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Department Failed To Accommodate Disabled Detective
In 1997, the Police Department (Department) for the City of Newport News (City), Virginia, hired Michael Wirtes as a police officer. Beginning in 2006, Wirtes felt increasing pain while wearing his duty belt, which held a gun, pepper spray, and other tools. In 2011, he notified the Department that wearing his duty belt caused permanent nerve damage. In response, the Department asked Wirtes to undergo a fitness for duty evaluation to determine if his condition required accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The evaluation revealed that Wirtes had meralgia paresthetica, but that he did not have any functional issues that would prevent him from working as a police officer. The evaluation also determined that Wirtes’ ability to wear a duty belt would depend on his tolerance to his condition.
Months later, Wirtes informed the City that his condition appeared to be permanent and that his ability to wear a duty belt would be limited. He asked for reassignment to a unit that would allow him to serve as a police officer without a duty belt. The City transferred Wirtes from a position as a patrol officer to the City’s records unit. In that unit, officers wore shoulder holsters instead of duty belts.
In January 2014, the City transferred Wirtes to a detective position within the Department’s property crimes investigation unit. At the time, detectives there were not required to wear duty belts.
In August 2015, Wirtes underwent another fitness for duty evaluation which determined that Wirtes could no longer wear a duty belt at all. Around this same time, the revised police officer job description required all officers to wear a duty belt. The Department also required its property crime detectives to start performing patrol duties and wearing duty belts. However, detectives in other units of the Department were not covered by these new requirements. In November 2015, the Department placed Wirtes on light-duty status for eight months given his inability to wear a duty belt.
At the end of Wirtes’ allotted light-duty status, he requested multiple accommodations, including wearing a shoulder harness instead of a duty belt and being exempt from patrol duties. The City rejected Wirtes’ requests, viewing them as requests for permanent light-duty status. The City instead offered Wirtes the option of either retiring early or accepting reassignment to a civilian position. Wirtes accepted the civilian position but shortly thereafter announced his retirement.
Wirtes then sued the City, alleging that it failed to accommodate his disability in violation of the ADA. The City moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted on the grounds that the City accommodated Wirtes by offering him a civilian position after he could not wear the duty belt. Notably, the district court’s decision failed to address: (i) what the essential functions of Wirtes’ position were; or (ii) which of Wirtes’ proposed accommodations, if any, could have permitted him to perform the essential functions of his job as a property crimes detective who did not need to wear a duty belt. Rather, the district court assumed that the City could have accommodated Wirtes in his role as a detective, but nonetheless held that Wirtes’ transfer to the civilian position was a reasonable accommodation. Wirtes appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed.
On appeal, Wirtes argued that it was inappropriate for the City to force him to choose between retiring or accepting reassignment to a civilian position he did not want when a reasonable accommodation would have allowed him to perform the detective position. The Fourth Circuit agreed, noting that reassignment is an ADA accommodation of “last resort,” and that involuntary reassignments are disfavored. Since the Court of Appeal was required to maintain the district court’s assumption that Wirtes could have been reasonably accommodated in his job as a property-crimes detective through the implementation of either or both of his proposed accommodations, Wirtes’ reassignment to the civilian position was not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
Based on the foregoing, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.
Wirtes v. City of Newport News, 996 F.3d 234 (4th Cir. 2021).
This opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is not binding authority in state or federal courts in California. However, the opinion reflects how courts analyze reasonable accommodation issues under the ADA. LCW attorneys can help agencies assess whether employees can perform the essential duties of their positions with or without reasonable accommodation.