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ADA Does Not Restrict School Districts When Teachers Can't Perform Essential Functions of Job

January 25, 2012

Two recent decisions, one from the Sixth Circuit of Appeals and the other from the Ninth Circuit of Appeals, interestingly with both decisions having a plaintiff named Johnson, offer clarification of the accommodations required by school districts pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In Johnson v. Board of Trustees of the Boundary County School District (2011), the Court upheld the school district’s decision to deny a teacher’s request for provisional authorization to teach despite not possessing a valid teaching certificate. The teacher in question, who had a history of biplolar disorder, had failed to complete required professional development training in order for her teaching certification to be renewed.

The teacher maintained that the Board of Trustees had failed to make reasonable accommodations, as required by the ADA, as to whether she satisfied the job prerequisites. The Court rejected this argument, holding that an individual who fails to satisfy the job prerequisites cannot be considered “qualified” within the meaning of the ADA unless there is a showing that the prerequisite itself is discriminatory. This the plaintiff failed to do.

In Johnson v. Cleveland City School District (2011), the plaintiff filed suit against her school district alleging a violation of the ADA by failing to accommodate her disability and fired her on the basis of her disability. The plaintiff had suffered spinal cord injuries, the result of which was that the plaintiff experienced stroke-like symptoms. The plaintiff’s physician listed a series of necessary accommodations, including restrictions on standing, walking and speaking. The school district continued to assign the plaintiff as a classroom teacher, with a number of physical accommodations.

The plaintiff then submitted updated disability documentation which indicated that the plaintiff “should not be required to verbally control resistant behavior in students.” The school district responded that it could not accommodate her request to avoid disciplining restive students. At the start of the 2007 school year, the plaintiff refused to accept any classroom teaching positions, as she maintained that the positions were not consistent with her ADA restrictions. The district terminating the plaintiff for refusing to accept a position, noting that it was “unable to accommodate the restriction.”

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s claim of discrimination, noting that because the plaintiff was unable to verbally control students she was not qualified for any teaching position within the district. The ability to verbal control students was an “essential function” of teaching, and the ADA did not require employers to shift an essential job function onto others. The school district was not required to provide for the accommodation that the employee requests or prefers, but retained the “ultimate discretion” to choose another effective accommodation.

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