Morbid Obesity and the Essential Job Functions of a Cop

January 22nd, 2008 by

When Paul Soto joined the NYPD in 1993, he was 25 years old and weighed 250 pounds. Ten years later, his weight ranged well above 300 pounds. As you might expect, he was having difficulty performing the essential functions of his job. He applied for disability retirement; pending review of his application, he was placed on light duty, which kept him in the precinct house on desk duty. During the year his application was under consideration, he tripped and fell on the way to his ortho specialist, injuring his knee to the point where he no longer could work at all.
The issue here is not Soto’s eligibility for disability benefits. At age 40, he is collecting half his pay, taxable. Soto contends that because he was working at the time of his fall, he should be able to collect job-related accidential disability benefits, which are higher than ordinary disability: he claimed that his fall on the way to the doctor was a work-related accident, because it occurred while he was on light duty. His case reached the NY Supreme Court, where Justice Judith Gische upheld the pension board’s rejection of the request. The justice ruled that the fall was due to morbid obesity and not to Soto’s functioning as a cop. Had Soto prevailed, his benefits would have increased to 75 percent of his former pay and would not have been taxable. There was a lot of money on the table.
The unfortunate Mr. Soto, who now weighs in at 500+ pounds, has been the subject of ridicule in the media. He inspired one of David Letterman’s Lists: Top Ten Signs a Police Officer is Too Fat. (The not-very-funny list can be found here.)
Essential Job Functions
The over-riding issue is one of functional capacity. Unlike firefighters, NY cops are not required to pass periodic physical exams. They are tested as job applicants, but once in, there are essentially in forever. Police administrators, like everyone else, operate in the shadow of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, police unions severely constrain any actions taken against veteran cops. Too bad. When you take into account the public safety dimension, it’s pretty clear that some objective physical (and mental) standards for cops are needed – at the time of hire and throughout their careers.
As for Paul Soto, once he was unable to perform his job duties, he should have been given an ultimatum: lose weight or lose your job. Every reasonable effort to help him lose weight should have been made. Unless you accept the argument that his weight gain was something totally beyond his control, he should have been held accountable for his conditioning. That would have been better for the NYPD and ultimately, better for Soto himself. The system that now pays him to do nothing has done a disservice to the taxpayers and to a once productive citizen.