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Termination of Correctional Counselor Upheld

By on September 13, 2013 in ADA with 0 Comments

Employers cannot always make accommodations to persons with disabilities, and the obligation only arises if the employee can show that he or she is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation.

In the case of Atkins v. Eric Holder, Attorney General, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 12340 (4th Cir. 2013), the plaintiff was a Correctional Counselor for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  He suffered from a disability due to polyarthropathy of the right  knee and degenerative disc disease.  As a result of his medical conditions, he had significant restrictions limiting the amount of time he could walk or stand.  In fact, he utilized two metal canes and stated that sometimes he was afraid for his safety in working.  His doctors indicated that his restrictions were permanent in nature.

The Bureau of Prisons terminated Atkins’s employment because it concluded that there was no way for him to safely perform his job.  Atkins sued and argued that he was discriminated against on the basis of his disability.  The federal district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his law suit.  It laid out the requirements for Atkins to prove his case:  “(1) that he has a disability; (2) that he is otherwise qualified for the employment or benefit in question; and (3) that he was excluded from the employment or benefit due to discrimination solely on the basis of the disability.”

The Court ruled in favor of the Federal Bureau of Prisons on the ground that Atkins could not show he was otherwise qualified:

 There is no dispute that Atkins was disabled at the time of his termination.  However, we conclude that the district court did not err when it held that Atkins was not otherwise qualified for his position.  Only persons who are ‘qualified’ for the position in question may state a claim for disability discrimination.

The Court went on to explain that the plaintiff has to show that he can perform the essential functions of the employment position that he holds or desires.  42 U.S.C. § 12111(8) (2006). See also 29 C.F.R. § 1630.(m) (2012).  It further held:

At the time of his termination, Atkins was under several medical restrictions that significantly curtailed the time he was allowed to walk or stand.  Prior to being barred from the institution, Atkins was assisted by two metal canes with forearm braces and stated that he was afraid for his safety.  Because the correctional counselor position was a law enforcement position that required Atkins to physically restrain and control inmates, and no accommodation could be made to alleviate his restrictions, we conclude that Atkins did not make a prima facie claim for disability discrimination.

The case is helpful in showing the burden that a plaintiff bears in a disability discrimination suit.  What made the defense easier than many other disability discrimination cases is the very physical nature of plaintiff’s job, namely having to potentially physically restrain and control inmates.  An employer does not have to create a light duty job or remove essential job functions as an accommodation, and there was simply no way for the plaintiff in this case to do his job under the circumstances.

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This blog article was researched and written by John H. Geaney, a member of the executive committee and equity partner at the law firm of Capehart Scatchard. The content of the this article is intended to provide general information on the topic presented, and is offered with the understanding that the author is not rendering any legal or professional services or advice. This article is not a substitute for legal advice. Should you require such services, retain competent legal counsel.

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About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, a shareholder and co-chair of Capehart Scatchard's Workers' Compensation department, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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