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Robinson v. City of Chicago

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

April 26, 2017



          Joan H. Lefkow U.S. District Judge

         Christopher Robinson filed this suit against the City of Chicago asserting that the City's revocation of his conditional offer of employment as a Fire Department paramedic was discriminatory in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq.[1] The City seeks summary judgment on the bases that Robinson cannot establish that he is a qualified individual with a disability and cannot rebut the City's evidence that he was rejected from employment for reasons that are job-related and consistent with business necessity.[2] For the reasons stated below, the motion is denied.


         In 2012, [4] the duties of a Chicago Fire Department (CFD) paramedic included responding to Emergency Medical Services calls of any type, bringing medical equipment to a patient's side, transporting a patient from the scene of an incident to an ambulance, delivering emergency medical treatment, and preparing and transporting patients to a hospital. Paramedics worked in a stressful and physically demanding environment and needed to be mentally and physically fit.

         CFD employed two experienced occupational health physicians in its Medical Division, Dr. Hugh Russell and Dr. Isaac Morcos. These physicians reviewed the medical records of CFD applicants to determine whether they were medically qualified to work at CFD. Elise Horton-Newkirk was an occupational health nurse in the Medical Division who, among other duties, sent follow-up letters to applicants along with relevant test results from the applicants' medical file.

         After successfully meeting preliminary qualifications for the paramedic job, all applicants were required to submit to a physical abilities test (PAT) administered by a third-party contractor. The PAT included a step test, rotary test, and lift test, tests that corresponded to duties of the paramedic position such as climbing stairs and carrying patients. After passing the PAT, an applicant could receive an offer of employment, conditioned on passing a medical examination (and certain other requirements not relevant here).

         The medical examination was identical for each applicant and included a complete physical examination, a complete vision test, a tonometry test (which measures intraocular pressure in the eye), a pulmonary function test (PFT), a 12-lead electrocardiogram, and a nine-minute-thirty-second treadmill stress test. The exam was performed by a third-party contractor, which forwarded the results to CFD to be reviewed by the occupational health physicians. The applicant was required to sign a consent form acknowledging that results obtained would assist in evaluating the applicant's ability to engage in the physical activities necessary for the position.

         At the time Robinson took the medical exam, both firefighters and paramedic applicants were required to meet the same standards. The stress test was given to assess cardiovascular illness such as ischemia or coronary artery disease and to measure oxygen uptake, heart rate, and blood pressure under strenuous situations. The test also measured “metabolic equivalent of task” (METs), which indicates the amount of work the applicant's body can do. An applicant was expected to reach 10.0 METs to be able to perform the job of paramedic or firefighter.[5] High body mass index (BMI) or obesity did not automatically disqualify an applicant.[6]

         The test results were used by the CFD physicians to evaluate whether an applicant could safely and effectively perform all of the duties of the paramedic position.[7] A reviewing physician would determine whether additional follow-up, such as referral to a general physician or specialist was needed.

         An applicant who failed the medical exam was told to see a personal physician and to have certain tests repeated and to send reports back to CFD. If the applicant received medical clearance from a physician, that information would be reevaluated by a CFD physician, and the applicant's medical status would be approved if the ongoing problem was under treatment or management. An applicant who did not pass the stress test was allowed to retake the test. Ultimately, the CFD physician would inform CFD's Human Resources Department whether the applicant was medically qualified for the position.

         An applicant who passed the physical examination (and met the other requirements) became a paramedic candidate and began training at the Fire Academy for a three-month period. To graduate from the Academy, a candidate had to pass a step test, which required stepping upon and down from a nine-inch-high platform, for at least two minutes at 112 steps per minute, while holding a twenty-five pound dumbbell in each hand. A candidate, working with a partner, was also required within eight minutes to carry a 250-pound manikin up three flights of stairs on a stair chair, return down the stairs carrying the manikin, and handle the manikin according to a prescribed protocol until it was loaded into an ambulance. Both tests were very strenuous in terms of cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and endurance, agility, and flexibility. A candidate had to complete all the requirements of the Fire Academy before being allowed to respond to live emergency calls in the field.

         Robinson applied for the paramedic position in 2007. He passed the PAT administered in April 2010. At that time he weighed approximately 365 pounds. In 2012, he received a conditional offer and was directed to undergo a medical examination, which he did in May, 2012. At that time, he weighed 401 pounds.

         Before the medical exam was administered, Robinson signed an “informed consent” form, permitting the CFD to use the results in evaluating his ability to engage in the physical activities necessary for the position of paramedic. He also agreed that the examiner could stop the test if potential medical problems were observed.

         Dr. Morcos evaluated the results of the medical examination and made progress notes in Robinson's medical file. After that evaluation, CFD sent Robinson a letter requesting follow-up information from his personal physician, an ophthalmologist, and a pulmonologist. The letter advised Robinson that he would need to repeat the PFT and submit “the results of the repeated test and medical clearance.” The letter further advised Robinson to see an ophthalmologist due to “increase[d] intraocular pressure in the right eye and distance vision [in the] left eye, ” to repeat the tonometry test and eye exam, and to obtain medical clearance from the ophthalmologist. The letter also advised Robinson to call Nurse Horton-Newkirk if he had questions. Robinson called and asked if ...

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