No Disability Case for Educator Who Had to Avoid ‘Unruly’ Kids

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By Hassan A. Kanu

The Milwaukee school board didn’t violate federal disability laws by denying a promotion or reassignment to an educator whose doctor had told her to avoid “potentially unruly students” because of her knee problems, a federal appellate court held ( Brown v. Milwaukee Bd. of Sch. Dirs. , 2017 BL 149445, 7th Cir., No. 16-1971, 5/4/17 ).

A lower court had dismissed Sherlyn Brown’s claims as to one particular position. It ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t require employers to accommodate disabled workers by transferring them to a position that amounts to a promotion if they’re not the most qualified candidate. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit May 4 upheld that interpretation.

The former assistant principal had to have knee surgery after attempting to physically restrain a student. The school district tried to reassign Brown but disqualified her from most open positions because of the doctor’s restriction. One of the possible reassignments was a grant administrator position, but the district said Brown would have to lead meetings and be in schools in which students were present.

“Lawn maintenance cannot be performed indoors; a jockey must often work atop a horse,” Judge David Hamilton observed, writing for the Seventh Circuit panel. “Since virtually all students are ‘potentially’ unruly, Milwaukee understood that limit to bar virtually all contact with students.” That disqualified Brown from virtually all district jobs, the Seventh Circuit said.

Ruling Offers Lessons

The ADA requires employers to engage in an “interactive process” when a disabled worker requests an accommodation that would allow him or her to perform job duties. Essentially, this means that both parties have to engage in back-and-forth communication to come up with a reasonable way to allow the employee to perform.

In Brown’s case, her doctor sent the school board a letter saying she “should not be in the vicinity of potentially unruly students.” The doctor later communicated that the restriction was a permanent one.

A district employment specialist worked on Brown’s accommodation for over two years, while Brown was on a leave of absence. Brown’s lawyer and doctor contacted the school district several times about her accommodation. The employment specialist sought clarification each time “and either did not receive any or was again told that” Brown could not be near students, the court ruled.

Given the broad nature of that restriction, the obligation was on Brown to “update or further clarify the kinds of work she could do,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton noted that this is “an unusual case” and said his decision is “correspondingly narrow.” Brown would likely have a viable claim if the school district had determined on its own that she couldn’t be near students; failed to communicate its understanding of Brown’s restrictions; or not sought clarification of that understanding when it received contradictory information, the court said.

The judge’s explanation illustrates the importance of engagement and clear communication for both employee and employer during the disability accommodation process.

To contact the reporter on this story: Hassan A. Kanu in Washington at hkanu@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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