by Mike Field
On August 7th, 2012, the Federal Department of Justice (DOJ) agreed to enter into a consent decree with Baltimore County for the purpose of settling a DOJ investigation of county employment practices under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that the county maintains are allowed by law. This agreement, signed by both county and dederal officials, completes that inquiry, and includes the following language in the final settlement: "The fact that the County has entered into this Consent Decree should in no way be considered as evidence of guilt or liability that it has violated the law in any way." Throughout the process, Baltimore County insisted that its employment practices in no way violated the ADA.
Lawyers are often faced with the dilemma of vigorously defending a lawsuit that the client believes has no merit, versus weighing the cost of litigation and other associated risks. The county was faced with just such a cost-benefit analysis in deciding whether to enter the consent decree and resolve this litigation with the DOJ.
Over the course of the last several years, thirteen individuals either filed or threatened to file charges with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that Baltimore County violated terms of the ADA during the county's routine medical examination procedures for its employees. By way of background, each and every year, the county processes thousands of pre-employment physical examinations, independent medical examinations, functional capacity examinations, disability retirements, and workers' compensation claims that are not challenged as violations of the ADA.
The Department of Justice began a review of the county's alleged violations to determine whether they would file suit on behalf of the individual complainants. The county was confident that its medical examination procedures would have been upheld in court. However, given the unlimited resources of the federal government, the county would have needed to hire private lawyers to assist the Office of Law in defending the case.
These private attorneys would no doubt have cost the taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars. The desire to protect taxpayer dollars was a key factor in the county’s willingness to reach an agreement with DOJ.
In this age of multi-million dollar judgments and soaring attorney's fees, the county must consider the potential cost to taxpayers of litigating against the federal government - an ordeal that would have been lengthy and costly, even if the county ultimately prevailed.
So with county taxpayers in mind, Baltimore County agreed to resolve 10 of the 13 cases at a cost of approximately $475,000, with an additional $30,000 in attorneys’ fees, which was the cost of compromise necessary to settle the case and fully resolve these 10 claims. The three remaining complainants made settlement demands that the county believed were unreasonable based upon the facts of those cases.
Should any of those complainants choose to file suit, the county law office will vigorously defend those cases on the merits, and it is not anticipated that outside attorneys will be hired to assist in those cases. As part of this agreement, DOJ agrees not to participate in the other three cases should those cases move forward.
It is important to note that the Baltimore County government employs nearly 8,000 employees, many of whom literally provide life and death public safety services. When the school system, community college, and library are included, the county provides workers compensation coverage for an additional 17,000 employees.
The county has a duty to ensure that its employees are fit to safely perform the jobs that the taxpayers are paying them to perform. For instance, if a police officer or firefighter is not completely fit to respond to an emergency, the consequences can be catastrophic – not only for that officer or firefighter, but for the citizens they are supposed to protect.
Federal and state laws permit the county to require specific medical exams prior to hiring a job applicant and they also require active employees to be medically cleared for duty when fitness for such duty is reasonably in question. These medical exams protect employees and citizens alike and Baltimore County cannot in good conscience operate in any other manner.