Court Rejects Employee’s Attempt to Turn an Incentive Into an Entitlement

October 26, 2022

Many, if not most, employers offer their employees financial incentives for going beyond the minimum job duties. Earn an additional degree, exceed a sales threshold, or recruit new hires, and you get a bonus. A recent federal court decision preserves the ability of employers to offer such incentives without risk that some disgruntled employee will weaponize disability protections to demand the money without fulfilling the obligations.

The case arose from a veteran firefighter who due to a cardiac condition needed a desk job. The City promoted him to Deputy Chief even though he lacked a college degree, which the other candidates possessed, but conditioned the promotion on him reenrolling in college. Months later, the firefighter claimed that his health prevented him from working and taking classes at the same time. So, the City waived the requirement of attending classes as long as he had a doctor’s note.

In the next contract, the City eliminated the return-to-school requirements entirely. Instead, it added an extra 2% stipend if the employee was enrolled in college. The deputy chief then demanded the stipend regardless of enrollment, and claimed he was seeking a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The City refused, saying that if he wanted the extra money, he had to meet the condition. Moreover, the City declined to give him an annual raise because the mayor and HR director believed he had been leaking confidential management discussions to the rank and file. The firefighter promptly quit, and then sued.

A federal district judge granted the defendants summary judgment on all counts. It recognized that the City accommodated the firefighter’s disability in the first contract when it waived the requirement that he maintain college enrollment in order to keep his position. As to the second contract, it held that the education incentive was a bonus or incentive, because it was not compensation for ordinary duties, but an irregular, and discretionary offer to pay more if the employee did more. It also rejected the firefighter’s ADA retaliation claims. Denial of the stipend was not retaliatory because the firefighter did not meet the condition.

Also, denial of an annual raise was not retaliatory. For one thing, several other department heads did not get annual raises that year. For another, the City’s belief that the new deputy chief was leaking confidential information provided a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for not increasing his salary.

The City was represented in this suit by Hervas, Condon, and Bersani partners Mike Condon and David Mathues.

Bruno v. Wells-Armstrong, et al.

Leave a Reply