Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration settled a discrimination complaint brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, agreeing to ensure that hiring follows rules that forbid asking most job candidates to take medical exams.

The Justice Department had accused the city of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act after the Fire Department refused to hire a candidate for a dispatcher position when a medical exam revealed that she had a disability.

The city agreed to pay the woman $65,000 and to ensure its hiring policies and practices follow the law, according to a consent decree filed with a complaint in U.S. District Court on Wednesday.

"The Justice Department will not tolerate discriminatory, outdated stereotypes that prevent individuals with disabilities from being hired for positions for which they are qualified," Molly Moran, acting assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, said in a statement.

The Justice Department found that the city discriminated against people applying for fire dispatcher jobs by requiring medical exams and asking disability-related questions before making a conditional job offer. One of applicants filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; she is not named in the consent decree.

A spokeswoman for Rawlings-Blake said the mayor is committed to offering equal opportunities to all job candidates.

"We're always looking for ways to improve our policies," Caron A. Brace said. "This consent decree reflects the Fire Department's commitment to assessing and amending their hiring policies and making sure nothing like this happens again."

She said the agreement requires approval by the city's Board of Estimates.

Brace said the city already had a long-standing policy to only require medical exams after a job offer has been extended for positions that require physical labor. Those positions are in the Fire Department as well as on the police force and with road crews.

Applicants for administrative positions are asked to submit to drug and alcohol screenings, but not medical reviews, Brace said.

Under the decree, which also must be approved by the court, the city must adopt new policies regarding pre-employment medical exams and health inquiries, and provide periodic reports to Justice officials on its compliance.

The city must provide training on the Americans with Disabilities Act to all workers involved in personnel decisions, and any city contracts with medical providers must explicitly require the examiner to comply with the new anti-discrimination policies.

In addition, Baltimore officials must designate an employee to ensure the city complies with the ADA and to field concerns and complaints about discrimination.

Baltimore County settled a similar complaint in 2012. The county agreed to pay about $500,000 and change some practices to settle a lawsuit by the Justice Department that alleged the county discriminated against 10 fire and police employees and job candidates, mostly on the basis of medical conditions.

The federal government had alleged that the county required unnecessary physical exams and the disclosure of overly broad medical information.

Laura Ginsberg Abelson, an attorney with Brown Goldstein Levy who often represents clients with disabilities, said she's encouraged by the city's agreement to take steps to improve its policies.

"Employment issues are a major priority in the disabilities rights community," she said. "People with disabilities face a much, much higher unemployment rate than those without disabilities.

"This sends an important message to all employers: It's not OK to ask such questions at the pre-offer of employment stage."

Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton said she was disappointed by the city's hiring practices, especially at time when Baltimore's unemployment rate is still high.

"It's all about being fair to anyone that's trying to get employed, especially for city government," she said. "We should be the example of hiring practices."

In the consent decree, the Justice Department said the female job applicant had been working for six years as a dispatcher in the Baltimore sheriff's office when she applied in 2008 to work in the Fire Department. After a successful interview, the woman took a series of tests on typing, radio communication and audio and scored among the highest in a group of applicants.

Next, the woman was required to receive a pre-employment physical examination and drug screening at Mercy Medical Center, which is the city's contracted medical examiner. Several other applicants for job openings in the Fire Department also went to Mercy for pre-employment medical exams.

The doctor giving the exam asked the female candidate about any disabilities and about a past shoulder injury, according to the complaint. A second Mercy physician reviewed the woman's medical records from other providers for the previous six years.

The second doctor advised the city that she was unfit for employment as a fire dispatcher without having met or examined the woman, the Justice Department said. He wrote to the city that her health would interfere with her ability to do the job, due to chronic medical conditions that "require she work in a low stress environment."

As a result of the recommendation, the city decided not to hire the woman, according to the Justice Department.

Mercy declined to comment.

Baltimore Sun reporters Alison Knezevich and Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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