Baltimore Co. police detective wins $225,000 award in lawsuit

Veteran detective contended his rights were violated years after suffering seizure

April 28, 2010|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

After a six-day trial, a federal jury awarded $225,000 on Wednesday to a Baltimore County police detective who suffered a seizure on the job in 1996.

William Blake, 40, who remains in the department, contended in his suit against the county's government that it had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by ordering him to submit to neurological and fitness-for-duty tests 10 years after he had the seizure.

Blake, a member of the department since 1987, was pronounced ready to work three weeks after becoming ill, returned to his duties and suffered no further epileptic episodes.

But in August 2006, Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, who had just been appointed the Baltimore County police chief, ordered that Blake be given an electroencephalogram, which measures electrical activity in the brain, and other tests to determine whether he was fit to serve as a police officer.

Blake, a decorated member of an undercover intelligence unit, contended in his suit that he had served with distinction for his entire career and that, apart from the single seizure, had shown no evidence of illness or inability to perform his job.

Sheridan's order to have him tested, Blake said, amounted to an invasion of his rights under federal law, which penalizes discrimination against anyone with a disability. The 12-member jury took two hours Wednesday to reach a verdict in Blake's favor. The case was heard in a downtown Baltimore courtroom by U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg.

"I am so proud to have represented such an extraordinary officer, and to see justice done," Kathleen Cahill, the detective's attorney, said by telephone Wednesday afternoon.

In January, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was opening an investigation into whether Baltimore County officials had established a "pattern and practice" of violating the rights of employees under the ADA.

"This is an important case for many Baltimore County employees," Cahill said, referring to the Blake case in the context of the federal investigation. "This is just a preview."

Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for the Baltimore County government, said that the county's attorney, John E. Beverungen, was reviewing the case and has 30 days to decide whether to appeal.

In his lawsuit, Blake suggested that Sheridan's order to have him tested was an act of reprisal for his testimony at an appeals hearing on behalf of a colleague. That officer, Philip Crumbacker, was challenging his forced retirement after having had a seizure, and Blake testified that he too had suffered a so-called "potential seizure" on the job but had fully performed his duties thereafter without any problems or challenges from the department.

Blake said in his suit that, before ordering him tested, Sheridan did not review the detective's testimony at the appeals hearing and failed to review his personnel file or medical history. Nor did the chief obtain advice from experts in epilepsy, Blake said.

In court documents, Blake recalled that Col. Mary Kim Ward, who headed the department's human resources office until 2007 and now runs its community resources bureau, repeatedly raised with Sheridan the question of why Blake was being ordered to submit to an electroencephalogram after he had been declared fit for duty. She never got an answer, according to the suit.

Ward testified in a deposition that she did not believe there would have been "an imminent threat of serious harm" to the department or the public if Blake had declined to submit to the electroencephalogram.

Sgt. Cole Weston, president of the officers' union, the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 4, said after the verdict that he believed the chief's order to test have Blake tested "was a result of his testimony" in the Crumbacker case.

"It's been a long ordeal for Bill," Weston said. "I would hope that he and his family would be able to put this behind them."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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