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A 19-year police officer who is almost blind in one eye is not necessarily incapable of performing his essential duties, said a federal appeals court Tuesday, in reinstating the policeman’s Americans with Disabilities Act claim.
Carlos Melo, who began working as a police officer for the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1997, suffered an injury in 2002 that resulted in the loss of almost all vision in his left eye, according to the ruling by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston in Carlos Melo v. City of Somerville, Chief David Fallon. He became a station officer in 2007.
After an exam where the physician learned he had lost his vision, Mr. Melo was involuntarily retired. He filed suit in U.S. District Court in Boston, charging violations of the ADA and state law.
The district court granted the city summary judgment dismissing the case, ruling in part that no reasonable jury could find Mr. Melo could perform high-speed pursuit driving, which the court considered to be an essential job function.
The ruling was overturned by a unanimous three-judge appeals court panel.
The Massachusetts Division of Human Resources’ “Initial-Hire Medical Standards” manual states newly hired police officers must have at least 20/100 vision in either eye, said the ruling.
But that is only for initial hires, it said. “There is good reason, too, to doubt that medical standards for new hires must be applied to remove experienced officers from service,” the ruling said.
Massachusetts medical standards “thus leave room for the possibility that seeing at least 20/100 in each eye is not a requirement for continued service as a police officer in Somerville.
“And this possibility finds proof of the pudding in the eating: In nineteen years, there has apparently never been an instance in which Melo’s vision prevented him from successfully performing his job. Nor does the City test the vision of its incumbent officers.
“In short, there is some evidence in the record to allow a reasonable jury to find that seeing at least 20/100 in each eye is not a requirement for Melo’s job,” said the ruling.
The decision said also that “pursuit driving” is not listed among the 41 duties and responsibilities of Somerville patrol officers. Mr. Melo has never had to perform pursuit driving during his 19 years on the force, said the ruling.
“And the record contains no other evidence that any Somerville officer has ever had the need to engage in pursuit driving, much less while serving as a station officer,” said the ruling, in vacating the lower court’s judgment and remanding the case for further proceedings.
Mr. Melo’s attorney, Timothy R. Burke, of the Law Offices of Timothy R. Burke, in Needham, Massachusetts, said, “It’s clear that my client could and did perform all of the so-called ‘essential functions’ of a police officer, and in particular a station officer, and that he had been doing so for over 13 years.
“There was never any indication that he was unable to perform these functions during the entirety of the 13 years since had lost the sight in one of his eyes.”
Mr. Burke said, “This is a significant decision in that it provides guidelines for other officers who have been injured on duty and provides a potential for them to continue to work despite the significance of their injuries.”
Attorneys in the case had no comment or could not be reached.
A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court ruling and held a statute of limitations does not apply to litigation filed against a Colorado city charged with violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.