A recent Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision should serve to remind schools of the importance of engaging in the “interactive process” with employees who may request work-related accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and comparable state laws.

In this case, the plaintiff was a special education teacher living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The School District that employed her became aware of her diagnosis when she requested a leave of absence and transfer to another school due to a deteriorating relationship with the school principal that led to a PTSD relapse. Her requests were granted, and the teacher was transferred to teach in a program for children with learning disabilities as well as behavioral and emotional disorders.

The new classroom was challenging, and the teacher’s doctor recommended that she take another leave of absence and transfer to a less stressful classroom environment. The leave of absence was granted, but the school denied a work transfer and ultimately terminated the teacher for poor performance.

Subsequently, the teacher filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the school failed to accommodate her PTSD and retaliated against her with an unsatisfactory evaluation because she had requested a work accommodation.

The trial court found that the School District satisfied its obligations under the ADA and engaged in the “interactive process” by granting some but not all of the teacher’s requested accommodations. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed the lower court’s ruling. The Appeals Court found that the school could not simply grant a partial accommodation and “look the other way” until the teacher could be fired for performance issues related to her disability.

What This Means to You:

  • It is not enough to simply refuse an accommodation considered to be unreasonable. School districts, as employers, must engage in the interactive process and make a reasonable attempt to explore alternative accommodations.
  • If a breakdown in communication occurs due to actions by the school district, courts may assign liability to the school district for failure to accommodate.
  • Performance issues that may be related to an employee’s disability may not be relied upon as grounds for termination.