Sixth Circuit Holds Teacher Who Fears Young Children Lacks ADA Claim

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in Waltherr-Willard v. Mariemont City Schools that a teacher’s requested accommodation was not reasonable because it would have required the school district to either create a new job for her or displace an incumbent teacher.  Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), employers are required to accommodate a disabled employee, but the ADA does not require employers to adopt an unreasonable accommodation.  The Sixth Circuit’s decision reminds employers the benefits of carefully documenting an employee’s accommodation request.

The facts of Waltherr-Willard v. Mariemont City Schools are somewhat interesting.  Waltherr-Willard is a sixty-three year old school teacher who suffers from pedophobia, a debilitating fear of young children.  For twenty years, Willard taught foreign languages at Mariemont high school.  In 1997, Mariemont requested that she teach at the elementary school but Willard said no because of her pedophobia.  Mariemont sent Willard for an independent medical examination and the doctor confirmed that Willard’s mental state would disable her from teaching children under twelve years old.  Consequently, Willard was not required to teach at the elementary school.

For the next twelve years, Willard taught all levels of French and an introductory Spanish class at the high school.  The other Spanish classes were taught by another teacher.  Eventually, Mariemont decided to move its French classes to on-line, which meant Willard’s services were no longer needed at the high school.

Mariemont officials met to discuss what to do with Willard.  After examining her personnel file, which indicated that she feared elementary students but not middle school students, Mariemont decided to transfer Willard to the middle school.  Willard did not object to the assignment and even expressed enthusiasm.

Willard began teaching middle schoolers in September 2010.  Six months later, she asked Mariemont if she could return to the high school explaining that teaching at the middle school was detrimental to her health.  Mariemont responded that there were no openings at the high school but that they would keep her request on file.  Willard retired.

In June 2012, Willard sued Mariemont alleging, among other things, disability discrimination under the ADA.  The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio granted summary judgment in favor of Mariemont on the basis that the ADA does not require unreasonable accommodations.  The U.S. District Court found Willard’s requested accommodation was unreasonable because Willard asked Mariemont to employ her as the high school’s full-time Spanish teacher even though the high school already had a full-time Spanish teacher and did not need another one.  On appeal, the Sixth Circuit agreed and upheld the traditional notion that the ADA does not require employers to create new jobs or displace current employees in response to a disabled employee’s request for accommodation.

Waltherr-Willard v. Mariemont City Schools is a good reminder of how an employer should properly handle accommodation requests.  The ADA requires an employer to engage in a good-faith interactive process when the employer receives a reasonable accommodation request.  Whether employers properly engage in the interactive process is an increasingly contested issue in disability discrimination lawsuits.  In this matter, Mariemont was able to prevail because the documentation demonstrated (1) Willard was able to make a request for accommodation; (2) Mariemont discussed the reasonable accommodation with Willard; and (3) Mariemont responded promptly to Willard’s request and kept her informed.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters, including those relating to disability discrimination, for almost 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.