Shrinks and Cops: Refusal to Hire for Failing Psychological Exam is Not Discrimination

In a recent non-precedential Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Cook v. City of Philadelphia, No. 15-2957 (3d Cir. 2016), an aspiring police officer's employment discrimination claim was tossed out of court on appeal.

In that case, Michael Cook graduated from Delaware County Police Academy and applied to be a Philadelphia police officer. Philly's finest offered Cook the job "conditionally" - meaning that before he could don the City's shield he needed to be examined by a licensed psychologist to determine if he was "psychologically capable to exercise appropriate judgment or restraint in performing the duties of a police officer." Unfortunately for Mr. Cook, the good doctor found that the aspiring police candidate rated poorly on such important factors as judgment, common sense and resistance or ability to deal with stress. Mr. Cook, like many police academy graduates in his position, was nonplussed by the psychologist's subjective finding that he was not psychologically "fit" to be a cop.

After he was denied employment, Cook sued under the Federal Rehabilitation Act. He claimed that the City unlawfully refused to hire him, despite his qualifications, because of a perceived psychological disability. The District Court granted the City's summary judgment motion to dismiss the claim, which was affirmed in the Third Circuit decision cited here.

Nothing in the decision should be surprising for employment lawyers or law enforcement professionals. In my experience, many departments are eager to hire a promising candidate only to find out that they cannot because of a failed psychological examination. Unfortunately, in such cases, the agency's hands are tied. Statistically speaking, I'm sure that the psychologists get it wrong sometimes - letting unfit officers get through the exam, and disqualifying candidates who would have made terrific law enforcement officers.

Nevertheless, the liability to public agencies is too great to appoint an officer notwithstanding his or her failed psychological (or medical) examination. New Jersey Civil Service Commission jurisdictions offer candidates the opportunity to appeal to a Medical Review Panel. However, as is made clear by the Third Circuit's recent decision, no one has the "right" to as important a public job as law enforcement.

It is NOT discrimination to deny a candidate's application based on the recommendations of a licensed psychological professional whose job is to vet potential candidates based on the bona fide job qualifications of a police officer.


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