Seventh Circuit Holds a Transfer is a Reasonable Accommodation

On September 16, 2016, the 7th Circuit reversed the district court’s summary judgment order in Lawler v. Peoria School District No. 150, No. 15-2976 (7th Cir. 2016), where the plaintiff, Eymarde Lawler, a teacher diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, alleged the school district failed to provide a reasonable accommodation by refusing her request to be transferred to another teaching position within the district.

Lawler, a tenured teacher, received positive evaluations throughout her nine-year career. The school district learned of her disability for the first time when she suffered a relapse of her PTSD and requested a two-week leave of absence and transfer. After her relapse, the district transferred her to a teaching position where she was required to teach children with learning, emotional and behavioral disorders. Lawler and her new supervisor informed the district that they both disagreed with the transfer because of her PTSD. After one year in the new positon, Lawler received a satisfactory performance rating, but was injured by a disruptive student at the start of her second year in the position.

Subsequently, Lawler’s psychiatrist informed the district that her PTSD had been triggered as a result of the incident, and that she needed to be transferred to a different teaching environment. In response, the district denied the request, accelerated her next performance evaluation, rated her performance unsatisfactory, and eventually terminated her employment as part of an announced reduction in force. In her review, the district criticized Lawler for “purported problems with unnecessarily abrasive communications, inappropriate interruptions of classes, inappropriate interactions with other employees and students, and inappropriate handling of confidential matters.”

Lawler filed suit under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), claiming the school district failed to accommodate her PTSD and terminated her employment in retaliation for requesting an accommodation. The district court granted summary judgment to the district, finding “that the school district had sufficiently engaged in an interactive process to accommodate Lawler’s PTSD by permitting a two-week medical leave of absence” after her injury.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding Lawler presented a genuine dispute of material fact regarding whether the district refused to engage in the interactive process and refused to accommodate her as required. The Court held the district’s argument that it accommodated her by providing a two-week leave after her injury was “frivolous” as taking off time from work did not address her psychologist’s concern that working with students with behavioral issues triggered her PTSD. It further held that a jury reasonably could conclude that Lawler’s need for a transfer could have been accommodated where “at least seven openings for special education teachers existed in other schools within District 150 at that time.” Lastly, the Court held a reasonable jury could find the district’s failure to follow-up with Lawler or her physician to seek clarification regarding the paperwork submitted for a transfer caused the breakdown of the interactive process. Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment and remanded back to the district court for a jury trial.

Employers have an obligation under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act to engage in an interactive process with employees to find reasonable accommodations for their disabilities. Here, the Seventh Circuit makes it very clear that reassignment or transfer of an employee could be a reasonable accommodation if open positions are available. Lastly, employers must be very careful not to simply write-off an employee with a mental disorder as a “poor fit” or having a “difficult personality.”

If you have a question, the St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others.  As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.