7th Circuit affirms for Marion County sheriff in disability dispute

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed on Friday a grant of summary judgment to the Marion County Sheriff’s Department in an employment discrimination dispute with an ex-deputy who claims she was harassed by co-workers because of her disability.

Brigid Ford sustained nerve damage to her hand after a she was involved in a head-on car accident on the job. She suffered permanent disability to her hand, leaving her unable to carry and properly use a firearm. Ford ultimately accepted a civilian job when she refused to quit, but alleged that her new co-workers harassed her because of her disability.

Additionally, Ford asserted the sheriff’s department would not allow her to work a fixed schedule and requested to be kept on a set schedule of working five days with the same two days out of the office rather than on a rotating schedule. However, a federal jury concluded Ford did not prove that request was a reasonable accommodation. It further concluded that although two of Ford’s co-workers had been harassing her, she hadn’t proved it was linked to her disability.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Southern District Court’s decision in Brigid Ford v. Marion County Sheriff’s Office, 18-3217, despite Ford’s assertion that it improperly divided the issues in her case. Specifically, Ford alleged the district court improperly separated different types of Americans with Disabilities Act claims and her evidence about co-worker Vashni Hendricks’ harassment from that of Carol Ladd and Eva Watts.

“The district court here incorrectly divided the harassment claim based on the identities of the harassers rather than the ‘intervening action’ of the Sheriff’s Office, but the court reached the right result,” Circuit Judge David Hamilton wrote for the federal appellate court. “We affirm based on the eighteen-month gap, the departure of Lieutenant (James) Walterman, and the transfer of Ladd and Watts calculated to end their alleged harassment. On the facts of Ford’s case, the court did not err in independently evaluating two distinct claims for a hostile work environment.”

Ford also appealed the partial grant of summary judgment on some of her claims, first that her demotion to visitation clerk was not a reasonable accommodation, but was instead discriminatory and retaliatory.

The 7th Circuit ultimately found that the district court properly granted summary judgment on Ford’s claims stemming from her transfer. The appellate panel reasoned that it had trouble imagining how a demotion that qualifies as a reasonable accommodation required by the ADA can simultaneously constitute disability discrimination or retaliation prohibited by the ADA.

It likewise found the district court did not err by granting summary judgment on Ford’s claim that the sheriff’s office should be held liable for a hostile work environment created by Hendricks based on disability, nor on Ford’s discrimination and retaliation claims stemming from numerous decisions not to promote her.

The 7th Circuit lastly found unpersuasive Ford’s arguments that her remaining claims should be remanded for a new trial because of evidentiary rulings by the district judge and an ‘unnecessary’ jury instruction, concluding that the district court acted within its discretion and that the instruction’s correct statement of the law did not unfairly affect the outcome of the trial.

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