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Lawler v. Peoria school District No. 150, No. 15-2976 (7th Cir. Sept. 16, 2016)

One way that employers go wrong under disability-discrimination laws is writing off an employee with diagnosed mental disabilities as simply a difficult personality or a poor "fit" for the job. Here, a special-education teacher with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - who was denied a transfer to a less-stressful position and fired for supposedly creating "so much unnecessary drama" with co-workers - will have a trial, thanks to a recent Seventh Circuit decision.

Lawler v. Peoria school District No. 150, No. 15-2976 (7th Cir. Sept. 16, 2016): plaintiff, a teacher hired to teach students with learning disabilities, was rated "satisfactory" from year-to-year until she suffered a relapse of her PTSD. "The school district first found out about Lawler's PTSD during the 2009-2010 school year, after Lawler's relationship with the principal of her school had deteriorated and she asked to take a leave of absence." Her psychiatrist, Dr. Hamon, "explained that the 'conflictual situation' between Lawler, the principal, and other teachers was affecting Lawler's mental health," and recommended a transfer from that environment.

The district granted the leave and transfer, but assigned Lawler to a Day Treatment program to "teach children with not only learning disabilities but also severe emotional and behavioral disorders." Both the plaintiff and her new principal thought she was inappropriate in that role. Also, "at the start of her second year [the plaintiff] was injured by a disruptive student, .... a male student in Lawler's class broke away from a police officer and collided with Lawler, causing her to hit her head against a wall and suffer a concussion." The incident further triggered her PTSD.

With the support of her treating psychiatrist, she requested an other leave and transfer. Yet this time, the district "did not transfer Lawler but instead accelerated her next performance appraisal, rated her as unsatisfactory, and fired her as part of an announced reduction in force that ended with all but 'unsatisfactory' teachers being rehired." During her review process, she was criticized for "purported problems with unnecessarily abrasive communications, inappropriate interruptions of classes, inappropriate interactions with other employees and students, and inappropriate handling of confidential matters."

Ms. Lawler filed an action under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, alleging failure to accommodate her PTSD (and retaliation, though that claim was dropped on appeal). The district court granted summary judgment to the district, holding "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," supposedly evidenced by communications by the plaintiff and her doctor that she could return to work.

The Seventh Circuit reverses in a per curiam opinion. It holds that Lawler presented a genuine dispute of material fact about whether from her "very first meeting on September 21, 2011, [district HR director] Dunn summarily refused to consider transferring her out of the Day Treatment." The panel notes that "[i]f the school district had inquired about [Lawler], it would have learned that many of the interpersonal issues cited by Lawler's supervisors as performance problems likely were caused by her PTSD."

As the panel summarizes:

"As Dr. Hamon later testified during discovery, Lawler often resorted to interpersonal coping methods like trying to help others or offering them information in order to get close to them when she felt stressed, frightened, or anxious. These behaviors, he explained, signaled her feelings of uncertainty around authority figures, but often were misinterpreted as Lawler being 'nosy' and elicited negative feedback from colleagues."

The employer's contention that the district reasonably accommodated Lawler's PTSD by granting her request for a 2-week medical leave of absence is deemed "frivolous". "This short-term leave after Lawler's on-the-job injury and hospital visit did not address her psychologist's concern that Lawler's PTSD was aggravated by working with the students having severe behavioral and emotional disorders."

Moreover, the record reveals that a transfer was feasible; "at least seven openings for special education teachers existed in other schools within District 150 at that time."

Finally, the district argued that Lawler failed to submit the proper paperwork to request a transfer. Yet even if the record supported this defense (There was at least a genuine dispute over this), the panel holds that the district "failed to engage in the interactive process by making that assumption [about the paperwork] without seeking clarification from Lawler or Dr. Hamon .... A jury reasonably could conclude that District 150's failure to seek clarification from Lawler or her doctors caused the breakdown in the interactive process."

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