The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday reversed a lower court ruling that had blocked a 22-year-old deaf man from becoming a lifeguard in Michigan.
The appeals court remanded the case to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan for further proceedings.
In 2006 Nicholas Keith, who has been deaf since birth, passed an Oakland County lifeguard training course with the help of an American Sign Language interpreter who relayed instructions but did not assist in performing lifesaving tasks.
During the following year, Keith completed the county’s lifeguard training program, also with the assistance of an interpreter, and was hired to be a guard at a wave pool, conditioned on an pre-employment physical.
According to court records, the doctor who performed the physical told Keith that he could not be a lifeguard because he is deaf.
In 2008 Keith applied for another position but was disqualified because of the earlier physical.
He filed a complaint accusing the county of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
The county argued that Keith was not qualified to be a lifeguard because he is unable to communicate effectively with lifeguards, patrons and injured people. The county also argued that hiring an additional lifeguard as an interpreter was an unreasonable accommodation.
Keith argued that the job offer was revoked because of “unfounded fear and speculation” and that he only needed an interpreter for instruction. He also complained that the county failed to make an individualized inquiry regarding his ability to do the job and determine whether he could be accommodated.
The district court ruled that the doctor failed to make an individualized inquiry but determined that the county, as the final decision-maker, did so adequately. The court ruled Keith failed to show he could perform essential communication functions and, as a result, the county had not violated the ADA.
In an 18-page ruling, the appeals court questioned how the county came to its individualized inquiry to satisfy the ADA mandate and determined reasonable minds could differ as to whether Keith was qualified.
The appeals court also ruled that a reasonable jury could find that providing an interpreter during meetings and instruction would be objectively reasonable and directed the court to address the merits of an argument over “interactive process.”
Attorneys for Keith and the county were unavailable for comment on Thursday.