The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has ordered the city to rehire a man who failed a fire department physical examination shortly after he entered the fire academy in May 1985.
As a result of the decision, Charles E. Johnson, now 36, is eligible to re-enter the fire academy with back wages. "I had wanted to be a firefighter since I was a kid," Johnson said today. "When they fired me, I was heartbroken."
That hurt was translated into determination, he said, when he chose to battle to "get back what was rightfully mine."
"I had left a job with 12 years' seniority and when I went to join the fire department, I lost all that time," he said. "I couldn't get it back."
Johnson was a probationary employee when he failed a mandatory physical examination more than six years ago. He filed a disability discrimination case with the Baltimore Community Relations Commission as a result of his dismissal.
If Johnson had remained in the fire department, he would be earning -- absent any promotions -- $33,891 as a six-year veteran firefighter plus benefits equaling about 25 percent of his base salary, said Jeffrey A. DeLisle, president of Fire Fighters Local 734. To be reinstated, Johnson must graduate from the fire academy. DeLisle said the Fire Department has not told the union when the next class is scheduled. Johnson, who now works as a distributor for a firm that makes frozen foods, said, "They will let me know in a couple of weeks" when he is to report for training. DeLisle said he expected a new academy class to begin before the first of the year but did not have the exact date yet from the fire department.
Johnson, who has a brother in the department, was hired by the fire department in April 1985 subject to passing a physical exam. He passed the exam pending the results of X-rays and started through the fire academy.
Several weeks later, he was notified by the city Office of Occupational Medicine and Safety that X-rays indicated a bone spur in the cervical region of his spine which was complicated by arthritis. The office handles physical examinations for city employees. Johnson was dismissed from the academy because the city contended that his condition would negatively affect his job performance and endanger his co-workers, said Norris Ramsey, an attorney who handled the case for the community relations commission.
The commission found a basis for a hearing. Hearing examiner Milton B. Allen, a former Circuit Court judge, ruled in April 1987 that the city failed to prove beyond a mere possibility that Johnson's physical condition might create a hazard to himself and to others. The dismissal violated the city's anti-discrimination law, Allen said. "Johnson had been active in playing football, baseball and was a runner, all without any kind ,, of physical limitations," Ramsey said. "In his former job, before being hired by the fire department, he had been required to move around heavy drums."
The commission affirmed Allen's decision and ordered the city to reinstate Johnson with full back pay. The city ignored the order and the commission filed suit in Circuit Court to force the city to comply. Judge Thomas Ward upheld the commission in September 1990. The city then appealed to the appellate court, which handed down its decision last week. Chief Deputy City Solicitor Ambrose T. Hartman said the city could ask the Court of Appeals to hear the case, but a decision has not been made.
"It's been a long six years," Johnson said. "The ruling was just. I fought to get my job, that was the important issue to me."