Former New York Police Officer Cannot Sue for Disability Discrimination Without Clear Record of Substantial Impairment

By: Loyd Willaford and Mathias Deeg

In Hensel v. City of Utica, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York ruled that a former police officer’s claim of disability discrimination against the City of Utica could not proceed because he had failed to show that his claimed disabilities impaired his major life activities.

Anthony Hensel, a former police officer for the City of Utica, sued the City after being denied disability benefits.  He was later fired for not returning to work when medically cleared to do so. Following a work-related accident which left him with neck and back pain, Hensel was placed on paid leave.  He provided documentation from his doctor to the city indicating that he was disabled from the pain. An independent medical examination by the city cleared Hensley to return to work. The City cut off his benefits and requested that he return to full duty. Hensley refused, and the City fired him.

Hensel argued that he was disabled, and that the City discriminated against him.  He claimed that he was disabled within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because his pain interfered with his ability to accomplish certain job duties which constituted major life activities.  He also claimed that the city’s actions were in direct response to his disability.

The City of Utica conceded that Hensel suffered an adverse employment action when he was terminated, but argued that Hensel could not be discriminated against for his disability because he was not actually disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Court sided with the City.  Based on the ADA’s definition of “disability”, the employee must establish that he or she has:

(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.

Hensel failed to meet any of those requirements.

The Court ruled that Hensel did not plead evidence of the duration or expected impact of his injuries, and thus failed to show them as substantially limiting. Furthermore, the fact that Hensel was permitted by his doctor to return to work indicates that he was not actually impaired.

Hensel did not have a significant record of impairment. And, his doctor’s opinion, with no additional context or records, was not enough to establish a disability. Finally, Hensel did not provide any evidence that the City viewed him as disabled.  The City’s request that he return to full duty indicated that it did not perceive him as disabled under the ADA.

This case illustrates the importance of paying careful attention to what one is required to prove for disability discrimination.  Merely having physical problems does not make one disabled under the law.  A doctor’s conclusory opinion that one is disabled also is not enough. Under federal law, there must be a showing of limitations on ability to do major life activities.  The officer in this case apparently felt that all he needed to do was recite his medical history in the complaint to show that he was disabled.  Because he failed to connect these physical limitations to major life activities, and he admitted that the City was requiring him to return to work, and he refused, the Court dismissed his case.

 If this case had been in Washington, and Hensel had pursued a disability discrimination case under the Washington Law Against Discrimination, it is possible his claims might have fared better.  This is because for purposes of discrimination, Washington law does not require that a disability limit a “major life activity”, it just needs to be a “sensory, mental, or physical impairment” which can be diagnosed, exists in a patient’s history, or which is perceived to exist.   [Compare   RCW 49.60.040(7) with 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)]   

 While under Washington law, a disability need not limit an employee’s ability to work in order for it to be illegal for an employer to discriminate based on the disability. To prove discrimination, an employee must still show that he or she can do the job with or without an accommodation.  Hensel appears to have wanted to be excused from returning to work as a reasonable accommodation of his disability.  However, he did not demonstrate how the disability would affect his work, and he did not show how time off from work assist him to return to work.  On these facts, Washington Courts would probably have found that Hensel’s blanket refusal to return to work, meant that Hensel could not prove he was discriminated against based on his disability. 

 The lesson here is that employees need to engage with the employer and explain how time off work will eventually lead them to be able to do the job with or without other accommodation.  Most courts will find that a blanket refusal to return to work for an indefinite amount of time based on a doctor’s note will be either an admission that the employee is unable to do the job even with accommodation, or a request for an unreasonable accommodation.  Either of these findings are fatal to an employee’s claims.

**Visit our Premium Website for more information on Disability Discrimination.**