The Extent of an Employer’s Obligation in Responding to an Employee’s Disability Accommodation Request

A_kindergarten_in_united_states,_at_halloween_dayAn elementary school teacher’s Fair Employment and Housing Act lawsuit for disability discrimination, and the California Court of Appeal‘s ruling in it, highlight just how far an employer must go before it can say it has met its obligations under FEHA. The appellate court reversed a summary judgment in favor of the employer, ruling that the employer presented no proof that the assignment it gave the employee was a reasonable accommodation.

The dispute, which pitted elementary school teacher Lauralyn Swanson against her employer, the Morongo Unified School District, started in the fall of 2008, when Swanson sought to return to school after missing most of the previous year due to breast cancer. The school district placed the teacher in a fifth-grade classroom. The teacher requested a second-grade assignment, having recently taught second grade before her illness and because she feared her health limitations would physically prevent her from performing the tasks involved in the fifth-grade assignment.

The school district reassigned the teacher but sent her to a kindergarten classroom, not second grade. Swanson contended this still was not acceptable, since her cancer treatments had impaired her immune system, and, as any parent or babysitter knows, kindergarteners are a notoriously germy group compared to older elementary school students. This time, the district refused to change the teacher’s classroom assignment.

Swanson, after a turbulent 2008-09 school year, sued the school district for failing to accommodate her disability. At the trial court level, the school district successfully persuaded the judge to grant summary judgment in its favor. The district was not as successful before the appeals court. Swanson had laid out a framework of a case of disability discrimination, so that meant that the school district had the legal obligation to prove either that the second-grade assignment was not available or otherwise not reasonable, or else show that the fifth-grade and kindergarten classrooms it offered the teacher were reasonable accommodations. Since the school district had no evidence to back up its positions in these regards, it was not entitled to summary judgment.

The district argued unsuccessfully that the teacher’s case should fail because she failed to show that a second-grade assignment was a reasonable accommodation. This misstated the law because it got the steps of the process out of order. To defeat an employee’s claim and receive summary judgment, the employer first needs to prove that the employee’s requested accommodation was unavailable or unreasonable, or alternatively prove that the accommodation the employer offered was reasonable, before the teacher was obligated to show that her request was reasonable.

The ruling also spotlighted the obligations an employer has regarding the conduct of an interactive process. The law required the district “to engage in an ongoing dialogue regarding accommodations,” the court wrote. While the district completed an interactive process initially, it ceased after the first reassignment. By failing to prove that it continued the interactive process after the teacher objected to the kindergarten assignment, it fell short of the “ongoing dialogue” standard that the law requires.

When dealing with a request for an accommodation of a disability, whether you’re an employer or an employee, the law lays out many required events that must occur and many elements that must be proven at trial. For clear advice and determined representation regarding your disability discrimination issues, contact the Oakland employment law attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our employment law attorneys can help you better deduce whether you (as an employer) are compliant with the law or whether you (as an employee) may have suffered harm due to discrimination. Contact us through our website, or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule a confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Employee With ADHD Not Covered by ADA When His Primary Impairment is Being ‘Cantankerous’, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Dec. 15, 2014

University Allowed to Require Professor to Submit to Psychological Exam, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Nov. 14, 2014

Photo credit: Bobol at Wikimedia Commons.