As you may know, I love the quirky cases (like the Playgirl model who sued for sexual harassment). I recently came across a 2014 state case that falls into this category – the firefighter who is afraid of fire.
In City of Houston v. Proler, the captain of a firefighting crew refused to enter a burning apartment building, appearing to be frightened. He was reassigned to the training academy, but was eventually transferred back to active firefighting duty. Two years after the first incident, the captain arrived at a house fire. Again, he appeared to be frightened – unable to put on his equipment, take or give orders, and showing physical distress. He was hospitalized and diagnosed with “global transient amnesia.” Management (reasonably) considered this a “possibly dangerous situation,” and he was again reassigned to the training academy.
Nonetheless (and despite all common sense), the captain wanted to be reassigned to active firefighting. Because he was a union member, he filed a grievance under the collective bargaining agreement. Shockingly (to me), a hearing examiner ordered that he be returned to his fire suppression duties. Unsurprisingly (to me), the City appealed this decision to the trial court, at which point the captain brought claims against the City for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Texas state law. Shockingly (to me), the jury found that the City had engaged in disability discrimination against the captain, although it awarded him no damages (he did get $362,000 in attorneys’ fees). Shockingly (to me) the Texas Court of Appeals affirmed the disability discrimination verdict.
Fortunately, the Texas Supreme Court exhibited more sense. After questioning whether the captain was even able to perform the essential functions of his firefighting job (which, shockingly to me, the City had apparently failed to argue), the Court turned to the issue of whether the captain was disabled within the meaning of the ADA and Texas law. In making this determination, the issue was whether he was “unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people’s daily lives” and not those associated with his specific job.
The Court offered an analogy to 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.
As the Court then noted: “Firefighting is not a major life activity; it is a job requiring highly specialized skills, unique training, and a special disposition…. A reluctance to charge into a burning building is not a mental impairment at all; it is the normal human response.” (Very true). Thus, he was not limited in his ability to perform this action “as compared with most people in the general population.” And thus, he was not disabled within the meaning of the law.
You know what was the kicker for me? The captain’s own mother testified that the department acted appropriately in removing him from the scene of the second fire – that he was a danger to himself and others. Well, they say that “mother knows best!”