City of Merced settles discrimination suit with firefighter

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comNovember 27, 2012 

The city of Merced has agreed to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit for $425,000.

The move comes after a Merced County Superior Court judge determined the city had violated the rights of Ryan Staiger, who filed a complaint against the Merced Fire Department.

The city of Merced hired Staiger as a firefighter in 2007. However, the offer was retracted after several medical exams concluded he had "residual affects" from an arm fracture he suffered as a teenager.

The city initially appealed the judge's decision, which would have forced the city to offer to rehire Staiger. However, officials recently decided to accept the settlement offer, which severs ties with the disgruntled party.

Staiger could not be reached for comment.

Nationwide standards

Based on the National Fire Protection Association standards, a city doctor and a private specialist each said Staiger was not fit to perform the essential duties of the job because of the limited range of motion in his right wrist and elbow, said Greg Diaz, city attorney.

"The standards that the city has adopted are nationwide standards," he said. "If we're going to err on the side of caution, I want to air on the side of making sure the public is safe and fellow firefighters are safe, rather than on the fear of lawsuits."

Staiger, who now works for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, disagreed with the city's conclusion. In 2008, he reached out to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing Commission.

The commission took up the case, arguing Staiger's condition had not prevented him from working as a wilderness firefighter, and that the city failed to properly establish his inability to perform all essential tasks.

According to the commission, the city should have done a more personal and through assessment, looking specifically at his ability to compensate for the limited range of motion in his right arm by rotating his shoulder.

"Employers cannot discriminate against job applicants perceived to be disabled," said Phyllis W. Cheng, Department of Fair Employment and Housing director. "The Fair Employment and Housing Act requires that employers engage in an interactive process to identify reasonable accommodations to perform essential job functions."

Right to 2nd opinion

At the same time, the commission asserted that the city failed to properly inform Staiger of his right to choose a doctor for a secondary medical opinion.

The city said it notified Staiger of his right to get his own doctor by phone, and maintained that the medical professionals employed by the city made the appropriate decision.

"This has been frustrating, because we think we ought to be able to rely upon the medical determination of our own doctors," Diaz said.

The settlement amount was largely based on wages and benefits Staiger would have accrued over the duration of the court battle, which started in Dec. 2009.

The city's insurance carrier has agreed to pay about $200,000 of the settlement amount.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service