By Maureen Anichini Lemon and Alexandra Verven (Winter 2017)

A recent Seventh Circuit decision reaffirmed the notion that employers must engage in an interactive process and make all reasonable efforts to accommodate an employee with a disability.

In Lawler v. Peoria School District No. 150, 837 F.3d 779 (2016), a special education teacher diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) sued her employer, Peoria School District No. 150, under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to accommodate her disability. When the district hired Lawler in 1999, it was unaware of her PTSD. Lawler taught students with learning disabilities for the next nine years and performed her job satisfactorily. In 2010, Lawler’s relationship with her principal deteriorated. Lawler notified the district of her disability and, on the advice of her psychiatrist, requested a temporary leave of absence and a transfer to a different school.

The district reassigned Lawler to a program for children with severe behavioral and emotional disorders as well as with learning disabilities. Lawler and her new supervisor both raised concerns about Lawler’s lack of experience working with students with behavioral and emotional disorders. In her second year in that program, a disruptive student collided with Lawler as the student broke away from a police officer. This incident retriggered Lawler’s PTSD. She sought a two-week leave of absence and another transfer to a classroom with fewer behavioral and emotional disordered students. The district granted the two-week leave of absence but denied Lawler’s transfer request. Lawler was subsequently given an unsatisfactory evaluation and terminated in a reduction in force.

Lawler filed a lawsuit under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. §794), alleging a failure to accommodate her PTSD. The trial court ruled in favor of the district on a motion for summary judgment, reasoning that the district had sufficiently engaged in an interactive process to accommodate Lawler’s PTSD by permitting her requested medical leaves of absence.

Upon an appeal by Lawler, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. The appellate court held that Lawler presented a genuine dispute of material fact about whether the district’s human resources director refused to consider transferring Lawler.

The court found that the district was responsible for the breakdown of the interactive process to consider reasonable accommodations. The district had asserted that it did not know how to accommodate Lawler because she had failed to fill out paperwork requesting a specific accommodation. The court rejected this assertion, noting that the district failed to provide Lawler with the appropriate ADA paperwork when it gave her a packet pertaining to the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The district “assumed” that Lawler was no longer asking for a transfer when, at the end of her two-week leave of absence, she submitted a doctor’s note stating that she was fit to return to work. The court admonished the district for making this assumption without seeking clarification from Lawler or her treating physician. The court was further swayed by the fact that at least seven (7) openings for special education teachers existed in other schools throughout the district at the time Lawler was being denied her request for a transfer.

As this case demonstrates, employers must be proactive in maintaining an ongoing dialogue with employees with disabilities. Employees should provide employees with the necessary paperwork to request an accommodation under the ADA. After an employee makes such a request, whether formally or informally, the employer must engage in an interactive process to determine what accommodations are necessary at any given time to allow the employee to continue performing at a satisfactory level. Transferring an employee to a vacant position elsewhere in the organization might be a reasonable accommodation under the circumstances.

If at any point the employer is unclear of the employee’s need or desire for an accommodation, the employer should seek clarification from the employee. If necessary, the employer can take steps to obtain further insight into the disability or need for accommodations from the employee’s doctor. Ultimately, an employer cannot intentionally remain in the dark and choose not to follow up on an employee’s requests    for assistance. If you have any questions regarding your school district’s obligation to accommodate an employee’s disability, please contact any Ottosen Britz attorney.