Home » Ohio firefighter case – Columbus v Liebhart

Ohio firefighter case – Columbus v Liebhart

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This page does not apply outside Great Britain.
Last updated 8th January 2009 (part update 20th June 2020).

In this United States case, there was held to be discrimination where an applicant for a fire fighter job was turned down because he stammered in the interview. He had worked as a fire fighter for 10 years and his stuttering did not interfere with the performance of his job duties.

Ohio Court of Appeals. 86 Ohio App.3d 469, 621 N.E.2d 554 (1993). Full decision: leagle.com.

The plaintiff had served for 10 years as a part-time auxiliary fire fighter, had extensive fire-fighting and leadership experience, and had been rated as “excellent” by his co-workers. He applied for a full-time position with the City of Columbus Fire Department, and was rejected because he stuttered during his oral interview.

The plaintiff’s stuttering was found to be a ‘handicap’ within Ohio anti-discrimination legislation. The next question was whether or not he was “qualified to safely and substantially perform the essential functions of the job in question,” in view of the fact that “clear, concise, and timely communication in the context of fighting a fire is an essential function of the job”. The evidence established that his stuttering was less of a problem when he was performing his duties as a fire fighter than in everyday conversation. His “stuttering did not interfere with the performance of his job duties.”

The initial decision was that the plaintiff was not qualified to perform the functions of the job within the relevant test, because he failed his oral interview. Ohio’s Civil Rights Commission strongly disagreed – it considered that the oral interview was an improper selection device because it was an “insurmountable barrier to a speech impaired individual’s employment opportunities to becoming a firefighter.” However, this reasoning of the Commission was rejected by the trial court, which held that the interviewers were the ones to determine if his communication problem constituted a significant hazard in the firefighting context.

The Ohio Court of Appeals reversed the trial court – i.e. it decided in favour of the person who stuttered. The Ohio Court of Appeals said:

“The only evidence [the City] presented was the fact that Liebhart could not speak in a job interview – a totally different situation from that presented in a blazing building. The firefighters and assistant safety director simply assumed that Liebhart’s stuttering is caused by nervousness and would get worse in a stressful fire situation…. They made their assessments of his abilities on the basis of assumptions about his handicap which had no basis in fact. This type of discrimination is exactly what the handicap discrimination law was designed to eliminate.”

My comment

This is not a UK case but is an excellent illustration of the point that speech in an interview is often a poor guide to how a person’s communication will be in the job. Judging a person who stammers by their speech at interview can create an artificial and unnecessary barrier to employment.

Other examples of firefighters who stammer/ stutter

It was reported in 2020 that an American claim by someone rejected as a firefighter because of their stammer was settled with payment of agreed compensation: Aspiring firefighter blocked by stutter wins settlement from City of Milwaukee (eu.jsonline.com), June 2020. It is a pity there is nothing on why the employers settled; in Columbus v Liebhart there was evidence the claimant could do the job.

There are further examples of firefighters who stammer on my page Examples of jobs>Firefighter.

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