The Tenth Circuit published its opinion in Koessel v. Sublette County Sheriff’s Dep’t on Tuesday, May 14, 2013.
Kevin Koessel was terminated from his position as a deputy sheriff in Sublette County, Wyoming. In response, Koessel brought a suit in district court against the Sheriff and the County alleging they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), breached his employment contract, and violated his substantive and procedural due process rights. The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Koessel had a stroke in 2001 and was placed on administrative leave while he recovered. He eventually was cleared by his doctor for full-time work with a restriction of no overtime. He worked a desk job, although he was permitted to make traffic stops during his 40-mile commute. After his return to full-time work, some officers complained about Koessel to the Sheriff. One complaint was that he forgot a word during a traffic stop and became flustered. Others complained he lost his temper while on duty. In April 2009, the Sheriff placed Koessel on administrative leave and ordered him to undergo a medical examination by a neurologist, Dr. Moress. Dr. Moress found that “[s]trictly from a neurological standpoint he would be able to work, but there are potential problems to cognitive functioning that may have resulted from the stroke and should be investigated.”
At Moress’s recommendation, Koessel was seen by a psychologist, Dr. Enright, who gave him a standardized test. Koessel’s score was unchanged from when he had taken it pre-stroke. Dr. Enright recommended Koessel be placed in a position without high stress or regular contact with the public because his “‘mild to moderate fatigue, episodes of lightheadedness and episodes of emotional disinhibition (weeping)’ could interfere with the performance of some of his patrol officer duties.”
After returning to a different temporary job for a few weeks, Koessel was again placed on leave and then terminated. The termination letter stated the reason for termination was because Koessel was not medically cleared to perform any available position in the Sheriff’s office. The letter told Koessel he had five days to file a written request for a hearing, which he did not do.
On appeal, Koessel argued that the defendants fired him based on a perceived disability when he was not actually disabled. Despite the fact that this case was filed after the effective date of the ADAAA, the Tenth Circuit used the old definition of perceived as disabled. This ultimately made no difference in outcome because the court decided it need not address whether Koessel was disabled or perceived as disabled because he failed to show he could perform the essential functions of the job. The court also found Koessel failed to identify a vacant position he could have been reassigned to as a reasonable accommodation.
Koessel’s breach of contract claim was based on Wyoming law requiring cause to terminate a deputy sheriff related to ability and fitness to perform his or her duties. The court found that cause was present and he received the required notice and opportunity to be heard. The court rejected Koessel’s procedural due process claim for similar reasons. Finally the court rejected Koessel’s substantive due process claim and affirmed summary judgment on all claims.