A Texas school district met its obligation to engage in the interactive process under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by granting an employee’s only requested accommodation, according to a federal district court.
The Sweeny Independent School District employed the plaintiff as special programs coordinator from 2001 until August 2016. The plaintiff requested and took Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave to care for her sick father and then due to her own serious illness. The plaintiff’s doctors did not release her to return to work when her FMLA leave expired. She then requested a meeting to discuss her future employment with the school district.
At the meeting, the plaintiff requested an accommodation of six weeks’ additional leave. The school district granted this request and even held the plaintiff’s position open for nearly 13 weeks before her contract with the school district expired, at which time the school district did not renew the plaintiff’s contract. After the nonrenewal, the plaintiff filed suit alleging discriminatory termination and a failure to accommodate in violation of the ADA; retaliatory termination in violation of the FMLA; and sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The school district argued that it met its ADA obligations by providing the plaintiff the exact accommodation she requested, an extension of leave, and the court agreed. The plaintiff had not identified to the school district any other accommodations she may have needed to perform her job, such as flexible scheduling.
The plaintiff also could not point to another available position that she could be reassigned to because of her needs. The school district, having met with the plaintiff to discuss her needs, granted her the only accommodation she actually requested. Under those circumstances, the school district satisfied its ADA obligations, and the court dismissed the plaintiff’s ADA claims.
The school district also prevailed on the plaintiff’s FMLA retaliation claim because the plaintiff failed to show that her termination was due to her taking FMLA leave. The plaintiff additionally waited over five years to bring her Title VII harassment claim and such claim was time-barred, according to the court.
Smith v. Sweeny Independent School District, S.D. Texas, No. CV G-17-0123 (Oct. 29, 2018).
Professional Pointer: This case is an important reminder that employees are held accountable if they fail to participate in the ADA interactive process. Searching for a reasonable accommodation is a two-way street. Both employee and employer are obligated to discuss and propose potential accommodations, and an employee’s failure to participate meaningfully has consequences.