Texas Supreme Court holds firefighter who cannot fight fires is not “disabled”

 

CITY OF HOUSTON v. SHAYN A. PROLER, 12-1006, –S.W.3d — (Tex. June 6, 2014)

This is a disability discrimination case where the Court held that a firefighter who refuses to fight fires does not have a “disability” under either state or federal law.

Shayn Proler was a captain firefighter with the Houston fire department. At two fire locations, Proler became disoriented and had to be relieved. He was later diagnosed with “global transient amnesia” and reassigned to the fire academy. He contested the reassignment under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement and on administrative appeal won. The City appealed to district court. Proler counterclaimed for disability discrimination under state and federal law. The case went to trial and a jury found for Proler. The court of appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part, but essentially left the jury verdict alone. The City appealed, but essentially only the disability discrimination challenges remained for the Supreme Court.

The Court first held “[a]t the outset, we note that the law prohibiting disability discrimination does not protect every person who desires employment but lacks the skills required to adequately perform the particular job. Lacking the required mental, physical, or experiential skill set is not necessarily a disability. Were the law otherwise, any person who, for instance, wishes to be a ballerina or professional basketball player could routinely sue for disability discrimination if the Bolshoi or the San Antonio Spurs declined employment.”

Under a legal sufficiency challenge, the Court agreed with the City that no evidence existed of a disability. In determining disability, the issue is whether Proler was “unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people’s daily lives,” not whether he was “unable to perform the tasks associated with [his] specific job.” “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.” The evidence solely indicated Proler was removed from a front-line firefighting position only because City decision-makers had received information that Proler had frozen at two fires, and he was therefore perceived to be unable to do his particular job as captain of a firefighting crew. Fighting fires 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. Such a reluctance cannot be characterized as an “impairment,” much less an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.  Essentially, the only evidence was that Proler could not perform his job, not that he could not perform a major life activity. All of Proler’s evidence that he was psychologically intact worked against him since being so meant he was not limited in any major life activity. The record shows that Proler was reassigned because the City perceived him as unable to perform his specific job as a captain of a firefighting crew, nothing more.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Opinion by Justice Willett. Attorneys listed for the City of Houston are Mr. David M. Feldman, Ms. Judith Lee Ramsey, Mr. Donald J. Fleming, Mr. John B. Wallace, Mr. Timothy J. Higley, and Ms. Lynette Fons.  The attorney listed for Proler is Mr. David T. Lopez