COs with allergies can sue over Mich. inmate leader dog training program

Two COs said they were retaliated against after filing complaints alleging disability discrimination


By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press

LANSING, Mich. — Two Michigan corrections officers who are allergic to dogs say they found it difficult to go to work once their prison started a leader dog training program, and prison managers refused to move them to another area of the prison.

Now, the Michigan Court of Appeals says the Macomb Correctional Facility officers can proceed with their lawsuits alleging discrimination.

Kenneth McKenzie and Fatima Olden, both veteran officers at the prison in Lenox Township, sued in 2018 after the prison started a program in 2015 that prepared prisoners to train leader dogs for the blind.

McKenzie and Olden "alleged that they were allergic to dogs and would suffer allergic symptoms whenever they came into close contact with the dogs," according to a summary of the case included with a Michigan Court of Appeals opinion released Friday.

They complained to their supervisors and asked to be moved to areas of the prison away from the dogs. They were briefly moved to different housing units, but later moved back to where the dogs were located.

Both alleged they were retaliated against after they filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging disability discrimination.

The EEOC found probable cause that the department was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and proposed conciliation agreements between the officers and the department, but the department "refused the terms," according to the summary.

The central issue in the appeal was not the merits of the officers' cases, but whether the lawsuits can proceed in Wayne County Circuit Court, rather than in federal court, since many of the claims rely on federal statutes such as the ADA.

The Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that the cases can proceed in state circuit court.

"We are still reviewing the ruling," department spokesman Chris Gautz said.

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©2020 the Detroit Free Press

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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