A federal jury in Alexandria awarded $75,000 in damages Wednesday to a U.S. Army veteran who was taken out of the FBI training academy because of concerns about his prosthetic left hand, determining that the wounded warrior was qualified to train as a special agent in spite of his disability, authorities said.
Justin Slaby, whose hand was blown off by a grenade during a training accident in 2004, still must work out whether and how he will be reinstated to the training academy at a separate hearing in front of a judge next week, his attorney said. But the jury’s award and judgment that Slaby is qualified to proceed should put him on the path to becoming a special agent, the attorney said.
“It’s a historical case,” said John Griffin, one of the lawyers who represented Slaby during a trial that lasted more than a week. “A jury has now spoken and said people should be evaluated on their abilities and not on their appearances and not on what happened to them during a war.”
Slaby, 30, of Stafford County, said he “never expected anything other than” a favorable verdict, and he was still training mentally and physically to become a special agent. Slaby now works for the FBI’s hostage rescue team, but not as a special agent.
“Hopefully, I’ve blown a hole in it for a lot of other people trying to do the same thing,” Slaby said. “Hopefully, this just gives everybody a fair shot.”
Almost since it was filed last year, Slaby’s lawsuit against the FBI has spawned discord in the federal law enforcement agency. It also spurred an investigation of a supervisory agent accused of putting inappropriate pressure on a witness. In the weeks before the trial began, a federal district court magistrate judge derided as “wholly inappropriate” comments that a Milwaukee supervising agent, Teresa Carlson, made to another agent who had evaluated Slaby before Slaby was hired. Carlson’s attorney has previously said she can not comment because of a pending investigation by the inspector general’s office.
The case itself was relatively simple. After Slaby passed basic fitness-for-duty tests and was admitted to the FBI’s training academy in 2011, instructors removed him, concluding that he could not safely fire a gun with his prosthetic hand. He disagreed and sued.
During the trial, Slaby demonstrated for jurors that he could hold and pull the trigger on a model handgun with his prosthetic hand. Slaby’s gray prosthesis — which looks like a mechanical claw — seemed to grip the weapon firmly, and Slaby crouched and looked through the sight as he pulled the trigger.
U.S. attorneys argued that a piece of his prosthesis could inadvertently bump the trigger because of his grip.
Slaby’s attorneys presented evidence, too, that firing with one’s non-dominant hand is not a required skill of FBI agents, who are never specifically required to prove accuracy in offhand shooting. Griffin said that there are other agents at the FBI with injuries similar to Slaby’s and that Slaby can also fire with his uninjured right hand.
U.S. attorneys had argued that trainees and agents must demonstrate that they can fire a weapon safely with their non-dominant hand, even if the tests the FBI administers do not require a demonstration of accuracy.
An FBI spokesman and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.
If a federal judge orders Slaby reinstated to the academy, he could also appoint a monitor to ensure that his training and evaluation are conducted fairly, Griffin said. But that is not to say Slaby would be greeted with hostility.
Special Agent Charles Pierce, Slaby’s FBI supervisor, testified at the trial that he considered Slaby an “absolutely outstanding employee” on the hostage rescue team and that he did not understand some of the decisions of those in the academy. He said that were trouble to erupt in the courtroom, he would be glad to have Slaby at his side.
“He is a consummate professional,” Pierce said, “and a brother as far as our unit is concerned.”