Is a Texas firefighter who can’t fight fires disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Texas Labor Code (and formerly the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act or TCHRA) is not always a well understood subject in employment law. It is an even more difficult subject following the late 2000s expansion of the federal and state disability discrimination laws to include a larger swath of mental and physical disabilities and those regarded as disabled (even if not actually disabled).

Disability meaning under employment law

A Supreme Court of Texas opinion from 2014 articulates the distinction between what is a disability under the meaning of federal and state law and what is merely the inability to perform a specific job as a result of lacking the necessary job skills for that position. The Supreme Court of Texas sums it up in City of Houston v. Proler like this:

Again, 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.

In City of Houston v. Proler, Proler was a firefighter for Houston and rose to the position of captain over a fire suppression unit. Proler’s treating physician described Proler as having a mood disorder but not a severe disorder that would typically be a disability under the state and federal statutes. One day in 2004, Proler’s unit dispatched to a fire and Proler allegedly refused to go into the burning building. He was subsequently reassigned to the training academy. Proler filed a grievance and the department reinstated him to the fire suppression unit. In 2006 a similar incident occurred and he was transferred to the training academy.

Further procedures resulted in filing suit for disability discrimination. Proler asserted that the City of Houston had discriminated against him for regarding him as disabled.

Evidence distinguishing a disability from inability to perform a job

Proler failed to prove that he had a disability or that the city transferred him believing he had a disability. Proler pointed to his history of depression as a mental impairment. Evidence showed that Proler suffered no other problems thinking or performing normal tasks. A disability under the ADA and Texas Labor Code is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.

Although work is a major life activity, performing specific and highly specialized jobs is not. That is why the court contrasted playing basketball as a pro with generally performing tasks that most people perform. Similarly, fighting fires is a specialized job. It requires employees to act contrary to normal thinking that would drive a person away from a fire.

Moreover, the evidence presented at trial failed to prove the city was aware of the depression prior to transferring Proler to the training academy or that the decision to transfer him had anything to do with his depression. The evidence presented by the city showed the decision was due to Proler’s inability to enter a fire. It created a risk of danger to Proler’s colleagues. It appeared Proler was unable to perform this particular job. He showed no problems performing his role at the training academy.

It’s hard to have disability discrimination without a disability or perception of a disability under the ADA and Texas Labor Code.

City of Houston v. Proler, 437 S.W. 3d 529 (Tex. 2014).

Employment attorneys for disability discrimination at work

If you believe your employer fired you for having a disability then you should speak to an employment attorney. Law firms that specialize in employment law are familiar with ADA and Texas rules around disability accommodations and discrimination claims. Employment attorneys can help assess claims and give you guidance on how to deal with a work situation.

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