Federal Jury Sides With City In ADA Lawsuit

OCEAN CITY — A federal jury yesterday found in favor of the town and the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) in an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) suit, ruling a former OCPD officer had not proven his diabetes was at the heart of his alleged wrongful termination.

In 2009, former OCPD officer David Catrino filed suit in U.S. District Court against the department and the town of Ocean City seeking injunctive relief and an undisclosed amount of compensatory and punitive damages against the defendants for wrongly denying him a reasonable accommodation to which he believes he was entitled under the ADA.

In short, Catrino, who was allegedly diagnosed with Type II diabetes, claimed he was wrongly dismissed in July 2007 when he left his post to eat to meet the needs of his condition before his scheduled shift was set to expire. After months of legal wrangling, the case finally came to trial in front of a federal jury starting Monday and had continued over the course of four days before the jury returned its verdict late yesterday.

On its verdict sheet, the jury was asked a series of questions, the answers to which would lead to the next question and finally to a resolution of the case. After deliberating yesterday, the jury never had to go past the first question after answering in the negative to the very first, which read “has the plaintiff proven by a preponderance of the evidence that on July 21, 2007, he suffered from a disability in accord with the definition set forth under the ADA?”

When the jury answered no to that first question, it did not need to go further on the questionnaire and the verdict came out in favor of the town and its police department.

Throughout the case, which dragged on for years, both Catrino and the town of Ocean City claimed victory at different times at the Worcester County Circuit Court level, and at arbitration and ultimately the Maryland Court of Appeals. 
Earlier this year, Catrino took his case to the federal level at U.S. District Court and the case was finally heard this week.

Ocean City Solicitor Guy Ayres said yesterday the jury’s verdict should bring a measure of closure to the long case, although Catrino has another appeal avenue open to him.
“It should be the end of it, but you never know with how this case has gone,” he said. “He started at arbitration, appealed that decision to the Circuit Court in Worcester County and then took it to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Theoretically, he could still file an appeal to the U.S. Fourth District, but generally these jury verdicts are hard to overturn.”

Ayres said he was happy there was finally some measure of closure in the case, although he was confident in the town’s position from the beginning.

“We’re very pleased, of course, but I can’t say I’m surprised,” he said. “I thought all along the town’s position was a strong one and the jury’s verdict bears that out.”

On July 21, 2007, Catrino alleged after working several hours in summer heat, he began to feel ill. On his way to get food, however, his supervisor, Sgt. Albert Custer, ordered the plaintiff to report first to the Public Safety Building and then to the foot of the Route 50 bridge. Catrino said in the complaint he completed the task and then, out of medical necessity, left his post to go home shortly before his scheduled shift was set to expire.

The town took the position that Catrino’s leaving his post was a voluntary resignation and refused to allow the plaintiff to return to work. Catrino adamantly denied he voluntary separated from his employment, asserting instead he was constructively discharged in violation of his ADA rights.

Earlier this year, the town of Ocean City filed a formal motion to dismiss the suit at the federal level, alleging Catrino voluntarily resigned his position in July 2007, citing a section in the employee handbook that reads “an employee who verbally quits and walks off the job will be seen to have voluntarily terminated.”

Ocean City has contended from the beginning Catrino’s conduct on July 21, 2007 amounted to a voluntary termination. The town and the OCPD contend it was only after his supervisors accepted his resignation that Catrino “changed his story and claimed he was feeling the effects of diabetes.”

Essentially, the case boiled down to a determination of whether or not the former OCPD officer voluntarily resigned when he left his position early, or whether the town wrongfully terminated Catrino in violation of his ADA rights. In August, a U.S. District Court judge denied the town’s motion to dismiss, opining the evidence did not support the claim Catrino voluntarily resigned his position.

“Based on all this evidence, a trier of fact could easily conclude that, by the end of the day on July 21, 2007, no one in the OCPD, including Custer, believed that the plaintiff had expressed an intent to quit his job after 13 years on the police force,” the opinion reads. “A finder of fact could also conclude, based on the evidence, that the decision to treat the plaintiff as though he had resigned was made two days earlier by Chief DiPino.”