Judge Veronica Rossman, nominated by President Biden to the Tenth Circuit, wrote a unanimous opinion that reversed the lower court and held that a disabled person with a disability should have his day in court to prove that his government employer failed to accommodate that disability on the job, as required by the Rehabilitation Act. The December 2023 decisions was in Hampton v Utah Department of Corrections (UDC).
What happened in this case?
Robert Hampton had previously worked for the Arizona Department of Corrections and was hired as a corrections officer by the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC). Because of a congenital birth condition, Hampton lacks two fingers on each hand, along with corresponding bones and muscles. UDC knew of Hampton’s disability and his possible need for accommodation when it hired him.
Hampton first worked in a temporary position, during which he carried a firearm almost 80 times. In order to become a permanent employee, Hampton had to, among other things, “train and qualify on UDC-approved” handguns. UDC’s firearms policy approves “only Glock brand firearms.” Although he managed to pass the test, Hampton explained that he felt unable to properly use the Glock because of his disability and asked to use a different handgun with similar capabilities instead, such as a Springfield 1911. UDC refused. Other issues arose as well, and UDC terminated Hampton.
After pursuing administrative remedies, Hampton filed suit in federal court under Section 504 of the Rehabilitatino Act, which prohibits state and local entities from discriminating against people on the basis of disability and requires that they provide “reasonable accommodations” for people’s disabilities. The district court, however, granted summary judgment to UDC without a trial. With respect to the reasonable accommodation issue, the lower court ruled that Hampton’s request was not reasonable because an “essential function” of the job, according to UDC’s firearms policy, was using the Glock weapon approved by the UDC policy. Hampton appealed.,
How did Judge Rossman and the Tenth Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?
Judge Rossman wrote a unanimous decision that reversed the lower court on the “reasonable accommodation” issue and ruled that Hampton should have his day in court to determine whether his requested accommodation was reasonable. In particular, Rossman rejected the holding that using a Glock was an “essential function” of the job simply because the UDC firearms’ policy approved only that specific weapon. As Judge Rossman explained in accord with precedent, an employer “may not turn every condition of employment which it elects to adopt” into an “essential job function, merely by including it in a job description” or policy. “To conclude otherwise,” she wrote, would “prevent Congress’ disability legislation from accomplishing its intended objective.” Since a jury “could conclude Mr. Hampton’s requested accommodation was plausibly reasonable,” she wrote, Hampton should have the chance to present his case to a jury. The lower court “erred in granting summary judgment to UDC.”
Judge Rossman’s ruling is obviously important to give Robert Hampton his day in court on his disability claim against UDC. It is also significant in other disability cases to prevent an employer from simply eliminating “reasonable accommodation” claims by effectively just saying so in its employment policies, particularly in the Tenth Circuit (including Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Kansas, and New Mexico). In addition, the ruling is an important reminder of the significance of promptly confirming high-quality Biden nominees like Judge Rossman to our federal courts.