A federal trial court in Chicago recently decided that a disabled applicant for a substitute teacher position at Zion School District No. 6 alleged sufficient facts against the District to proceed with a lawsuit against it. The case, Johnson v. Zion School District No. 6, 2012 WL 6727406, is an important reminder of how recent changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act make it easier for employees and potential employees to bring challenges against school districts and other employers in federal court.
Theresa Johnson suffers from fibromyalgia, arthritis, osteoarthritis, and a sleep disorder. In August 2011, she applied to teach as a substitute at Zion. She had previously applied to the District in 2005, at which point she said she made the District aware of her disability and that she was unable to climb stairs. Two days after applying, she also requested long-term work “because it accommodated my Disability.” Later that month, Zion “deactivated” her application. In reviewing her personnel folder, Johnson later saw a negative letter that another teacher filed against her. Johnson said the letter was false and asked that it be removed from her file, but the District refused.
The court dismissed a number of Johnson’s claims against Zion. For instance, the court dismissed a defamation claim based on the letter in Johnson’s file, because the letter was neither authored by the school district nor alleged to have been shown to anyone. The court also dismissed a failure to accommodate claim under the ADA, because Johnson had not raised it with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that she had sought an accommodation for her disability.
The court allowed Johnson’s final claim – a failure-to-hire discrimination claim under the ADA – to proceed based on the alleged facts. The court found that Johnson’s allegation that she suffered from “multiple, named disorders,” coupled with her allegations that those disorders precluded her from climbing stairs was sufficient to allege disability discrimination.
Although the case does not provide any new law, it is an important reminder to school districts and other employers of the relative ease with which employees and perspective employees can bring ADA claims under the amended ADA. As our firm described in materials issued after the 2009 amendments to the ADA, the amendments and regulations that followed changed the focus from whether an individual is “disabled” under the ADA to whether there is discrimination and reasonable accommodation. This case is another reminder that school districts and other employers should be prepared to respond to accommodation requests, make accommodations where necessary and take precautions to avoid discriminatory decisions involving employees and applicants with medical conditions.