Faced with a deteriorating kidney condition that could require a transplant some day, Malcolm F. Cobbs is fighting for his job with the Prince George's County Fire Department.
The department says he is disabled simply because he has the progressive disease, although doctors say he is not now physically prevented from working as a firefighter.
Underlying the dispute is the issue of costly future medical and retirement benefits: If he remains a firefighter for five years, Mr. Cobbs would become a vested employee and the department's pension system would have to pay him those benefits. He was let go in January 1990 after 15 months of service
After nearly two years of administrative appeals that failed to recover his job, Mr. Cobbs this week sued the fire department in Baltimore federal court for handicap discrimination. He wants to return to work and get back pay.
"Absolutely, I'm capable of fighting fires today," said Mr. Cobbs, 28, of Baltimore, who has been working odd jobs as a landscaper and laborer. "I passed the physical tests with flying colors less than a month ago, and the only reason they say I failed is because they knew I had a kidney disease."
John S. Singleton, his lawyer, said the county's main objective is to avoid the potentially high cost of medical benefits that Mr. Cobbs might need, although it is not certain that his condition will deteriorate to that point.
A kidney transplant can cost at least $75,000, and kidney dialysis treatment and drugs can run $30,000 a year, medical experts say.
The county denied that the potential medical liability influenced the decision to let Mr. Cobbs go.
"We don't think he is fit to be a firefighter," responded Michael Connaughton, deputy attorney for Prince George's County. "Based on his renal disease, he failed his physical [exam] and that's it. The fire department made a decision based on sound operational principles that they want healthy people fighting fires."
The federal lawsuit argues that Mr. Cobbs was fired illegally because he has a handicap but not one that disqualifies him from doing the job. The employer must accommodate his condition, the suit asserts, instead of declaring him unfit.
Mr. Cobbs was hired as a firefighter-trainee in September 1988. Four months later, he was diagnosed with chronic glomerulosclerosis, which will gradually cause his kidneys to lose their cleansing capacity.
Although his physicians and a specialist consulted by the county's Medical Advisory Board found that the kidney condition would not prevent him from functioning as a firefighter, the fire department ruled that it would.
A hearing examiner for the fire department's Disability Review Board ruled in July that Mr. Cobbs should be given a pre-employment physical exam, while recommending that the kidney disease alone not disqualify him.
Last month, Mr. Cobbs passed that physical and related tests. But because he listed the kidney condition on his medical history, Dr. Wayne Friestad at Prince George's Hospital Center ruled that Mr. Cobbs was disqualified.
"If they wait long enough, they may see me with dialysis or a transplant," Mr. Cobbs said yesterday. "But I feel fine, and I've got a lot of time left."