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Judge Affirms $1 Million ADA Verdict Against Kansas Police Department

ansas federal judge, Monti L. Belot, rejected  the City of McPherson, Kansas Police Department's motion to set aside a  $1 million verdict against the city for terminating a former officer due to a sleep disorder.

The termination violated the American Disabilities Act and due process of law.

Judge Belot concluded, "there was no prejudicial error and the jury's verdict was supported by substantial evidence against the employer."

Matthew Michaels was employed by the McPherson Police Department for nearly nine years as the acting shift supervisor.

Michaels complained that the events leading to his termination were false and he was denied an opportunity to defend his actions or challenge his termination.

Sleeping on duty

The City of McPherson claimed it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law or alternatively a new trial because Michaels' termination was due to "insubordination, sleeping on duty, conduct unbecoming of an Officer, and numerous other circumstances."

The city made several arguments to support their motion, that it lacked awareness of Michaels' disability, had cause for termination, and that Michaels received adequate due process.

Prior to filing a discrimination lawsuit against the employer, the employee must exhaust all administrative remedies through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In 2013 following his termination, Michaels filed for administrative relief under the ADA and was given authority to file suit against his employer.

Obstructive sleep apnea

Each patrol officer worked rotating shifts and Michaels was assigned the graveyard shift. Prior to his termination, from 2007-2010, Michaels was counseled and served a one day suspension for falling asleep while working the late shift.

Following a sleep incident in 2011, the officer sought medical treatment where he was diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea.

Despite his efforts in receiving treatment, Michaels was placed on six month probation and received a two day suspension.

The defendant did not offer Michaels an alternative shift or an opportunity to explain his medical condition.

Sleep Apnea “Without Breath”

Apnea is the Greek term meaning “without breath”. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association untreated sleep apnea may be responsible for job impairment and motor vehicle crashes.

Severe obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a blockage of an airway in the rear of the throat when soft tissue collapses and closes while sleeping.

The disorder substantially interferes with breathing patterns and limits sleep. A person with this condition stops breathing multiple times throughout the night for one minute or longer.

After receiving treatment for the sleeping disorder, Michaels had no further sleep incidents occurred while he working the late shift.

Judge Monti's Decision

Judge Monti reviewed each of defendant's argument to support judgment as a matter of law. The standard of review for a renewed motion under FRCP 50(b) and 59(a), all evidence is reviewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.

First, the defendant argued the city could not be held liable under the ADA because the department was unaware of Michaels disability.

In fact, evidence was presented showing the department head, Chief McClarty and staff received information about Michaels medical condition, resulting symptoms, and successful treatment.

Judge Belot concluded, "the chain of events was sufficient to establish a claim of discrimination on account of a disability."

Second, the defendant argued Michaels right to submit a written response to the Commission on Peace Officers' Standards and Training report ("CPOST") was adequate to satisfy as an opportunity to be heard.

 Post termination, the plaintiff's request for a "name clearing" hearing was denied.

The court stated "the mere right to respond in writing was not adequate to allow plaintiff to effectively clear his name."

Regarding to the city's argument that Michaels was fired for legitimate reasons, Judge Belot concluded the termination for cause argument failed.

The fact the termination report highlighted Michaels sleeping on the job as a reason for termination gave sufficient information for the jury to conclude the termination was based on discrimination.

A "for cause" termination should now be arbitrary and should be without discrimination.

Judge Belot ultimately concluded the City of McPherson was not entitled to judgment as a matter of law and also denied their alternative motion for a new trial.

Michaels was represented by lead attorney,  Ray E. Simmons, Ayesh Law Offices, Wichita

Lead attorney for the City of McPherson was David R. Cooper of Fisher, Patterson, Sayler & Smith LLP, Topeka

This case is Matthew B. Michaels v. City of McPherson, Kansas  case number 13-1128-MLB, United States District Court of Kansas 

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