Baltimore County has agreed to pay about $500,000 and reform workplace practices to settle a federal lawsuit accusing officials of discrimination against 10 Police and Fire Department employees and job applicants, chiefly on the basis of medical conditions, according to court documents.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday filed a 28-page complaint against the county in U.S. District Court and a 20-page agreement to settle the allegations rather than pursue them to a trial. The government accused the county of "a pattern or practice of discrimination" in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act against eight uniformed and civilian employees and two job applicants.
The government claimed the county subjected employees to unnecessary medical exams, required employees to disclose "overbroad medical history and medical records," revealed employees' confidential medical information, retaliated against an employee who questioned Police Department practices and rejected two Fire Department applicants because they had diabetes.
Under the consent decree, the county agreed to pay $475,000 in compensatory damages to the 10 complainants, plus about $30,000 in lawyers' fees, County Attorney Michael Field said in a statement posted on his blog. The damages are divided among the eight employees and two applicants in amounts from $75,000 to $5,000.
In the consent decree, which has to be approved by the court, the county agrees to reform its practices with three years of Justice Department monitoring and stop using the services of one doctor who, according to the agreement, conducted medical evaluations of seven of the 10 complainants.
For instance, if the county offers a job then withdraws the offer on the basis of a medical examination, the county must show evidence that "as a result of a disability, the applicant cannot perform the essential functions of the job." Also, the county agrees to conduct medical exams or inquiries only if it can be shown that the employee's ability to perform his or her job is impaired by a medical condition.
County spokesman Don Mohler said in a statement that the county's practices "in no way violated" the Americans with Disabilities Act. He pointed to a line in the settlement agreement saying that the county's signing onto the pact should not be taken as "evidence of guilt or liability that it has violated the law in any way."
Field wrote in a blog post Tuesday that the county was "confident that its medical examination procedures would have been upheld in court," but agreed to the settlement to spare taxpayers the cost of pursuing the case, including hiring private lawyers.
Towson lawyer Kathleen Cahill, who has represented 14 people in Americans with Disabilities Act complaints against the county, including the 10 included in the lawsuit, applauded the settlement but said her work on these cases is not over.
"I am pleased for this group" of people, Cahill said. "They've been through the wringer. I'm glad these 10 people can ... get on with their lives."
Still, she said, "there's plenty more to do. I fight on."
She said once a judge signs the consent decree, she expects the Department of Justice to give her the right to sue in the cases of two former firefighters and one former police lieutenant who Cahill claims were forced off their jobs due to medical conditions.
Cahill represented Baltimore County Police Detective William Blake, who won a $225,000 judgment against the county in 2010 after a six-day jury trial in U.S. District Court. Blake claimed the county violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, in ordering him to undergo a medical examination after he testified before a county appeals board on behalf of another officer in his complaint against the county.
Retired Police Sgt. Cole Weston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said Tuesday that he was pleased with the settlement "for the people that were involved, that they have some relief for what they've been put through."
He said he believed the county carried out the practices mentioned in the Justice Department complaint both to retaliate against some employees and to save money.
"The county has attempted to minimize the exposure, in their mind, to areas of workers compensation claims," Weston said. "So they used a bull in a china shop approach."
He said the union will keep watch to see that the county lives up to the agreement.
So will the Justice Department, which will require the county to submit a report on its compliance with the decree six months after the court approves the agreement, and every six months after that for three years. The county will also have to tell the government about any lawsuit or claims of violations of the ADA or the Genetic Information Discrimination Act, a 2008 law that is meant to protect employees from discrimination based on their genetic background.