Today’s blog entry is one of those situations where I read a case and asked myself whether the court could have gotten to the same place more elegantly than the way it did. The case of the day is Bruno v. Chasity Wells-Armstrong, here, decided by the Seventh Circuit on February 23, 2024. As usual, the blog entry divided into categories and they are: facts; court’s reasoning that failure to accommodate claim fails; court’s reasoning that disparate treatment claim fails; court’s reasoning that retaliation claim fails; and it was entirely possible to get to the same place in a different way/thoughts- takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.





Jeffrey Bruno, a veteran firefighter with the Kankakee Fire Department suffered a severe cardiac event in September 2017. After he recuperated and returned to work, Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong promoted him to Deputy Chief. But in the summer of 2019, after Bruno had worked in that position for over a year, Wells-Armstrong denied him a raise and then presented him with an employment contract that conditioned additional compensation on his enrollment in college courses. Bruno asked James Ellexson, the Human Resources Director for the City of Kankakee, to remove this education condition as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act because his heart condition prevented him from attending classes. But Ellexson refused. Bruno signed the contract nonetheless and retired soon thereafter. Plaintiff brought suit under the ADA and under the Illinois Human Rights Act for discrimination and retaliation. Other relevant facts include:


  1. After recovering, he returned to work in December 2017 and applied to be Assistant Chief later that month. Despite knowing that Bruno lacked a bachelor’s degree, in early 2018, Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong selected Bruno to be the Assistant Chief (the title was later changed to Deputy Chief) over candidates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. After his promotion, Bruno reenrolled in college courses for the 2018 spring semester but did not continue beyond that semester because his doctor advised him to stop attending.
  2. Bruno worked as Deputy Chief for the entirety of 2018 without a contract. In January 2019, Wells-Armstrong and Ellexson presented him with a contract covering February 6, 2018, to April 30, 2019, that required him to enroll in college courses to keep his position. Bruno asked that the provision be removed. Ellexson agreed, and Bruno was permitted to remain Deputy Chief without enrolling if he obtained a doctor’s note excusing him from taking classes, which he did.
  3. Months later, in the summer of 2019, Wells-Armstrong decided to deny Bruno a raise because of his perceived insubordination—a failure to “separate from the ranks.” This stemmed from concerns that Bruno had leaked information from a confidential management discussion and criticized Ellexson’s management decisions to rank-and-file firefighters. In July 2019, Ellexson directed Bruno to cease speaking with a Kankakee Fire Department firefighter who had sued the City for sex discrimination. But Bruno defied that directive and continued to speak with her. Ellexson and Wells-Armstrong believed that Bruno had shared information with the firefighter because her lawsuit included information known only to Ellexson, Bruno, and the Kankakee Fire Department Chief. Bruno claimed he was unaware of any issue of trust until August 2019. But before that date, he had participated in a counseling session with Ellexson to discuss leadership and the expectations for the position which covered the importance of confidentiality.
  4. Wells-Armstrong decided to not give Bruno a raise, Wells-Armstrong (and Ellexson) but still offered Bruno a new contract on July 31, 2019, covering May 1, 2019, to April 30, 2020, that would entitle him to additional compensation if he returned to college. Bruno again requested that the education condition be removed as an accommodation under the ADA. This time, Ellexson refused to waive the provision, asserting that its removal was not a reasonable accommodation. Bruno signed the contract anyway, but soon after submitted his retirement paperwork and ceased his employment with the Kankakee Fire Department.



Court’s Reasoning That Failure to Accommodate Claim Fails


  1. Recovery under a failure to accommodate theory requires proving that: 1) the plaintiff was a qualified individual with a disability; 2) the defendant was aware of the plaintiff’s disability; and 3) the defendant failed to reasonably accommodate the plaintiff’s disability.
  2. A reasonable accommodation is something that enables the employee to perform the essential functions of the employment position.
  3. Reasonable accommodations are expressly limited to those measures enabling the employee to work.
  4. The duty of reasonable accommodation is satisfied when the employer does what is necessary to enable the worker with a disability to work in reasonable comfort.
  5. An adverse employment action is not needed to prevail on a failure to accommodate theory.
  6. Bruno’s request to waive the education condition was not a request for a measure that would enable him to do his essential job functions and therefore not a request for reasonable accommodation. That is, Bruno would’ve needed to go beyond his duties to obtain the pay bump. The defendant did not need to provide accommodation to allow Bruno to go beyond his essential job functions and thus attain the pay bump, let alone allow him to obtain the pay bump without satisfying the education condition.
  7. Since the pay bump did not depend on Bruno performing his essential duties, the defendants did not have to provide an accommodation enabling him to obtain it because doing so would have been awarding him compensation that he did not earn.
  8. Attending college was not a requirement of his job.




Court’s Reasoning That Disparate Treatment Theory Fails


  1. The defendants prevail because they are able to show that they had independent reasons for terminating Bruno and that the reasons were not a pretext.
  2. Bruno admitted that Ellexson believed he had leaked information from a confidential discussion and that he had a counseling session with Ellexson covering the importance of keeping such discussion confidential.
  3. Bruno also admitted that he went against Ellexson’s order to not speak with a firefighter that had sued the city before he was presented with the second contract. Therefore, Bruno effectively admits that he not only engaged in insubordination but also that the defendant genuinely believed that he had done so.



Court’s Reasoning That Retaliation Claim Fails


  1. Bruno only identified as a protected activity his continued contact with the firefighter who filed a sex discrimination claims against the city. That doesn’t have anything to do with an ADA protected activity. Therefore, the retaliation claim fails.



It Was Entirely Possible to Get To The Same Place In A Different Way/Thoughts- Takeaways


  1. This case could have more elegantly gone off on the principle that an employer does not have to modify an essential function of the job. There is plenty of evidence from the opinion that a college degree was an essential eligibility requirement for the position Bruno sought.
  2. I don’t understand why Bruno could not have completed his college classes over the Internet. Colleges offer online degrees and classes over the Internet all the time. Even colleges that are predominantly residential, will offer classes over the Internet. It doesn’t seem like the record was fully developed on this.
  3. Personal liability, with one exception for retaliation claims occurring within the 11th Circuit involving employees of a nonfederal governmental entity, is not a thing under the ADA. That is, individual liability is not something seen under title I, title II, or title III, with the exception of what is noted above (see this case). State laws may vary of course, so be sure to check your jurisdiction on that.
  4. An employer is free to adjust essential qualifications for a job at any time.
  5. I do note that employers are moving away from requiring college degrees as a matter of course for every job.
  6. In order to be a qualified person with a disability, an employee must satisfy the requisite training, skills, and experience for that position. Arguably, Bruno did not have that here.
  7. The court’s statement, citing to another case, that “reasonable accommodation is expressly limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work,” raises the question of whether essential functions of the job are what is accommodated or whether it is the disability that is accommodated. As we have discussed in our blog, such as here for example, depending on the place, courts are a bit all over the place as to whether they are focusing on the disability or the essential job function when it comes to accommodation.
  8. The court’s statement, citing to another case, that “the duty of reasonable accommodation is satisfied when the employer does what is necessary to enable the disabled worker to work in reasonable comfort,” is problematic. It is not a question of whether a person with a disability can work in reasonable comfort, the rather the question is whether the person with the disability can get to the same starting line as a person without a disability. In other words, can a person with a disability perform the essential functions of their job with or without reasonable accommodations.
  9. As we have seen from our blog entries, such as here, it isn’t the rule everywhere that an adverse employment action is not needed to prevail on a failure to accommodate theory. Check your jurisdiction on that.
  10. Also, as we discussed here, McDonnell Douglas as a summary judgment tool is very much up in the air. Check your jurisdiction on that as well.
  11. The case does not appear to be published, but I am not 100% certain of that.