CHICAGO -- In the first action of its kind in the nation, the U.S. Justice Department yesterday sued the state of Illinois and the city of Aurora, accusing them of violating the rights of workers with disabilities by denying them pension benefits.
Justice Department officials say it is the first case in which the federal government has gone to court to enforce the employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, which took effect in July 1992.
James Turner, acting head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said the suit was intended to send a signal that the department was "serious about this responsibility."
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, alleges that the Aurora Police Pension Fund violated the ADA when it denied admission to police Officer Kevin Holmes because he is a diabetic and to Officer Reynaldo Rodriguez because he has a chronic back problem. In Illinois, independent boards administer pension funds of local police and fire departments.
The suit also names as defendants Aurora, because the municipality contributes to the pension fund, and Illinois, because state law requires that members of the pension fund "be physically and mentally fit to perform the duties of a police officer."
"My worst concern is what will happen if I'm injured in the line of duty," Officer Holmes said. "I won't be able to go back to work, and I won't get a disability pension, and you can see what a great hardship it would be on my family."
Officer Rodriguez, 35, was denied access to the pension fund 1 1/2 years ago. He said he injured his back four years ago while working as a laborer for General Mills.
Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris said yesterday that the state had not violated the ADA, but that Aurora officials had misinterpreted state law in denying the police officers admission to the pension fund.
But Justice Department officials say the state law opens the door for discrimination by allowing local boards to deny benefits to otherwise qualified employees. The lawsuit, the government contends, will narrow the discretion of local boards to interpret state laws and to bar applicants based on disabilities.
Mr. Burris said the state had found no other Illinois pension boards that interpret the law in the same manner as Aurora, where police officers have to take separate physical examinations to become members of the department and members of the pension fund.
Justice Department officials said they were now investigating other states to see if similar violations of the ADA existed elsewhere.
Mr. Turner said the department also was investigating at least six other employment-discrimination cases under the ADA, but he did not provide specifics.
Previous suits have been filed under the ADA's other provisions, including a ban on discrimination in public accommodations.
During a news conference, Mr. Burris said he believed the state was named as a defendant because the federal government was trying to find someone with the money to pay damages.
He said the Aurora Police Pension Fund incorrectly interpreted the state law, and thereby violated the ADA because it claimed it had to reject Officer Holmes' pension application based on his disability.
Officer Holmes passed the physical examination to become a police officer, but was denied entry into the fund based on a second exam for the pension board.
"The problem is not with state law," Mr. Burris said "The problem is with the application of the state law in certain instances by local government bodies.
"We had hoped the federal government would continue to work with the Attorney General's Office so we can straighten out this matter without clogging up the courts," Mr. Burris said, adding that the state would seek to be dismissed from the case.
Several experts agreed that if an applicant is otherwise capable of performing his or her job, a blanket refusal of pension benefits because of a particular disability violates federal law.
Officer Holmes' situation "seems to fly squarely in the face of both the ADA and my recollection of Illinois state law," said Charles Goldman, a Washington attorney who specializes in disability rights and who is the author of the book, "Disability Rights Guide."
"Once you're hired, you generally get all the benefits. To totally exclude him is blatantly discriminatory," Mr. Goldman said.