Tuesday, November 1, 2016

7th Circuit Holds Teacher with PTSD May Proceed on Failure-to-Accommodate Claim

Eymarde Lawler, the plaintiff, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") at least 5 years before she was hired by School District 150 in Peoria, IL, the defendant, to teach students with learning disabilities.  Lawler worked for the next 9 years for the defendant performing her job satisfactorily and was given tenure.  In 2010, her PTSD relapsed and that is when the defendant first learned of her disability. 

In response to her relapse, Lawler was transferred to a different school to teach children not only with learning disabilities, but also severe emotional and behavioral disorders.  After a year at this new school, Lawler was rated as "satisfactory" but by then her PTSD was "retriggered" and her psychiatrist notified the defendant that she needed to be transferred to a different teaching environment.  The defendant did not transfer the plaintiff but instead accelerated her next performance appraisal, rated her as "unsatisfactory" and fired her as part of an announced reduction in force that ended with all but "unsatisfactory" teachers being rehired. 

Lawler then sued the defendant under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, claiming that the defendant not only failed to accommodate her PTSD but also fired her in retaliation for requesting an accommodation.  The district court granted summary judgment to the defendant on all claims, reasoning that the defendant had sufficiently engaged in an interactive process to accommodate Lawler's PTSD by permitting a 2-week medical leave of absence.  On appeal, the 7th Circuit found that Lawler had abandoned her retaliation claim and thus only addressed the failure-to-accommodate claim.

The School District Failed to Accommodate the Plaintiff's PTSD

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the record included a material dispute about whether the Director of Human Resources, worked with her to accommodate her PTSD.  Lawler insisted that, during their very first meeting in September 2011, the HR director summarily refused to consider transferring her out of the new school she was transferred to.  Lawler contended that this constituted a refusal to engage in the interactive process. 

The Court noted that under the ADA, and therefore under the Rehabilitation Act, both parties are required to make a "good faith effort" to determine what accommodations are necessary, but if a breakdown occurs, "court should attempt to isolate the cause ... and then assign responsibility."  Lawler's physician sent the defendant a letter stating that Lawler should "transfer to another special education job in the District that does not involve [behavioral and emotional disorder] students."  The Court held that the defendant's outright refusal belies any contention that the defendant made a reasonable attempt to explore possible accommodations, such as looking for open positions in other schools or reducing the number of students with behavioral or emotional disorders in Lawler's classroom.  The Court found that the defendant "sat on [their] hands" instead of following-up with Lawler or asking for more information.

The Court found the defendant's argument that they reasonably accommodated Lawler by granting her 2-week medical leave of absence as "frivolous."  The Court found that this short-term leave did not address her psychologist's concern that Lawler's PTSD was aggravated by working with students having severe behavioral and emotional disorders:  "A few weeks respite from that environment might have given Lawler some relief while she was away, but according to her psychologist, returning to the same position would impede her ability to control her PTSD." 

The Court also noted that since Lawler's performance declined after she returned to the same position despite wanting a transfer, then the defendant "surely was on notice that more than a two-week break was needed to give Lawler an opportunity to continue working with PTSD (as she had been doing for years before the school district learned of her impairment).  Furthermore, the Court held that a jury could find from the evidence that Lawler's need for a transfer easily could have been accommodated, since at least 7 openings for special education teachers existed in other schools within the district at that time.

Even though the defendant may have been under the impression that Lawler had changed her mind about a transfer, the Court still found that the defendant failed to engage in the interactive process by making that assumption without seeking clarification from Lawler or her doctor.  Thus, the Court held that a reasonable jury could conclude that the defendant's failure to seek clarification from Lawler or her doctors caused the breakdown in the interactive process.

Summary judgment VACATED and the case REMANDED for further proceedings.

The case is Eymarde Lawler v. Peoria School District No. 150, Case No. 15-2976 (7th Cir. Sept. 16, 2016).

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