Appellate Panel Upholds DCR Ruling that Public School District Did Not Discriminate Against Teacher with Lupus

An educator in the Paterson school district since 1998, the teacher filed a Complaint with the Division on Civil Rights in December 2010. (The teacher’s identity is being withheld to protect her medical privacy.) The Complaint alleged that the Paterson school district failed to provide her with reasonable accommodations for her disability, subjected her to a hostile work environment based on her disability, and retaliated against her for requesting accommodations.

In 2011, the Division on Civil Rights transferred the case to the Office of Administrative Law at the Complainant’s request. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) presided over five days of hearing testimony in 2012, and issued an Initial Decision dismissing the teacher’s complaint in December 2013.

Division Director Craig T. Sashihara issued a Final Determination in 2014 that affirmed, with some clarifications, the ALJ’s initial ruling. The teacher subsequently appealed. Appellate argument took place in April of this year, and a two-judge Appellate panel recently upheld Sashihara’s Final Determination.

“We believe the Court’s ruling is consistent with the record in the case,” said Director Sashihara. “There was no dispute as to whether the teacher had a disability. But there was insufficient evidence to support her claim that the school district failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. Nor was there sufficient evidence to support her contention that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and retaliation for seeking accommodations.”

The hearing record documents a lengthy history involving the Paterson teacher and her principal. Among other things, it recounts numerous requests for disability accommodation by the teacher over a period of years, as well as several changes to her teaching assignment and classroom location initiated by the principal.

On a number of occasions, attempts by the principal to change the teacher’s assignment or classroom location within the three-floor Paterson Public School 11 building precipitated conflict.

Typically, the conflict was rooted in the teacher’s objections that the new assignment would in some way exacerbate her physician-documented medical conditions, which included hip and knee pain.

A recurring complaint by the teacher was that certain work assignments and planned relocations of her classroom were insensitive to her need to avoid climbing stairs, avoid walking too far, and work near a bathroom at all times. The teacher also objected to being required by the district to provide an annual medical note that explained her conditions and need for accommodation.

In her original decision, the ALJ found as a matter of fact that, although the teacher had difficulty climbing stairs, she was capable of doing so. The ALJ also held that the teacher “is able to walk reasonable distances” and that she does not need to be near a bathroom at all times.

The ALJ also held that the school district had followed its policy with respect to medical accommodations in dealing with the teacher, and had provided reasonable accommodations for her each time she requested them.

In issuing his Final Determination, Division Director Sashihara noted that the school district did, as it is bound by law to do, engage in an “interactive process” with the teacher on a continuing basis to identify and assess her needs.

And although that process may have occasionally resulted in some uncertainty and “brief delays,” Sashihara wrote, the record supports the conclusion that “each time (the teacher) raised any accommodation issue, Respondents addressed it.”

Regarding a series of reported admonitions and scoldings from the principal over time — incidents that the teacher claimed were emblematic of a hostile work environment and retaliation — Director Sashihara wrote that the incidents were not related to the teacher’s disability, and in any event did not rise to the level of adverse employment action as defined by law.

“She (the teacher) was not denied a promotion. She did not receive a loss of remuneration of benefits or suffer a significant, non-temporary adverse change in employment status, or the terms and conditions of employment,” Sashihara wrote. “She was not disciplined. Although there was talk of transferring her to another school or having her work on another floor, those things never came to fruition.”


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