The Texas Supreme Court overturned a $362,000 disability discrimination judgment awarded to a captain for the City of Houston fire department who was removed from firefighting duties because his fear of entering burning buildings made him a danger to himself and others. City of Houston v. Proler, No. 12-1006 (Tex. June 6, 2014). According to the court, no reasonable jury could have found that his fear of entering burning buildings constituted a disability under the ADA or Texas law.
Shayn Proler was a captain in the Houston Fire Department and leader of a fire suppression crew. He had a problem though: the City concluded from two incidents that he was scared to go into a burning building.
The first incident occurred in 2004, and was based on the disputed accusation of a fellow firefighter. Proler was reassigned, challenged reassignment, and was moved back to fire suppression, subject to periodic evaluations.
The second incident occurred in 2006 at a house fire, when Proler was unable to don his firefighting gear or take orders, and had trouble walking. Proler’s doctor noted an episode of global transient amnesia—a sudden, temporary episode of memory loss—and was approved to return to work. The City, however, challenged Proler’s return to active duty and assigned him to the training academy. Proler won an administrative grievance challenging his reassignment and was transferred back to active duty. The City appealed to the trial court and Proler counterclaimed for disability discrimination.
At trial, Proler did not argue that he was disabled, but instead that the City had “regarded” him as such. Under the pre-ADAAA statutes, the jury was instructed that “disability” meant “being regarded as having a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity.” The jury found in Proler’s favor on the ADA claim. The appellate court affirmed.
The Texas Supreme Court reversed, reiterating that when determining disability, “the issue is whether Proler was unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people’s daily lives [or ‘major life activities’], not whether he was unable to perform the tasks associated with his specific job.” To illustrate this point, the Court made the timely analogy that lacking the requisite basketball skills to play for the San Antonio Spurs does not mean a person is disabled.
But Proler argued that even if he was not disabled, if the City perceived him as such, and it motivated an adverse employment action, then the City would be liable. The Court dismantled this argument, reasoning that: (1) fighting fires is not a “major life activity”; and (2) “reluctance to charge into a burning building is not a mental impairment at all; it is the normal human response.” Thus, the City had not regarded Proler as disabled; rather, it had perceived him as unable to perform his job requirements.
Notably, the Court’s decision was based on the ADA prior to its 2009 amendment. The ADAAA dramatically expanded the scope of the “regarded as” prong of the definition of “disability” by eliminating the requirement that the impairment be perceived as substantially limiting a “major life activity.” Accordingly, this decision has limited applicability in future cases because of the unique set of facts and use of outdated laws. The Court’s analysis is still instructive, however, when assessing whether an employee is actually disabled.