A former correctional officer at a Maryland jail claims he was fired because he lost his leg and had to get a prosthetic.
Joseph Watts’ union says the Prince George’s County jail violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
A severe infection due to diabetes caused the amputation.
“The decision was made to go ahead and remove the foot, which they did a below the knee amputation,” Watts said.
Even with infection spreading, Watts said he put off surgery because of his job.
“I recently was promoted to lieutenant, acting lieutenant, and I didn't want that to affect my promotion because I worked so hard for it,” he said.
Watts had to learn to walk all over again, remaining focused on returning to work.
“I had my stumbles and I had my falls but I got up and kept going,” he said.
His doctor cleared Watts to return to the jail and work full duty. He said the jail ordered him to take an agility test first, even though that test is normally for new officers. The jail told him he didn't pass and put him on light duty.
“I believe that was a means to try to discourage me,” Watts said.
The jail’s union president, Lt. Tammie Owens, who's worked at the jail for 30 years, said she’s never seen a returning officer asked to take such a test.
When Watts returned to the jail, he was doing the job he was assigned to do as a lieutenant. Although the jail called it light duty, the union said that's the job lieutenants do in that jail. The only thing Watts didn't do was walk the cell block. According to the union, that was because his direct supervisor told him not to do it.
“The department — not his doctor — but the department placed him on light duty,” Owens said. “Even when his doctor was giving him documentation saying you're full duty, they wanted more, more, more and was not allowing him to come off in a full-duty status.”
The jail told Watts he used up his light duty time and fired him 11 months after he returned to work.
Watts said he was never cited for bad behavior and never got a bad review in his 15 years at the jail.
Employment attorney Denise Clark, who specializes in disability discrimination, said complaints like this are becoming more common as laws to protect people with disabilities expand.
“The agencies tend to not want to embrace what the ADA is today,” she said. “It's a much broader statute. It provides employees with greater rights with regards to demonstrating not just that they have an impairment, but that there is an accommodation that can be provided to them so that they can continue to work.”
Watts said he can do the job and he wants to again.
“Working in this field of work, where we are given care, custody and control over other people's family members, and if you treat me like this, one of your own, what do we expect how you’re going to treat them?” he said.
The Prince George’s County jail said it can’t comment because this is a legal matter.
Watts and his union representatives will appeal his termination to the county personnel board in October.
Watts also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.