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Teacher diagnosed with mental illness while termination proceedings underway advances ADA claims

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

The fact that an employer learns of an employee’s disability only after deciding to terminate him, or even after taking concrete steps in the termination process, does not, said the court, absolve the employer of liability for discrimination under the ADA.

A second grade teacher who was terminated after a months-long decline in his performance that included standing on his desk and watching as his students played on the floor can proceed to trial on his ADA disparate treatment claim even though he was not diagnosed with a mental illness until the suspension and termination proceedings were underway. Denying the school board’s summary judgment motion, a federal district court in Illinois found fact issues regarding whether he was qualified to perform his job’s essential functions, the timing of his termination, and whether he was fired because of his disability rather than his poor performance and misconduct. His ADA failure-to-accommodate and FMLA claims also advanced (Castaneda v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, March 25, 2019, Kendall, V.).

Erratic behavior. Although his first year of teaching at the elementary school was fairly unremarkable, his performance declined considerably throughout his second year as he began leaving his students in the classroom to play unattended, standing on his desk, and wearing headphones while facing away from his class and allowing the students to have “play time” all day. He also began showing up late to work and at some point, he told the principal and vice principal he was “burnt out” from the last school year and he was not going to burn himself out again. He also told them he believed children should “learn through play.” By April, the principal had decided not to renew his contract.

Investigatory conference. After two children were injured while playing in his classroom and several teacher and parents complained about his behavior, the board held an investigatory conference on May 6. During the conference, the employee and his union representative stated that he would seek a medical leave for his “mental state.” Immediately after the conference, he sought short-term disability and FMLA leave, which the third-party administrator conditionally approved the following day.

Suspension and diagnosis. That same day, board’s assistant director informed the employee he was suspended without pay and he was recommending his termination, rather than the nonrenewal of his contract. Two days after the conference, the employee saw a psychologist whose provisional diagnosis was “Schizophrenia, paranoid type.” He submitted a form to the third-party administrator stating that the employee was unable to work at that time and his projected return-to-work date was September 1.

Leave denial and termination. On May 11, the board informed the third-party administrator that the employee had been suspended and was not eligible for leave and the third-party administrator denied his leave request. On May 14, the employee informed the principal and board he was seeking the help of a medical provider and in early June, he asked for assistance “submitting documentation to assist a teacher with a perceived disability.” On June 26, the board approved his termination.

Disparate treatment. The board first argued that the employee was not a qualified individual under the ADA because his doctor’s notes indicated he could not return to work until March 2016, a leave of 46 weeks, which was not a reasonable accommodation. The employee did not dispute that his doctor stated he could not return to work until September 1, 2015. He argued, however, that because he did not teach summer school, the period from the end of June to the end of August should not count as part of his leave and he would have been able to perform the essential functions of his job if granted a seven-week accommodation. Observing that the parties clearly disputed the length of the leave required, and that his doctor also stated the employee might have been able to return to work in the fall, the court found fact issues as to whether he was qualified.

What did it know and when did it know it? As to the board’s contention that summary judgment was warranted because it did not learn of the employee’s disability until after it decided not to renew his employment and then separately decided to suspend him pending termination, the court explained that what matters is what the board knew when it definitely terminated him in June. Citing to the Seventh Circuit’s opinion in Spurling v C&M Fine Pack, Inc, which held that an employer cannot prevail on summary judgment by claiming it decided to terminate an employee before learning of his disability, even though it later learned of the disability before the termination was final, the court here denied summary judgment on this basis as well.

Causation. And while the board next claimed the employee was fired for misconduct and poor performance, the court found that while it was a close call, a reasonable factfinder could conclude he was fired for his disability. Although the board presented evidence that the employee failed to meet expectations, showed up to work late, and received mediocre performance reviews, that his behavior worried his colleagues and supervisors, that his lack of classroom management led to student injuries, and that his principal determined that his lack of classroom instruction was detrimental to students, a jury could also find that the board’s decision to terminate the employee (rather than simply not renew him) on May 7 was a direct reaction to his request for medical leave just one day earlier at the investigatory conference.

Further, an email by board personnel noting that the employee’s request for medical leave could “change the analysis” regarding his termination could allow a jury to find that this not only demonstrated the board’s awareness of his disability, but also that the board acknowledged the potential liability from its decision to terminate him after he requested a medical leave and that the board knew its termination decision was premised on his disability. Thus, his disparate treatment claim could advance.

Failure to accommodate. Turning to the employee’s failure-to-accommodate claim, the court again found a fact issue as to whether the school board was sufficiently aware of the employee’s disability to trigger the interactive process. And because he also presented evidence sufficient to reach the jury on whether he could perform the essential functions of his job with an accommodation, this claim also advanced.

FMLA interference. As to his claim the board interfered with his FMLA rights by denying his application for leave, a reasonable jury could find the employee’s exchange with his union rep and the board’s hearing officer during the investigatory conference provided enough notice to show he likely had an FMLA-qualifying condition. It could also find that the principal’s comment in an email to a board member the next day regarding the employee’s leave application—”I’m wondering if CTU advised [the employee] to take this route or if his family/friends finally got through to him that something was truly wrong with his mental state”—showed his awareness of the employee’s medical condition.

Because a reasonable jury could also find the email was instead referring to the employee’s poor attitude, and that his exchange during the investigatory conference was too vague and disjointed to rise to the level necessary to put the board on notice that he had a serious medical condition, the court denied the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment on this basis.

Constructive notice. And while the employee also claimed the board was on constructive notice of his need for FMLA leave, a reasonable jury could find for either party, said the court. Although there was evidence the change in his behavior was dramatic enough to put the board on notice, a jury could also conclude his changes were too gradual to give rise to constructive notice or that his nonmedical explanations were enough to dispel such notice.