Fired Oregon officer: Alcoholism was a disability
PORTLAND — A police officer fired for driving drunk in an unmarked police car while off-duty has filed a $6 million lawsuit against the city of Gresham, the police chief and others, alleging his rights were violated under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The lawsuit filed in Portland alleged the officer, Jason Servo, was suffering from alcoholism, a recognized disability under the act, and shouldn't have been dismissed. The suit also alleged Servo was denied due process, and the police union failed to represent him adequately.
"Just as with any type of disability or disease, they should have made some kind of effort to accommodate that, or some kind of effort to work with him, and not simply sever all ties," said Shawn Kollie, one of Servo's attorneys.
Police Chief Craig Junginger was out of the office Friday. City spokeswoman Laura Shepard said officials would not discuss the case because their policy is to not talk about pending litigation.
Servo, 43, was arrested in January 2011 after he crashed into a ditch while off-duty. The lawsuit said that Servo, a detective who was the department's lead firearms instructor, had taken the police vehicle to a firearms training session in the nearby city of Troutdale. He later joined fellow officers for dinner and drinks.
"This was a common practice among (Gresham) officers and had become an inherent part of the culture," according to the lawsuit filed late Thursday.
Servo was alone when his vehicle veered into a ditch and he was not hurt. Though Servo refused to take breath or field sobriety tests, the Clackamas County sheriff's deputy who arrested him later testified before the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training that Servo probably was one of the top 10 most intoxicated people he had arrested in almost 15 years of drunken-driving investigations.
Two months after the accident, Servo pleaded guilty to drunken driving and entered a diversion program. He fulfilled the program's requirements, and the DUII was dismissed.
Servo also voluntarily entered an inpatient program at a Serenity Lane drug-and-alcohol treatment center, where he was diagnosed as an alcoholic. "There were times where I went home and I couldn't get crime scenes out of my head; I went to drinking for that and there are other officers that do the same thing," Servo said Friday, adding that he now has been sober for 818 days.
The lawsuit alleged the chief fired Servo to save money, ignoring the known disability of alcoholism. "I know it sounds kind of like a conspiracy theorist's claim," Kollie said, "but we do believe there was a funding issue in the Gresham Police Department at the time."
It could not immediately be determined how common it is for alcoholics to claim their rights have been violated under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in a fact sheet, provides an example of how an alcoholic can justly be fired, and it's similar to the Servo case.
In its example, a federal police officer is involved in an accident for which he is charged with drunken driving. About a month later, he gets a termination notice stating that his conduct makes it inappropriate for him to continue. The officer says the arrest made him realize he is an alcoholic and that he is obtaining treatment. According to the EEOC, the employer may proceed with the firing.
The example, of course, is not precise because Servo's crash happened while he was off-duty. "The ADA has provisions in it, across the board, to not require employers to subject other people to unreasonable risk to accommodate a disability," said Bob Joondeph, executive director with Disability Rights Oregon.
Joondeph said he couldn't comment on any specifics in the Servo case, but generally accommodations for an alcoholic might include letting the worker attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — not allowing them to drink on the job or drive drunk.
Separate from the lawsuit, Servo is appealing the standards-and-training agency's decision to strip him of his police certification.
Servo now is working as a private investigator.