An ADA cautionary tale

By Lillian Hartgrove, State Board of Education Chairman
Special to the UCBJ

In June of this year, the jury awarded a former employee $450,000 based on the employer’s violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) in the case of Crystal Lamb v. Clayton County School District.  The case illustrates some very important ADA principles that it seems employers tend to forget or ignore – much to their detriment.  

Fact Summary.  Ms. Lamb was a special education teacher.  In 2016 she was diagnosed with myotonia disorder, a form of muscular dystrophy that can cause persons to fall.  The Clayton County, Georgia School District (“District”) hired her in its Georgia Network of Education and Therapeutic Support (“GNETS”) program to teach special education in the 2017 to 2018 school year.

The applicable job description provided that teachers had to be able to stand and walk approximately seven and a half hours per day.  Teachers must also be trained for “restraints and de-escalation.”  The job description further noted that most days would involve sitting at a desk or table much of the time with intermittent standing or stooping.

GNETS teachers receive training in a two-step de-escalation technique called “MindSet” which is followed when a student has a behavioral issue.  The first step is verbal de-escalation to calm a student.  If that does not work, then physical restraint is used.  Ms. Lamb testified that not all teachers can perform the physical restraint and that she told her trainer she would not be able to perform physical restraint because of her myotonia.  The trainer allowed her to participate in the training on a modified basis.

In October 2017 Ms. Lamb fell and injured herself while chasing a student.  She injured her knee and ankle and missed work for two days.  She then attempted to return to work with a physician’s note saying she needed to sit 70% of the time and could not squat or kneel.  She was told by the District that she had to leave and could not return with less than a 100% release from her health care provider.  She was placed on medical leave pending her receipt of such a release.

During the leave, Ms. Lamb kept the District informed.  She received lesser restrictions from her physician but was denied the ability to return to work.

In March 2019, the District sent Ms. Lamb a letter that said she had three options: (1) return on March 16 with a full duty release; (2) retire; or (3) resign.  She did none of the above and was discharged.  Her legal claim followed. 

It Is A Disability.  When the case went to court, the District’s attorneys moved for summary judgment, arguing, among other things, that Ms. Lamb’s condition did not render her disabled within the meaning of the ADA.  Of course they did.  They were in court at that point.  This author would do the same if there were any chance of succeeding on that argument in litigation.  Nevertheless, as is obvious since the case went to trial, the judge did not accept the District’s “she’s not disabled” argument.  Neither did the jury.

The wise human resources practitioner will not look to make such arguments, however.  The ADA definition of disability is very broad.  Unless the condition in question is clearly very minor and very temporary, the smart thing to do is assume you are dealing with an ADA disability and genuinely work to reasonably accommodate.

Is It Really Essential?  In Ms. Lamb’s case, the job description said she needed to be able to stand seven and a half hours a day.  In addition, GNETS teachers had to employ the “MindSet” technique, which required restraining students exhibiting behavior problems.

On the other hand, the job description also stated that the majority of the time the teacher would intermittently sit or stand.  In other words, the teachers were not truly required to stand seven and a half hours a day.

Ms. Lamb testified that she told the “MindSet” trainer during the training that she could not perform restraint due to her myotonia.  The trainer modified the training program in Ms. Lamb’s case.  Further. Ms. Lamb testified that several other teachers could not perform restraint on their own and called for help as needed.  This was the classroom reality.

A statement on a job description is not magic.  It will not save the employer from making an attempt to accommodate nor excuse the failure to attempt accommodation.  Relying on a job description in that manner is a recipe for trouble, to include exposure to a valid ADA claim.

Having a well done, and accurate, job description is a good thing.  It is helpful in a variety of ways, including when the employer and employee are both genuinely engaging in an effort to find a reasonable accommodation for an employee who has a limiting condition.  It is not the “be all and end all” of the discussion, however.

You Must Try And Work It Out.  In the ADA context, you must try and work out a reasonable solution.  Telling an employee that he or she must be “one hundred percent healed or else” does not qualify.  That is tantamount to saying:  We’re not going to even consider an accommodation for you.  

As a side note, it has been very clear for years that a “one hundred percent healed” requirement is absolutely an ADA violation.  Yet, we continue to see employers impose that requirement.  Dear reader, please do not be one of them.

More generally, it is simply very important to understand that when an employee brings forward a limiting condition, it is incumbent on the employer to seek a reasonable solution that allows the employee to perform their job.  Certainly, it is incumbent on the employee to participate in the process in good faith as well.  In the case of Ms. Lamb, she clearly did so.  She obtained notes from her physician, offered ideas for accommodation, and kept the District informed.   And the District responded by imposing a “one hundred percent healed” requirement.  In the end, the District paid dearly for it.

Conclusion.  The ADA is an art, not a science.  An employer needs to have appropriate policies in place of course.  But when handling employees and their circumstances the ADA requires individualized analysis and individualized approaches to solutions.  Relying on hard-line rules and taking an inflexible approach can not only result in the loss of a good employee, it can also get you in legal hot water.

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