Jury finds for Marion County sheriff at ex-deputy’s ADA trial

A former Marion County sheriff’s deputy who was permanently injured while on duty has lost her lawsuit against the sheriff’s department and the city of Indianapolis after a federal jury found the defendants did not fail to accommodate her and did not harass her because of her disability.

Brigid Ford filed a complaint in the Southern Indiana District Court in December 2015, claiming the department violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate her disability and retaliated against her when she spoke out. The jury rendered its verdict Friday after a four-day trial in Indianapolis.

Senior Judge William Lawrence presided over the case, Brigid A. Ford v. Marion County Sheriff’s Department, and the Consolidated City of Indianapolis and Marion County, 1:15-cv-1989.

Ford and her lawyers at Betz & Blevins have not decided whether to appeal the verdict, according to attorney Kevin Betz. Although he declined to comment further on the case, he did say Ford continues to work for the sheriff’s department in the sex offender and violent offender registry office.

Indianapolis attorneys with Frost Brown Todd represented the Marion County Sheriff’s office. Partner and lead attorney Anthony Overholt also declined to discuss specifics of the case but said, “The client is pleased with the outcome and believes the jury reached the right result.”

According to court filings, Ford suffered a permanent disability to her right hand in a head-on car accident while on duty in April 2012. She was unable to return to her job as a deputy because the nerve damage prevented her carrying and properly using a firearm.

Ford refused to resign and later accepted a civilian job with the department, working as a clerk in the visitation office. She was provided with an ergonomic work station, ergonomic chair, telephone headset and the opportunity to take breaks as needed.

However, Ford claimed the other clerks immediately began harassing her. She alleged they made disparaging comments about her and her disability, pushed a chair into her injured hand, adjusted her seat when she left the room and turned the ringer off on her phone. Eventually, the other two clerks, Carol Ladd and Eva Watts, were transferred to a different department.

Ford then had a conflict with the subsequent clerk, Vashni Hendricks. The sheriff’s department investigated and found both Ford and Hendricks had violated the rules of conduct. In August 2015, Hendricks received a letter of caution and Ford was given a letter of reprimand because she had previously been disciplined for violating the same rule in January 2013.

In addition, Ford asserted the sheriff’s department would not allow her to work a fixed schedule. The department put the visitation clerks on a rotating schedule that would change the days off but Ford asked to be kept on a set schedule of working five days with the same two days out of the office.

Her request was not accommodated. The department maintained keeping Ford on a fixed scheduled could not be done efficiently and would have caused an undue burden.  

In her original complaint, Ford claimed the sheriff’s department continues “its campaign and effort to force (her) to resign.” As a result, Ford said she incurred substantial loss of income as well as other financial losses, and suffered mental and physical anguish along with having her career damaged.

She asserted the sheriff’s department violated the ADA by intentionally discriminating and retaliating against her because of her disability. In part, Ford claimed the department failed to reasonably accommodate her, decreased her pay, and disciplined her for reporting the behavior of other employees harassed her.

During the course of the litigation, the parties met for two settlement conferences, once in November 2016 and again in November 2017. Neither meeting produced an agreement.

Closing arguments of the trial were presented Sept. 13 and the jury returned its verdict for the sheriff’s department Sept. 14. The jury found Ford did not prove that her request for a fixed scheduled was a reasonable accommodation. Also, while it found Ford proved she was harassed by Ladd and Watts, the jury concluded she did not prove the conduct was because of her disability.

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