Reasonable Accommodation Tested by Principal
Is it reasonable for an Assistant Principal to return to her job if she has medical restrictions that prohibit her from interacting with potentially unruly students? The 7th Circuit examined this situation in Brown v. Milwaukee Bd. of Sch. Directors, which addresses “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA. Of course, the ADA requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” that will allow a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of her job. So what is a reasonable accommodation? It depends on the company, the essential functions of the job, and the medical restrictions of the applicant or employee.
Brown dealt with an Assistant Principal who went on medical leave to have knee surgery. Over the course of her three-year leave of absence she submitted documentation regarding her medical restrictions. While the wording of the paperwork changed throughout her leave, the common theme was that she “should not be in the vicinity of potentially unruly students”. Part of the Assistant Principal’s normal responsibility was to physically intervene and break up student fights, a duty she could not perform given her restrictions.
One possible form of an accommodation is to transfer the employee to a position for which the employee is otherwise qualified. While the school district did identify vacant positions at the school district as possibilities for a transfer, it ultimately decided the job duties for each position required being in the vicinity of potentially unruly students and were therefore unsuitable. The Assistant Principal did identify one other vacant position that did not involve student interaction but was a promotion from her current role. The ADA does not, however, require employers to promote employees to accommodate them. Accordingly, when her leave expired she was terminated by the school district.
Ultimately the 7th Circuit upheld summary judgment in favor of the school district since no reasonable accommodation of the Assistant Principal’s disability were possible based on the restrictions imposed by her doctors.
Employers would be well advised to train managers on how to identify when an ADA issue is triggered. An employee need not use any magic words (e.g. I need an accommodation) in order for the employer’s responsibility to engage in the interactive process with the employee to arise. Whether an accommodation may be made is often a fact intensive analysis and requires careful consideration from the employer and may require the assistance of counsel.