JOB-SPECIFIC REQUIREMENTS ARE NOT ALWAYS “MAJOR LIFE ACTIVITIES,” ESPECIALLY WHEN YOUR JOB REQUIRES CHARGING INTO A BURNING BUILDING

City of Houston v. Proler
Texas Supreme Court, No. 12-1006 (June 6, 2014)
Justice Willett (opinion)
In a case arising before enactment of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”), the Texas Supreme Court held that a firefighter who refused to fight fires was not regarded as disabled, because firefighting is not a major life activity and fear of entering a burning building is not a mental impairment.

Shayn Proler was a captain in the Houston fire department and leader of a fire suppression crew. But there was a problem: the City concluded Proler was scared to go into a burning building. In 2004, and again in 2006, the City received reports that Proler would not enter a burning building and was unable to perform his fire suppression duties. After the 2006 incident, Proler was reassigned to the firefighter training academy. Proler won an administrative grievance regarding the reassignment and was transferred back to fire suppression. The City appealed the administrative decision to the trial court; Proler counterclaimed for disability discrimination under state and federal law.

At trial, Proler did not argue that he was actually disabled, but instead argued the City had “regarded” him as being disabled. Under the pre-ADAAA statutes, the jury was correctly 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 the City had discriminated against Proler by assigning him to the training academy, but awarded no damages. The trial court, however, awarded Proler approximately $360,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs and enjoined the City from further discriminatory acts. The court of appeals affirmed.

The Texas Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals on the disability discrimination claim, 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. The Court then dismantled Proler’s claim that the City regarded him as having a disability, 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.” In other words, the City had not regarded Proler as disabled; rather, it had perceived him as unable to perform his specific job requirements as captain of a fire suppression crew.

The Court’s decision was based on the law as it existed before the ADAAA. That Act 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, the Court’s decision has limited applicability in future “regarded-as- disabled” cases. The Court’s analysis, however, is still instructive when assessing whether an employee is actually disabled under state or federal law, and shows that while we may all want to “Be Like Mike,” the truth is, very few of us are; but that doesn’t mean we’re disabled.

Print