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Federal judge finds no ADA violation in Sheriff’s Office hiring decision

Jeremy Lazarus | 12/9/2016, 7:49 p.m.
A federal judge has found that Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act when ...

A federal judge has found that Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act when he declined to reassign a disabled deputy to a vacant payroll position and instead hired someone else to fill the job.

Rebuffing claims from the U.S. Justice Department, Judge Robert E. Payne dismissed the government’s March lawsuit against Sheriff Woody for his treatment of former Deputy Emily Hall, who served in the Richmond Sheriff’s Department for 10 years until a heart condition prevented her from continuing her deputy duties.

In a 27-page opinion issued Nov. 28 that could impact other employers and disabled employees, Judge Payne ruled that “the ADA does not require disabled employees to be granted special preferences in hiring over non-disabled applicants.”

Judge Payne wrote that for Sheriff Woody and other employers who “maintain a non-discriminatory policy of hiring the most qualified candidate, it would not ordinarily be reasonable to require deviation from that policy to accommodate a … lesser qualified disabled candidate.”

As a deputy, Ms. Hall escorted inmates to and from court proceedings and provided security for judges. Her position required her to have direct contact with prisoners and be prepared to restrain an inmate who turned violent.

She sought reassignment to “light duty” that did not have the potential for conflict with inmates after undergoing surgery in 2012 to receive a cardiac defibrillator and a pacemaker, the government’s suit stated.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, acting on behalf of the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights, brought suit on Ms. Hall’s behalf when she was denied reassignment to another post, arguing that the ADA required the sheriff to “accommodate her disability through the transfer to a vacant position for which she was a qualified.”

However, the sheriff’s legal team countered that the sheriff was required only to allow Ms. Hall to compete for a vacant position, not guarantee her placement in it, a position the judge upheld.

Sheriff Woody allowed Ms. Hall to compete for a payroll technician post, but the job “was completely different from (the deputy position) she was originally employed in,” stated Tony Pham, general counsel for the Richmond Sheriff’s Office.

She scored below three other applicants who also sought the job, Mr. Pham stated, and Sheriff Woody hired the most qualified applicant, leading to Ms. Hall’s dismissal in May 2013.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office claimed in the suit that Ms. Hall possessed the education and work experience to do the payroll job and should have had priority because of her disabling condition.

However, in its response, the Sheriff’s Office stated that Ms. Hall had less “specialized training” than the other candidates, including the one offered the post.

“I always believed I operated well within the confines of established law,” Sheriff Woody stated in response to the ruling. “It is satisfying to see a court of law look at the facts, apply them to the law and come to an (appropriate) conclusion. I am truly sympathetic to Ms. Hall, but am satisfied to be vindicated.”