Family Medical Leave Case Summary BARNES v. GORMAN

While a company’s, organization’s or governmental agency’s interactions with those who are disabled are far fewer than the interactions it may have with non-disabled persons, it doesn’t means that an employers and its employees should be prepared to handle such a situation.

In the case of Barnes v. Gorman, officers did not comply with proper accommodations for a disabled person under the ADA. The disabled person was arrested and convicted, but later successfully sued for violations of the ADA.

FMLA CASES: Barnes v. Gorman

Case Background

Rendered paraplegic by a car accident in 1988, Jeffrey Gorman typically used a wheelchair for transportation.

One Saturday evening in May 1992, Gorman and a close friend were out drinking alcohol at a country music bar in Kansas City, Missouri, when they got into an altercation with bar security. Based on the accounts of three off-duty police officers in the bar and moonlighting as security, Gorman yelled obscenities and acted in a hostile manner. Consequently, Gorman was forcibly removed from the bar. Outside, he approached some other off-duty officers in the hope that they would get involved on his behalf. The officers, many of whom witnessed the fight between Gorman and bar security, told Gorman that he needed to leave. When Gorman refused to go away from the bar’s entrance, he was charged with trespassing.

A police van was then called to take Gorman to the station for booking. Gorman later said that, while waiting for the van, he informed the off-duty officers that he had to empty his full urine bag in a restroom. The off-duty officers told Gorman he had to hold off until he got to the station.

The police van that arrived in the scene was equipped with a bench, but didn't have locks to secure Gorman's wheelchair. He later said he told the officers that he was not able to stay upright without his wheelchair and could not ride in the van on the bench. Veteran police officer Neil Becker, the driver of the van, later testified that Gorman was hostile and uncooperative. He did not help the officers in figuring out how best to move him in the van.

The officers put Gorman on the bench and used a seatbelt to strap him in. As an extra safety measure, they also used Gorman’s belt to secure him to the wire mesh behind the bench. Gorman claimed that the seatbelt lay across his full urine bag. Gorman said the officers loosened the seatbelt after he complained appropriately it. As a matter of standard practice, Kansas City police officers typically handcuff people before taking them to the station. In this instance, they did not handcuff Gorman, and allowed him to use his hands for added support during the ride. Becker claimed that Gorman was firmly belted when the van left the scene and he thought the seatbelt would stop Gorman from falling forward. Officer Becker then drove the van to the police station.

At one point during the ride, Gorman took off his seatbelt out of concern about the stress it was putting on the urine bag. Gradually, the other belt also came unfastened and Gorman dropped to the floor, resulting in his urine bag rupturing. Becker then stopped the van, but was not able to lift Gorman alone. Then, he secured Gorman to a part of the van for the rest of the trip. After reaching the station, Gorman was processed and released. He was eventually convicted of misdemeanor trespassing.

District and Appellate Court Cases

Gorman went on to claim that he suffered serious injuries when he fell to the van floor and these injuries were serious enough that he could not work full time.
He then sued the police officials for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Gorman claimed that the officers did not maintain the correct arrest and transportation policies for persons with spinal cord injuries.

After initially being dismissed by the district court and then remanded by the appeals court, the trial had conflicting testimony about the events and respondent’s behavior that night. There was also some dispute about the cause of Gorman’s injuries and the severity of those injuries.

The jury in the case was told that punitive damages could be awarded in this case “in order to punish the defendant[s] for some extraordinary misconduct” or to “deter the defendants and others for like conduct in the future.”

Gorman’s counsel maintained that the police officers were not properly trained with respect to the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. In closing arguments, Gorman’s attorney told the jury they should not “sweep under the rug the 16 years they ignored the law. I hope someone will say, 'my goodness there is a price to pay.'"

The jury agreed and awarded Gorman punitive damages of $1.2 million. However, the district court set aside the punitive damages, saying that the law did not afford punitive damages. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld part of the district court’s decision, finding that punitive damages are available barring any clear direction to the contrary by Congress. The case then went to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Decision

In this case, the Supreme Court had to decide if punitive damages can be awarded in a civil suit brought under the ADA and Recovery Act.
Led by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justices ruled that a petitioner is not entitled to punitive damages under these two federal laws. According to the court, punitive damages are not appropriate under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Therefore, punitive damages cannot be awarded under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.

The Supreme Court also made a contract law analogy and said Title VI- funding recipients did not consent to liability for punitive damages by merely accepting federal funds. Hence, the same is true under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act.

Case Takeaway

Although Gorman was not awarded punitive damages, it needs to be pointed out that compensatory damages of $1 million were awarded. This should serve as a reminder that all employers, public and private, need to train their workers on how best to deal with situations that could relate to the ADA. These legal proceedings could have all been prevented if the Kansas City police officers had simply transported Gorman in a van outfitted with wheelchair locks.

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