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Female firefighter not discriminated against

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The Indianapolis Fire Department didn't discriminate against a short female firefighter when it ordered her to be psychologically evaluated or perform driving tests, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed today. The Circuit Court found the department had a compelling interest in assuring she was both physically and mentally fit to perform her duties.

In Tonya Coffman v. Indianapolis Fire Department, et al., No. 08-1642, Tonya Coffman alleged the Indianapolis Fire Department discriminated against her because of her gender, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring her to have psychological examinations, and violated her due process rights under the 14th Amendment.

Coffman, who is barely 5 feet tall, was asked to take safety evaluations of her driving and EMS skills after some firefighters were concerned that she wasn't able to safely see over the steering wheel and reach the pedals. Around that time, Coffman became more withdrawn and defensive; because of two recent suicides by firefighters, Coffman's supervisors worried about her mental state and had her psychologically evaluated. During this time, she was moved from active duty to light-duty status, and then back to active duty.

Following the evaluations, Coffman filed suit. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of IFD on all of her federal claims.

Coffman claimed IFD discriminated against her because she is a short female. The 7th Circuit Court acknowledged it hadn't yet decided whether it recognizes the "sex plus" theory of discrimination, which hinges on disparate treatment based on sex in conjunction with another characteristic. But the Circuit Court declined to rule on the matter because Coffman failed to develop her "sex plus" argument, wrote Judge Ilana Rovner. She also failed under the argument that the defendants took an adverse employment action at least in part on account of sex. She also didn't link her treatment, either through circumstantial or direct evidence, with the fact that she is female.

The Circuit Court didn't find her job criticism, performance evaluations, and psychological evaluations amounted to gender harassment that created a hostile working environment. While the exams were unpleasant, they were not demeaning, degrading, or hostile, wrote the judge.

The IFD didn't violate the ADA when having her undergo psychological examinations because the decision to refer her for fitness of duty evaluations took place shortly after two other firefighters committed suicide. Many firefighters said Coffman didn't seem like herself, and she became guarded over time. Her supervisors were concerned she was exhibiting signs of depression.

"Although a psychological evaluation in response to 'withdrawn' and 'defensive' behavior might not be job-related in many vocations, we do not second-guess the propriety of such an evaluation for a firefighter," she wrote. "The Department has an obligation to the public to ensure that its workforce is both mentally and physically capable of performing what is doubtless mentally and physically demanding work."

The Circuit Court also affirmed IFD didn't violate Coffman's substantive and procedural due process rights by disclosing her medical records and failing to hold a hearing before suspending her from regular firefighting duties.

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