First Circuit Upholds District Court's Dismissal Of Teacher's ADA Suit
A recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (the “First Circuit”) is a significant win for school employers.
On November 7, 2023, in Der Sarkisian v. Austin Preparatory School, the First Circuit affirmed a federal district court’s dismissal of a teacher’s American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) suit against her former employer, holding that the school’s refusal to grant a teacher an extended leave of absence with no end date, and its subsequent termination of her employment, did not constitute disability discrimination.
Approximately a month before the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, Nancy Der Sarkisian (“Der Sarkisian”), a ninth grade English teacher at Austin Preparatory School (the “School”), notified the School that she would need to take a four-week leave of absence for hip surgery scheduled for September 5, 2019. The School granted the four-week leave of absence and retained a substitute teacher on a per-diem basis to cover Der Sarkisian’s classes.
On October 13, 2019, more than five weeks after her leave of absence began, Der Sarkisian requested to extend her leave for an additional three months, due to complications that required a second surgery. Der Sarkisian provided a certification from her healthcare provider in support of extending her leave until January 5, 2020. The School notified Der Sarkisian that her extended leave was approved, and that she would need to provide a certification from her doctor in order to return to work on January 6, 2020.
Instead, on December 5, 2019, Der Sarkisian notified the School that she would not be returning in January 2020 because she had experienced further complications that had required a third surgery on November 27, 2019. The School requested additional information from Der Sarkisian’s doctor, including whether there was a reasonable accommodation that would allow Der Sarkisian to perform the essential functions of her job. In response, Der Sarkisian’s doctor stated that Der Sarkisian was “substantially limited” in her ability to perform “several life activities” and that he expected that she would be unable to work with or without an accommodation for at least three to six months.
On December 26, 2019, the School sent Der Sarkisian a letter notifying her that her employment with the School was terminated. The letter stated that the School was unable to hold Der Sarkisian’s position open because Der Sarkisian had exhausted all leave available to her under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and the School’s paid time off policies, and that the School could not “provide an extended and continuing leave of absence with no set end date.” The letter further stated that Der Sarkisian was welcome to reapply for a position when she was recovered and able to return to work.
Instead, Der Sarkisian filed suit on October 2, 2020, alleging disability discrimination in violation of Title I of the ADA and M.G.L. c. 151B, and age discrimination in violation of M.G.L. c. 151B, § 4.
Subsequently, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted summary judgment for the School in full on both counts. As to Der Sarkisian’s disability discrimination claim, the district court held that regular attendance was an “essential function” of Der Sarkisian’s role at the time of termination, and that she had not satisfied her burden to demonstrate that a reasonable accommodation existed that would have allowed her to perform this essential function.
First Circuit’s Decision
In evaluating Der Sarkisian’s disability discrimination claim, the First Circuit applied the familiar MacDonnell Douglas three-step framework, in which a plaintiff asserting an employment discrimination claim has the burden of showing that the plaintiff (1) was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, (2) was a “qualified individual” with respect to his or her employment, and (3) was discharged (or otherwise experienced an adverse employment action) in whole or in part because of the plaintiff’s disability.
The First Circuit held that Der Sarkisian’s claim failed at step one because she was unable to state a viable claim that she was a “qualified individual.” To be a “qualified individual” under the ADA, Der Sarkisian would have to establish that she was able to perform the essential functions of her position with or without a reasonable accommodation. The First Circuit agreed with the district court that “regular, in-person attendance” was an essential function of Der Sarkisian’s teaching position.
Der Sarkisian argued that her request for a further extension of her leave of absence would have allowed her to perform the essential function of in-person attendance, but the First Circuit disagreed. Rather, the First Circuit adopted the district court’s reasoning on this point, that “in the context of teaching and related responsibilities of a school, other considerations are in play” and an extended leave of absence with no end date was not reasonable because of its negative effect on the School’s interest in maintaining “consistency with respect to their educators” for its students.
On this point, the First Circuit held that Der Sarkisian’s argument did not consider the School’s need to provide not only consistency in the classroom, but also “adequacy of instruction in all five of her English classes.” Nor did Der Sarkisian’s claim recognize that the School faced risk from the possibility that the substitute teacher covering her classes did not have a formal contract with the School and could leave at any time, which would create an even greater burden for the School and disruption for its students.
Accordingly, the First Circuit concluded that the School’s decision to terminate Der Sarkisian was not a violation of the ADA, as she failed to show that she could perform the essential functions of her position with or without an accommodation. Furthermore, the First Circuit found that the School had a legitimate concern that it would be unable to guarantee its ninth-grade English students high-quality instruction from a full-time, permanent teacher during the 2019-20 school year as a result of Der Sarkisian’s extended leave and the amount of time she would miss in the classroom.
Implications For Employers
While this decision is a win for employers – especially schools whose operations rely on consistent attendance by teachers – employers should still proceed with caution when evaluating employee accommodation and leave requests. Employers should evaluate every accommodation and/or leave request on a case-by-case basis and consult with counsel, particularly when faced with complicated, extended, and/or recurring requests, as the analysis of what constitutes a reasonable accommodation can be highly fact-specific.
* * *
If you have questions about the Der Sarkisian decision or any related ADA issues, please feel free to contact one of our experienced employment attorneys.