January 30, 2015
A federal jury in Wichita, KA awarded a former McPherson police officer nearly $1 million in damages after a recent trial. The case illustrates an important lesson for both public and private employers across the state.
A series of disciplinary actions:
Matthew Michaels was a police officer for the city of McPherson for 9 years. In 2007, the city placed him on a one-year evaluation because he had three on-duty at-fault car accidents. In 2010, he was suspended and placed on 6 months’ probation after he was repeatedly caught sleeping in his patrol car while he was on duty.
Shortly after those write-ups, he was diagnosed with and treated for obstructive sleep apnea, and he had no further incidents of falling asleep on the job.
In March 2012, Michaels asked for one day of leave to take his daughter to a doctor’s appointment in May. The request was denied because there was a mandatory departmental training scheduled for the same day. On the day of the training, Michaels complained during a break about having to be at the training. He was issued a written warning and suspended for two days for what the city described as “insubordination” and “conduct unbecoming of an officer.”
Michaels was also written up in May for wearing the incorrect dress uniform pants to a parade. He was suspended again in July 2012 for “insubordination” and “dereliction of duty” based on a disagreement with his superiors about the necessity of obtaining video evidence in a shoplifting investigation.
Following that incident, the chief of police recommended that the city commission terminate Michaels’ employment for “[being] argumentative with superiors, insubordination, conduct unbecoming an officer, sleeping on duty, numerous other circumstances and situations where he was no longer viable to be a police officer.” The city terminated his employment based on the chief’s representations and recommendation.
The chief then submitted a report to the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training, which is a statewide registry of information about police officers for agencies to use when reviewing employment applications. The report identified the same list of reasons—including sleeping on the job—for Michaels’ termination.
Michaels argued that his termination was discrimination based on his disability—sleep apnea—because the documentation recommending his termination specifically referred to his sleeping on the job, despite those issues having been resolved more than a year earlier.
He also argued that the city interfered with his right to take one day of family medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when it denied his request for the day off in May. Finally, he argued that he was entitled to payment for unused vacation days following his termination because he wasn’t terminated for “cause” as that term is described in the employee handbook.
The jury speaks:
The jury found in favor of Michaels on all of his claims and awarded him $921,657. Of that amount, it awarded $120,000 to compensate him for emotional pain and suffering, $91,445 for wages and benefits he lost before trial, and $709,220 for wages and benefits he would have received in the future had the illegal action not occurred. The jury also awarded him approximately $1,000 on his unpaid wages claim.
Following trial, Michaels requested a willfulness penalty and interest on his wage claim. He also requested that the city be required to pay his attorneys’ fees of nearly $310,000. The city has stated its intent to appeal the decision, but it hasn’t done so yet.
So why did the jury find that Michaels was terminated because of his disability? It appears the jury agreed with his argument that the city considered his disability in its decision to terminate him because his supervisor listed the sleeping-on-the-job incidents as one of the reasons for his termination despite no similar incidents occurring after he was diagnosed and treated for sleep apnea in 2010.
Employers often want to be thorough in listing all the disciplinary issues that led to an employee’s termination. Generally speaking, that’s a good practice, but it’s important to think critically about each issue identified in personnel documents.
If any of those issues was caused or affected by a medical condition that may qualify as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), give extra care when considering whether referring to it in your disciplinary paperwork might suggest to the employee (or a jury) that you had a discriminatory motive.
Michaels had no further incidents of sleeping on the job once he received his diagnosis and treatment for sleep apnea in 2010. There was no reason to include a 2-year-old fully resolved issue in his termination paperwork. It appears the city had good reasons to fire him. But its reference to his sleeping on the job gave the jury a basis for believing the city was terminating him for an illegal reason, and that resulted in a significant verdict in the employee’s favor.
Tara Eberline, an editor of Kansas Employment Law Letter, can be contacted at [email protected]