Disabled OPP officer alleges discrimination from colleagues, supervisors
Const. Nathan Flameling has filed an application with Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal alleging he has been harassed and denied appropriate accommodation by the OPP.
Const. Nathaniel Flameling was 24 when the 11-hour surgery he underwent to remove a rare stage 4 cancerous tumour from his left hip left him permanently disabled.
It was July 2008 and he was just six months into his dream job as an Ontario Provincial Police officer.
That dream was left in ashes; now 30, Flameling is alleging, in an application to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, that the OPP failed to appropriately accommodate his disability and allowed him to be harassed and discriminated against.
“I say sometimes that I’m the only person on Earth that’s been saved by bullets,” he says.
It was the magazine pouches on his duty belt digging into the tumour that eventually caused him enough pain to see a doctor.
The required surgery removed half the bones from his hip joint and pelvis, along with nerves and muscle tissue. It left Flameling cancer-free and still able to walk, but with a new reality.
He is unable to sit or stand for long periods of time, with a 60-centimtre-long scar and permanent numbness in part of his left leg that leaves him unbalanced and prone to falls.
“I guess my battle wasn’t cancer,” Flameling says now, six years later. “It was somewhere else.”
In his human rights claim, Flameling also claims that harassment and discrimination from his colleagues and supervisors have left him with a stress-related psychological disorder and caused him partial facial paralysis.
None of the allegations has been tested before a tribunal or court.
The application was filed with the tribunal in October and the OPP has been ordered to respond by Nov. 27.
“The OPP take human rights complaints seriously,” spokeswoman Sgt. Kristine Rae wrote in an email. “The OPP does work to provide suitable accommodations with persons with disabilities.”
Rae did not respond to questions about Flameling’s allegations and would not provide the Star with a copy of OPP policies and guidelines governing the accommodation of disabilities.
OPP spokesman Sgt. Peter Leon said the force cannot comment on matters while they are before the tribunal.Among his allegations, Flameling claims that co-workers would tell each other he “was crazy and would go ‘postal’ and kill other officers”; that he faced pressure from supervisors to perform front-line duties despite being physically unable to do so; and that he endured a toxic workplace environment where his medical information was common knowledge and a topic of discussion and mockery.It is just like high school bullying, he says. “It was just that attitude.”
Flameling also alleges that despite repeated requests to develop a plan for accommodation in a position where he could contribute to the OPP and develop professionally, that discussion has never happened.
According to the application, Flameling is seeking $1 million in damages, as well as an appropriate accommodation plan.
He also wants an apology from the OPP, and mandatory anti-discrimination and human rights training for all members of the force.
“We’re not talking about a private company or a municipal organization. We are talking about the very level of government which has made (the Ontario Human Rights Code),” says Barry Swadron, the lawyer representing Flameling, along with lawyer Bernadette Maheandiran. “They should set an example for all of the province.”
Flameling’s lengthy complaint comes as concerns over how mental health issues are treated by police forces have been highlighted, following the suicide of at least 25 first-responders across the country since April 29.Flameling says he is filing the complaint and speaking to media in part to challenge the attitudes he says he witnessed at the OPP toward people with physical disabilities and psychological problems.“The culture that may have been appropriate in the ’60s is not the culture that is appropriate today,” he says.
As the son of a police officer and older brother of another — someone who “bleeds blue” — Flameling says it’s been hard to come to terms with his experience in the OPP.
He hopes more people will come forward to share their stories: “How else can things change?”
According to the application and in interviews, this is what Flameling alleges happened in his case.
Shortly after graduating from Mohawk College in 2007, Flameling says, he was hired by the OPP and assigned to the Highway Traffic Division based in Port Credit.
A few weeks after being discharged from hospital after his cancer surgery in August 2008, he began feeling pressured to return to front-line duties, despite a recommendation from his doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital that he take a year off, the application states.
“If you can sit in a chair, you can be back at work,” he alleges Insp. Andre Phelps, the Port Credit detachment commander, told him. “There was never a talk about accommodation. It was like, ‘your job is to be on the road.’”
“We certainly accommodated him, I can tell you that,” said Phelps when reached by phone last month.
Phelps said he would not be able to comment on specific allegations until he was made aware of the complaint through the OPP.
Worried that he might lose his job and anxious to prove himself as a rookie, Flameling said in his claim, he asked his family doctor to provide him with a note clearing him for duties without restrictions or accommodations.
After three weeks of doing administrative tasks, starting in mid-November 2008, he says, he went back out on traffic patrol, doing everything from traffic stops to arrests at gunpoint.
But he kept slipping and falling, both at home and at work, he says.
“I’m physically ill, I’m exhausted,” Flameling says of the way he felt at the time. “My whole anatomy had changed, the way I move up stairs, the way I move down stairs, turn corners. I didn’t have time to learn that yet.”
He was put back on light duties, but in March 2009 he was pressured into returning to highway patrol, where he remained until April 2010, according to the application.
He fell repeatedly, he says, once wrenching his hip so badly he was off for a week, and was constantly worried about injuring himself or a member of the public — possibly by falling and discharging his firearm.
He raised concerns about this with Phelps in early 2010, but they were not addressed, according to the application.
In March 2010, Flameling’s doctor referred him to a psychiatrist to help him cope with having a permanent disability, the application states.
The psychiatrist diagnosed Flameling with stress response syndrome and placed him on stress leave from March 2010 to February 2011, the application states.
During this time, an assessment of his permanent physical limitations was done and submitted to the OPP, the application states.
It found he was unable to stand for longer than 30 minutes at a time, or to sit for longer than 40 minutes.
Flameling says he would have been able to return to work, within his limitations, in February 2011.
However, he alleges he was told no positions were available and was kept on medical leave until November 2011.
He says he was then posted temporarily at the Cambridge detachment, where he learned that his medical conditions were common knowledge.
According to the complaint, one colleague asked him directly: “Are you ever going to grow these muscles back so you can go on the road again?”
The complaint also alleges that he overheard colleagues blaming the poor performance of the detachment on the many people on “light duties,” which he found humiliating.Flameling did not report the instances of harassment for fear of reprisal, the application states.
Meanwhile, he says, decisions about his future continued to be made without any input or consultation with him.
Some opportunities, such as a media relations position, were mentioned by the human resources department or high-ranking officers, but nothing came of them, the application states.
In one instance, he took criminal intelligence courses, and was told he could be a Highway Safety Division traffic analyst, pending a budget to be approved and an office to be opened in Aurora or Orillia, the application states. It never happened, he says.
Instead, according to the application, he was assigned to the Milton Collision Reporting Centre from September 2012 until January 2014, where he did data entry and took collision reports.
He was on stress leave from April 2013 to November 2013, according to the application.
After a nasty snowstorm in January 2014, he says, he told his supervisor he couldn’t work in the parking lot where he would need to go to inspect damage to cars until it was cleared.
“You might not take this seriously, but I could fall and have a dislocation and I could never walk ever again,” he says he told his supervisor.
He alleges his supervisor replied: “Since you are handicapped, I have to do your job for you?”
The most promising opportunity arose in March of this year, when Flameling says he was accepted to a position at the OPP-led Integrated Security Unit for the Pan Am Games, lasting until December 2015.
It was “awesome,” said Flameling of the two months he worked there.
He went on paternity leave in May when his fiancée, Karen Cruz, gave birth to their daughter, Marley, he says. He had initially requested six weeks of leave, then extended that to three months, according to the application.
Two weeks after Marley was born, he was told he was being terminated from the Integrated Security Unit and he should come in and clear out his desk, according to the application.
“It’s a command decision,” he says he was initially told. After reviewing his employment file, he found an undated memo indicating he had inconsistent attendance, left work incomplete and that some of his work needed to be redone, the application states.
The memo also said he only requested a longer paternity leave after a conversation about his performance.
Flameling denies any such conversation took place and that he actually put in overtime while at the security unit.
He says he is now on parental leave until the end of December, after which he expects to return to the Port Credit detachment.
He says he has been told repeatedly that “you are lucky that you got past probation because if you were in another organization you’d be nothing . . . if it were a private organization they’d have kicked you out a long time ago. You should just be happy with the crumbs that they give you.”
But Flameling says that shouldn’t have to be the case.“This is principle. I haven’t done anything wrong. I got sick.”http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/11 ... isors.htmlhttp://www.ipick.ca/toronto/disabled-op ... upervisorshttps://www.facebook.com/torontostar/po ... 4307176151http://www.thespec.com/news-story/49794 ... n-at-work/http://www.insidehalton.com/news-story/ ... pervisors/http://www.insidehalton.com/news-story/ ... pervisors/