Former utility worker with digestive disease sues City of Lawrence for alleged discrimination; city says he was fired for just cause

A former utility worker is suing the City of Lawrence for allegedly discriminating against him because of his disability, but the city says that he was fired for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons and that awarding him damages would be “unjust enrichment.”

The plaintiff, Deandre Simmons, was a utility operator with the city for about 18 months, from August 2016 through February 2018, according to court documents. In the lawsuit, filed in April in U.S. District Court, Simmons claims his inflammatory bowel disease qualified him as disabled and that in response to related absences and requests for leave due to required surgeries the city discriminated and retaliated against him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The lawsuit states that Simmons, who has ulcerative colitis, was informed in May 2017 that he would need three surgeries to remove his colon. Simmons had his first surgery in June 2017 and the second in August 2017, and did not work for about five months through a combination of sick pay and medical leave, according to the lawsuit. He returned to work on Oct. 30, 2017, and about a week ahead of his third surgery on Feb. 15, 2018, requested another leave of absence.

Following the leave request, the lawsuit claims the city requested that Simmons “write a compelling statement about why he should not be terminated.” Simmons wrote the statement and requested eight weeks off for recovery. The lawsuit states that the city denied the request and terminated him on March 1, 2018, citing disciplinary action from November 2017, the time-off request during the city’s busy season and a claim that Simmons lagged behind his co-workers because of his other absences.

However, the lawsuit disagrees with those reasons for the termination. It claims Simmons received a satisfactory performance review in December 2017 as well as a subsequent merit raise and that the denial of his leave request and his termination were actually discriminatory.

“Upon information and belief, the true reason for Plaintiff’s termination was because of his disability and because of his request for a reasonable accommodation for his disability,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit was filed on April 13, and the City of Lawrence recently filed its response. In its response, filed June 12, the city denied Simmons’ claims, stating in part that he failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities the city provided him to avoid harm. Specifically, the city states that Simmons failed to follow city procedures and policies and did not report any alleged harassment, discrimination or retaliation to the appropriate personnel and therefore cannot seek damages.

In addition, the city claims that it undertook reasonable, good faith efforts to accommodate Simmons, whether legally required or not, and therefore his claims for damages are barred. The city also argues that Simmons was fired for legitimate and nondiscriminatory reasons, stating that Simmons was unable to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without reasonable accommodation.

The lawsuit alleges two counts against the city, disparate treatment and retaliation, both in violation of the ADA. The lawsuit states that as a direct result of the city’s actions, Simmons was deprived of income and other benefits and has suffered loss of self-esteem, humiliation, emotional distress, and mental anguish and pain. Simmons, who now resides in Oklahoma, is requesting the court order the city to award him economic damages, including but not limited to back pay, lost benefits, injunctive relief and compensatory damages for his emotional suffering, as well as attorneys’ fees and costs related to bringing the lawsuit.

If Simmons were to be awarded damages from his complaint, the city states it would constitute “unjust enrichment.” Regarding the damages sought by Simmons, the city argues in part that awarding punitive damages would be excessive and therefore a violation of multiple parts of the U.S. and state constitutions.

Further proceedings in the case have not yet been scheduled.


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