May 2016 Legal Matters

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990, recently celebrated its silver anniversary. A similar federal statutory provision—Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act—is even older. However, rather than becoming easier to apply due to years of judicial interpretation, both provisions continue to pose thorny issues for principals and administrators when addressing school personnel issues.

Overview of Disabilities Legislation

Under the ADA, employers with 15 or more employees must reasonably accommodate qualified individuals with a disability—most often employees, but also applicants—unless to do so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. A “reasonable accommodation” means that the accommodation will enable the employee to perform the “essential functions” of the job. Providing reasonable accommodations for school personnel is a fact-intensive inquiry that must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In addition, and in order to maximize private party enforcement of the ADA, employers are prohibited from retaliating against individuals who seek to enforce their rights under the statute.

As alluded to above, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a predecessor of the ADA and applies to employers who receive federal funding. Like the ADA, Section 504 bans employment discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities, requires reasonable accommodation of those individuals under certain circumstances, and prohibits retaliation against those individuals.

Because essentially all employers of school personnel receive federal funding, both the ADA and Section 504 apply to them. As such, this article will use the term “ADA” when referring to either or both the ADA and Section 504.

Examples of Litigation

Some of the most frequent legal issues involving the ADA and school personnel include determining disability and qualification status, providing reasonable accommodations, and addressing and avoiding retaliation.

In order to receive a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, a teacher must be both disabled and a qualified individual under the statute. An individual will be given disabled status under the ADA when a diagnosable physical or mental condition substantially limits his or her ability to perform major life activities such as hearing, seeing, eating, sleeping, walking, or working, among other activities. The 2008 Amendments to the ADA broadened the circumstances under which an individual would be considered disabled under the ADA. In the decision of Weatherby v. Fulton County School System, a court assumed that a teacher was disabled because she could not go outdoors because of allergies; could not bend, lift, or use stairs due to having been in an automobile accident; and had taken an extended leave to recover from hepatitis. In contrast, and notwithstanding the less onerous burden placed on individuals attempting to prove a disabling condition under the 2008 ADA amendments, one court held that a teacher’s sprained ankle was a temporary injury that did not substantially limit a major activity so as to constitute a disability under the ADA.

Regarding the qualified individual issue, a school board in Florida argued that a former teacher with type 1 diabetes mellitus and brittle (labile) diabetes could not perform the essential functions of the job. When the board accommodated the teacher by giving him the gifted and talented class, he still could not perform the essential job function of disciplining students. Affirming the district court’s decision, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Alabama, Florida, Georgia) did not find that the teacher was a “qualified individual” under the ADA because he was not able perform an essential function of the job with or without accommodations. Similarly, a school board prevailed where it refused to rehire a teacher who, due to disabling depression and anxiety, had not taken sufficient continuing education courses to renew her teaching certificate. Both the district court and Ninth Circuit (Pacific Region and other Western states) held that because the teacher did not satisfy a job prerequisite (did not possess a current teaching certificate), the teacher was not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA. As such, the board had no duty to accommodate the teacher by obtaining alternative certification for the teacher from the state board of education.

Sometimes school districts spend time and money on litigation that could have been avoided by easily accommodating a teacher’s reasonable requests in ADA cases. For example, in one school district, a teacher who was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (a form of depression) requested on several occasions that she be moved to a vacant classroom with exterior light. When school officials failed to accommodate her, she filed a lawsuit under the ADA. Denying the school district’s motion for summary judgment, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin) found that a reasonable jury could have concluded that the teacher was a qualified individual with a disability, and that school officials were aware of her situation and did not accommodate her with another classroom with windows. Similarly, in the above-discussed case regarding the teacher without a valid teaching certificate, the school district could have avoided litigation by applying for and obtaining temporary and alternative certification for the teacher—something it had done on numerous occasions for nondisabled teachers who did not currently hold valid teaching certificates.

It also should be noted that retaliation claims may arise when teachers assert rights and seek accommodations under the ADA. The ADA prohibits retaliation by employers in response to protected activity seeking to enforce rights granted by the ADA, including filing an ADA-related complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC).

John Rumel is a professor at the College of Law at the University of Idaho in Boise, ID. 
Suzanne E. Eckes is a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN.

Lessons for Principals and Administrators

  1. In “failure to accommodate” cases, the teacher must also show that the employer was aware of the disability and failed to accommodate it (in addition to demonstrating that a teacher is a qualified disabled individual). A reasonable accommodation might include making existing facilities more accessible, restructuring the job, developing a modified work schedule, or reassigning a staff member to a vacant position. The ADA, however, does not require an employer to eliminate or reallocate essential job functions. In other words, the ADA does not require that school districts create new job positions as a reasonable accommodation.
  2. If a teacher asks for a reassignment as a reasonable accommodation and the school board offers alternative reasonable accommodations to allow the teacher to perform his or her existing job, the board does not need to honor the teacher’s request for a transfer.
  3. When the school board or EEOC is faced with a request for accommodation or claim of disability discrimination, resist the temptation to take adverse employment action against the teacher due to the request or complaint. Instead, seek legal advice concerning the issues raised by the teacher and, if the teacher remains employed in the school district, continue to require the teacher to perform the essential functions of the job in a competent manner.