Yes, you read the headline correctly. A firefighter who was relieved of firefighting duty because he was afraid of fire sued his department for transferring him.
Once again, it appears there are no limits to what employees will go after their employers for in a courtroom.
Here’s a head-shaking legal battle that recently played itself out in the Texas Supreme Court:
Shayn Proler was a firefighter for the Houston Fire Department and captain of a fire suppression crew.
In 2004, he failed to enter a residential property that was on fire.
Two years later, Proler once again failed to enter a home that was on fire after he had trouble donning his fire suppression gear, taking orders and walking.
Following that incident, he was diagnosed as having experienced global transient amnesia — a sudden temporary episode of memory loss — which stemmed from a fear of fire.
Despite the diagnosis, he was approved to return to work. But his employer wouldn’t put him back on the fire suppression team, instead electing to transfer him to a training academy.
Proler fought the transfer and an administrative hearing examiner reassigned him back to fire suppression.
But the Houston Fire Department wanted no part of that and fought his reassignment to active duty in court.
Claimed ADA rights violated
Proler then countersued, claiming his fear of fire constituted a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and his employer was illegally taking action against him because he was disabled.
A jury found in Proler’s favor and an appellate court agreed. Proler was awarded $362,000 in attorney’s fees and costs.
His employer then took it’s case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled that the Houston Fire Department couldn’t have taken an illegal action against Proler due to a disability — because Proler isn’t disabled.
The court ruled:
There is no evidence from which a reasonable and fair-minded jury could conclude that Proler was disabled. The jury heard evidence of two incidents where Proler was allegedly unable to provide useful help to his firefighting team during actual fires at two residential buildings. Being unable to set aside the normal fear of entering a burning building is not a mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.
It also said:
… If one considers the NBA, the capacity to play professional basketball is an ability; the rest of us do not suffer from a disability because we cannot play at that level. A job skill required for a specific job is not a disability if most people lack that skill.”
Check … and … mate.
This was a shot not only across Proler’s bow, but that of the jury which ruled in his favor earlier.
Not every incapacity is a disability
Employers should breathe a sigh of relief knowing that common sense won the day, although it took a wild run through the court system for that to actually happen.
It shows that not every incapacity employees suffer from will be considered a disability under the ADA or the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act — although most likely still will.
The litmus test used in this case: Do most individuals have the same incapacity (in this case it was a fear of fire)?
If the answer is yes, it’s not a disability for which you’d have to enter the interactive process to see if there’s a reasonable accommodation that can be granted.
Cite: City of Houston v. Proler