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Ex-Forsyth County firefighter alleges ADA violation in lawsuit

A former firefighter filed a lawsuit against Forsyth County last week which claims that by denying his request to return from medical leave in 2017 the county may have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to the complaint, in March 2017 Timothy Smallwood, a firefighter who had worked for the county for 15 years, was recommended by his doctor to take a leave of absence for “in-depth” treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The complaint stated that Smallwood had been diagnosed with PTSD in 2012 and that his “supervisors were aware of his medical conditions and treatment” since he was diagnosed with the disorder. 

It goes on to state that even though the PTSD affected various aspects of Smallwood’s day to day life, “PTSD did not prevent him from preforming the essential functions of his job.” 

The release states that on March 24, 2017 Smallwood took 12 weeks of medical leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees employees up to 12 weeks of job-protected and unpaid leave for medical and domestic reasons.

“As plaintiff’s FMLA leave expiration was approaching, plaintiff was informed he would need to request additional leave under the County Medical Leave policy in order to obtain more time to get clearance from his doctor to return to work,” according to the complaint. 

Smallwood applied for the new County Medical Leave on June 4, 2017, and, according to the complaint, even though the leave was granted, Smallwood’s employment was terminated on June 15, 2017. 

“On July 17, 2017, the county denied plaintiff’s ‘Request to Return from Medical Leave of Absence,’ stating within the denial that, ‘Fire Apparatus Operator is one of the most safety sensitive positions within the fire department.’” 

The complaint also alleges that on July 19, 2017, Smallwood was verbally told by County Human Resources representative Pat Carson that “his request to return to work was denied because of his PTSD and because the county deemed him to be a safety risk.”

“Despite his prior demonstration of his ability to perform the job, promotions and dedication to the county fire department for more than 15 years, plaintiff was advised he would not be allowed to return to work due to his PTSD and safety concerns,” the complaint stated. 

Smallwood received a promotion to sergeant from the county in August 2016, six months prior to his medical leave. 

The complaint concludes by charging the county with violations of both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. 

“Refusing to hire someone because of a disability when they are capable of performing the essential functions of the job is just as much a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as terminating someone because of their disability,” said J. Daniel Cole, an attorney for Smallwood. “The County Medical Leave policy makes no difference one way or another as to their being a violation of the ADA, whether considered a termination or a refusal to hire.”

Forsyth County Attorney Ken Jarrard declined to comment on the case for the FCN.