Ninth Circuit Court Finds That ADA Does Not Require School District to Accommodate Teacher Whose Disability Precluded Her From Obtaining Necessary Certification

Volume 10, Issue 16
December 16, 2011

On December 8, 2011, in Johnson v. Board of Trustees of Boundary County School Dist. No. 101, No. 10-35233 (9th Cir. 2011), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected the disability discrimination claims of a terminated school teacher whose teaching certificate lapsed when she was unable to complete the necessary professional development coursework. In so doing, the Ninth Circuit Court interpreted the regulations issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") to implement the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA") and other EEOC enforcement guidance as not requiring employers to provide accommodations to allow individuals to become qualified for a job (i.e., to obtain job prerequisites such as necessary skills, experience, education). Rather, the court held that under the ADA, employers are only obligated to make reasonable accommodations for individuals who are already "otherwise qualified" for a job, except for the fact that they need a reasonable accommodation to perform the job's essential functions.

Plaintiff Trish Johnson was employed as a special education teacher in a public school district in Idaho. As such, she was required to hold and maintain a valid state teaching certificate issued by the Idaho State Board of Education. Her five-year teaching certificate was set to expire around the start of the 2007-2008 school year. To renew her teaching certificate, Johnson needed six semester hours of training, at least three of which had to be for college credit. Due to a major depressive episode, Johnson was unable to obtain the necessary college credit. Thus, Johnson asked the school district to request the Idaho State Board of Education to issue her a provisional teaching certification that would allow her to teach for one year during which time she would obtain the remaining college credits. However, because provisional teaching certifications are only sought when there are open teaching positions and no certified teachers available, the school board denied Johnson's request and later terminated her employment. Johnson subsequently sued for disability discrimination under the ADA. When the trial court ruled in favor of the school board, Johnson appealed with the EEOC filing an appellate brief on her behalf as an amicus curiae or "friend of the court."

In affirming the appropriateness of the school board's actions, the Ninth Circuit Court noted that under the ADA, Johnson was required to establish that she was a "qualified individual" at the time her employer refused her request for an accommodation (the one-year provisional certification). The ADA defines a "qualified individual" as "an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions" of the position. The EEOC's ADA regulations further explain that a "qualified individual with a disability" is someone who: (1) "satisfies the requisite skills, experience, education and other job-related requirements of the employment position such individual holds or desires;" and (2) "with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of such position." The first prong of the EEOC's two prong test, the court noted, does not reference making accommodations.

In its amicus curiae brief, the EEOC maintained that employers must indeed offer reasonable accommodations to individuals so as to allow them to satisfy job-related requirements, as well as to perform the essential functions of the job, citing as support a section of its ADA regulations pertaining to selection criteria that discriminatorily screens out individuals with disabilities. In rejecting the EEOC's strained argument, the court noted that Johnson was not asserting that the job requirement of having a valid teaching certificate to be a public school teacher was discriminatory, but rather she was challenging her employer's failure to grant her an accommodation to meet that particular job requirement, which is analytically distinct. Thus, the court held that "the default rule remains that the obligation to make reasonable accommodation is owed only to an individual with a disability who satisfies all the skill, experience, education and other job-related selection criteria."

This decision is a definite pro-employer ruling. Assuming a qualification is job-related and not facially discriminatory toward individuals with disabilities, employers are not required to provide accommodations to help employees and applicants become qualified. However, the EEOC can be expected to press this issue in future cases and, potentially, through modifying its ADA regulations. As noted in the last KZA Employer Report, the EEOC is already scrutinizing the job-relatedness of some ordinary job qualifications such as possessing a high school diploma.

KZA Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.