In a recent case, an officer was up for promotion until his superiors heard a concerning rumor.
The department conducted an additional round of interviews for the job and ultimately awarded the promotion to someone else.
The officer claimed retaliation and discrimination, but an appellate court disagreed.
In the case of LeBlanc v. McDonough, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the defendant, finding that discrimination claims were unsupported.
Six years after starting with the Department of Veteran’s Administration Police Department (VAPD), Officer Jesse LeBlanc was diagnosed with vestibular dysfunction, a condition which causes dizziness and blurred vision.
LeBlanc said the department’s “Panama Schedule” (rotating day and night shifts every two weeks) could be exacerbating his health issues and requested an accommodation.
The department granted a temporary switch to all day shifts while management reviewed. However, lawyers for the VAPD later advised that giving LeBlanc consistent day shifts could violate the VAPD’s collective bargaining agreement, as it would require other officers to work more nights, more weekends, and more irregular hours.
In response, the VAPD provided LeBlanc with an alternative accommodation — reassignment to another position. Unhappy with the reassignment, LeBlanc asked the department to reconsider. But upon review of the evidence, LeBlanc’s request was denied.
A job opening and a rumor
Around that time, LeBlanc also applied for a job as a training instructor with the VAPD. After an initial round of interviews, his application was rated higher than that of the other candidate.
However, during the interview process, the department chief heard a “third or fourth hand” rumor. Allegedly, LeBlanc had said he would flee from an active shooter situation. The chief followed the rumor to its purported source, who confirmed LeBlanc had made that statement. LeBlanc denies this.
A new round of interviews
In light of the allegations, the chief organized a second round of interviews in which he himself participated. (This was not a typical occurrence).
New questions hinted at the allegations, asking candidates what they would do if they disagreed with department training and how they would respond if an employee was promoting a message that contradicted department training.
Additionally, the department also requested three references for each candidate. Two of those references gave LeBlanc a less favorable recommendation than the competing candidate.
A discrimination claim
After the additional review, LeBlanc received a lower score.
Of note, both interviewers gave identical scores across all 17 qualification categories. LeBlanc did not receive the promotion and ultimately sued, claiming that the department 1) failed to provide a reasonable accommodation, 2) the VAPD discriminated against him on the basis of his disability when it didn’t hire him as a training instructor, and 3) that the VAPD’s decision not to hire him was retaliation for his accommodation request.
LeBlanc claimed the unusual nature of the hiring process showed the real reason for his non-selection was disability discrimination.
He used the identical rating results (across 17 categories) to support his claim. However, VAPD policy permits panelists to discuss interviews and the scores they intend to assign.
Additionally, LeBlanc argued the VAPD made minimal investigation into his alleged active shooter comments. For instance, he was never approached directly with the accusation. According to LeBlanc, this showed that the department didn’t believe the allegations were credible.
The court’s findings
The court found that the VAPD had made the “only available reasonable accommodation —reassignment” in giving LeBlanc an alternate position, and that they worked with LeBlanc in good faith to find an acceptable accommodation.
As to LeBlanc’s claim of promotion discrimination, the VAPD argued that he wasn’t the best candidate for the job. From there the burden shifted back to LeBlanc to demonstrate the VAPD’s proffered reason for not hiring him was mere pretext. The court found that LeBlanc did not meet that burden.
Regarding LeBlanc’s assertion that the VAPD did not sufficiently investigate the rumor and therefore could not have believed it credible, the court held that “shortcomings in an investigation do not by themselves support an inference of discrimination.”