rounded corners

Teacher who Failed to Maintain Certification because of Depression Found Not Qualified under ADA

Date: 12.28.2011

A teacher who failed to maintain her teaching certificate due to her depression was not a “qualified individual with a disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act, unless she could show that the certification requirement was discriminatory, the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco has ruled in a 2-1 decision.  Johnson v. Board of Trustees of Boundary County Sch. Dist. No. 101, No. 10-35233 (9th Cir. Dec. 8, 2011).  As the employee did not claim the requirement was discriminatory, the Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the employer.

Facts

Patricia Johnson taught special education in the Boundary County School District No. 101 in Idaho.  She had a history of depression.  

Johnson’s teaching contract required her to maintain a state teaching certificate.  To do so, she had to take certain professional-development and college-level courses.  Although she had completed a number of courses toward her certificate renewal, she was short several hours of college credit by the summer of 2007, when she suffered a major depressive episode.  Consequently, she did not complete the classes needed to renew her certificate in time for the new school year.  Johnson requested that the School District permit her to continue teaching under a provisional authorization, which the School District may grant if a certified teacher is not available.  The employer denied the request and terminated Johnson’s employment.

Johnson sued the employer for disability discrimination in violation of the ADA.  Arguing that Johnson was not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA, the employer asked the court to dismiss Johnson’s ADA claim.  The district court agreed and Johnson appealed.

Relevant Law

The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against a “qualified individual with a disability because of the disability.”  42 U.S.C. § 12112(a).  A “qualified individual” is “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.”   

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretive guidance on the ADA instructs that, when addressing the qualification requirement, “[t]he first step is to determine if the individual satisfies the prerequisites for the position, such as possessing the appropriate educational background, employment experience, skills, licenses, etc.”  29 C.F.R. Part 1630, App. to § 1630.2(m).  The guidance further explains that the employer’s obligation to make a reasonable accommodation arises “only to an individual with a disability who is qualified . . . in that he or she satisfies all the skill, experience, education and other job-related selection criteria.” 

Appeal Rejected

Johnson argued that the employer should have accommodated her by allowing her to continue to teach with a provisional authorization as she continued to work for her certification.  The Court found the ADA’s plain language and the EEOC’s guidance made clear that “unless a disabled individual independently satisfies the job prerequisites, she is not otherwise qualified and the employer is not obligated to furnish any reasonable accommodation that would enable her to perform the essential job functions.”  Accordingly, the Court ruled, because Johnson failed to maintain her certification, she was not “qualified” within the meaning of the ADA, unless she could show that the certification requirement itself was discriminatory.  Since Johnson did not allege (or show) that the qualification requirement itself was discriminatory, the Court concluded the employer was not required to reasonably accommodate her disability.

***

This case reminds employers that the first step in every ADA disability accommodation issue is to ask whether the individual is qualified.  If the individual cannot satisfy the job’s prerequisites and is not challenging those requirements as discriminatory, then the individual may not be qualified under the ADA and, according to a majority of the Court, there would be no occasion to reach the accommodation issue. However, that may not be the end of the analysis.  In his partial dissent, Judge Richard A. Paez pointed out that the EEOC’s “position that employers have a duty to provide reasonable accommodation to disabled individuals who could satisfy job prerequisites with an accommodation” may call for a different conclusion in an appropriate situation. In addition, employers also must evaluate disability accommodation issues under applicable state law since that analysis may differ from the one under the ADA.

Jackson Lewis attorneys are available to answer questions about this case and other workplace developments.