Lee County sued by blind man claiming hiring discrimination

A legally blind man has filed a lawsuit against Lee County alleging that he was discriminated against because of his disability when he was not hired for a position at the Pine Island Branch Library.

Michael Phelps filed a lawsuit in the US District Court on February 15 alleging violations of the Disabled Americans Act and the Florida Civil Rights Act. The lawsuit alleges that he applied to the county several times but was not hired.

According to the lawsuit, Phelps previously worked in a West Virginia public library for six years. The lawsuit said he had submitted “multiple applications” for a position as a library worker in the Pine Island branch of the County Library System.

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A News Press review of the county’s organizational chart on Friday afternoon found that nine library staff positions across the county’s library system were rated “open”.

Lee County spokesman Tim Engstrom said Friday that no court records had been served to the county and that he had made no comment on the complaint.

Under the federal civil procedure rules, the county has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit once it has been officially served with court records.

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Jordan Richards of the United States Labor Attorneys, alleges that when he applied, Phelps was “qualified to perform the essential functions of the library profession,” and that he stated in the county application that that he was disabled and didn’t have a driver’s license.

“We want to level the playing field here to give people like Mr Phelps the same chance that non-disabled people would have when applying for a job,” said Richards. “Based on Mr. Phelps’ previous experience working for a public library, we believe that in Lee County, Florida, he should be given the same opportunity to serve as library staff as his previous position suggests.”

Phelps suffers from acute bilateral atrophy and has “struggled with blindness” since birth. The library assistant position “does not require a person to have perfect vision in order to perform the essential functions of the job”.

Discrimination against the blind is sometimes the result of potential employers who fail to understand what the blind can do, said Elly DuPre, executive director of Florida Agencies Serving the Blind, a consortium of 16 agencies serving the blind across the state . The consortium includes the North Fort Myers-based lighthouse in southwest Florida.

“I think they say, ‘Gee, if I closed my eyes I wouldn’t be able to do it,’ but the visually impaired have been doing things since they became impaired or blind,” DuPre said. “Applying that standard that ‘Gee, I can’t do it’ creates the problem, but it’s really ridiculous when you really think about it.”

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DuPre added that people who have been blind since birth tend to have unemployment rates similar to the general population, while those who go blind later in life face more difficult challenges in finding work because they have not developed skills to handle the job To make up for lack of location in their education years.

“People who have been blind since birth have learned other skills that can be used in the workplace,” she said. “He or she has mastered these communication, computer and braille skills.”

On September 18, 2020, an initial filing of the case was filed with the State Human Relations Commission and the Federal Equal Opportunities Commission, which was required prior to filing a lawsuit under the Disabled Americans Act.

Blind advocates say that people who have been blind since birth often learn additional skills to help them function in the workplace

Federal officials sent Phelps a letter on Jan. 21 affirming his right to sue the county for failure to recruit him due to his physical disability.

Phelps is looking for unpaid wages, damages, legal fees, and an order prohibiting the county from discriminating against him and others with a similar disability.

It is also alleged that Phelps provided information that the county could use to determine if he could get the job done by providing contact information with a previous employer, and that driving license requirements were not a valid reason to reject his application has been.

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Richards, Phelps’ attorney, alleges in the federal lawsuit that the denial of employment included the allegation that the county library system “requires applicants for positions at the Pine Island Library to have a valid driver’s license,” but he did cannot own such a license because of his disability.

“Having a valid driver’s license and being able to drive are not an integral part of the jobs Mr. Phelps sought at Lee County,” the lawsuit said.

DePre called the driving license requirement “a completely unthinkable barrier”.

“Nobody intended it to be an obstacle and you are dealing with a government bureaucracy and people follow the rule,” DuPre said. “You don’t need a driver’s license. You just have to be able to get somewhere, take a taxi, why is that important?”

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