Florida Police Officer Was Not Discriminated Against After Being Fired For Lack of Qualifications

By: Loyd Willaford and Sarah Burke

In Valdes v. City of Doral, a former police officer alleged he had been unlawfully terminated after his job restrictions prohibited him from patrolling the streets. The city argued that it was necessary for an officer to be able to patrol the streets and therefore the officer was no longer qualified for his job. The Eleventh Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling and dismissed the officer’s claims.

Humberto Valdes was working as a lieutenant with the city when he was involved in a car crash. After the crash, Valdes developed a panic disorder and began to undergo treatment. Later, Valdes responded to a call where a person at the scene died and his disorder was exacerbated further. Valdes sought more therapy and the city accommodated his needs, he also began to work at his desk and only left for emergencies. Later, the city tried to move Valdes to nights due to personnel needs. Valdes informed the city that the night shift would aggravate his panic disorder and produced a doctor’s note that confirmed this. While the city obliged and left Valdes on the day shift, he began to have trouble performing during that time. Ultimately, Valdes went on leave and sought professional treatment. After a few months, his doctor cleared him to work but advised he could only work at his desk and not on the streets.

In light of this restriction, the city believed Valdes could no longer perform the essential duties of a lieutenant and offered him a clerical position. After Valdes turned the position down, the city terminated him. Valdes sued and alleged he had been discriminated against under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city reiterated that Valdes was no longer qualified to perform as a lieutenant and argued it was entitled to dismiss him.

To be “qualified” under the ADA, an individual must be able to perform the “essential functions” of his job with or without reasonable accommodation. The Eleventh Circuit, in affirming the district court’s decision, noted that it was undisputed that Valdes could no longer work on the streets. With that in mind, the Court noted:

The experiences of past and current lieutenants confirm that there are occasions when a lieutenant must work outside the office…a lieutenant must have the ability to leave the office.

Because Valdes could not perform the duties of a lieutenant, the Eleventh Circuit held that he was not qualified under the ADA and affirmed the district court by dismissing his claims.

This case illustrates a common defense in disability discrimination cases: that an employee is unable to perform an essential function of the job, and thus, it is not illegal to discriminate against them. Here, the lieutenant acknowledged that assisting outside of the office was an essential function of his position and that his doctor was restricting him to office work only. This was fatal to his case. To get his case to the jury, the lieutenant needed evidence that there was accommodation that would allow him to assist outside the office, or evidence that the City’s assertion that outside office work was not essential. Because the lieutenant had no evidence for either of these proposition, the Court dismissed his case.

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