage that “hard facts make bad law.”   There is no question that Michael suffered a disability and that his disability was a factor in the City’s decision not to return him to duty.  There were conflicting opinions from the City’s doctors and insurance company’s doctors about whether Michael was fit to be a police officer with or without accommodation.  As the dissent in this case noted, this normally means that a jury would decide the issue.   Courts are not supposed to weigh the evidence, that is the jury’s function.  In this case, a majority of the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that Michael was unfit as a matter of law; that is, no reasonable juror could find him fit.

If the job in question had been one other than police officer, it is doubtful the Court would have ruled the same way on similar facts.   As the dissent noted, unlike other cases where courts have ruled that a disabled employee was unfit for a given job, Michael’s aberrant behavior was not directly threatening to the public. See, e.g., EEOC v. Amego110 F.3d 135 (1st Cir. 1997) (court held that disabled pharmacist who was over-medicating patients and attempted suicide twice by using same medications as patients was unfit for job).  The Court in the present case essentially ruled that a police department can ignore conflicting evidence when deciding where an officer is fit so long as the department presents evidence that an officer’s judgment might be impaired.  The standard applied in this case severely weakens the protections that those with disabilities, especially mental disabilities, are otherwise entitled to in the workplace.  This is because in close cases, an employer will nearly always be able to point to some evidence showing that the disabled person cannot perform some aspect of the job.

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