The now-playing Mark Wahlberg/Christian Bale movie "The Fighter" celebrates the "Pride of Lowell," but a recent court decision focuses on a different fighter – a firefighter. On December 13, 2010, a trial court awarded a Lowell, Massachusetts firefighter $350,000 under the state’s Fair Employment Practices Law after a jury found that the city had discriminated against him by refusing to rehire him due to his asthma.
James McLaughlin was a fire captain on the force for 23 years, but was advised to retire in 1997 when his asthma flared up after fighting a fire. Three years later, his condition improved and, he sought to be reinstated to a vacant captain’s position. Initially, a three-member medical panel unanimously found McLaughlin fit for duty. Later, one member reversed his vote after the city said McLaughlin’s possible use of an inhaler at a fire would violate fire department policy. Specifically, the city said that the use of an inhaler would violate a rule that prohibited firefighters from removing protective gear when fighting fires. McLaughlin argued that the inhaler rule was fabricated and also claimed that there was no evidence he actually would need an inhaler in the future. The jury rejected the city’s cited “safety concerns” and awarded McLaughlin $400,000, which was reduced to $350,000 when the jury found that McLaughlin had failed to mitigate his damages.
Employers routinely face challenges in accommodating disabilities, especially in safety-sensitive positions. The McLaughlin case is a reminder to employers that the mere fact that an employee has a physical disability and a high-risk, physically demanding job, does not necessarily create a safety-risk. Employers should tread carefully when making accommodation decisions and should rely on actual medical evidence regarding the employee’s restrictions rather than assumptions about limitations the employee may have.