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A Teacher’s Unusual Phobia Leads to Lawsuit


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By Roger Scruggs

A high school teacher in Ohio taught high school language classes for approximately 35 years. The teacher recently sued her school district alleging discrimination, among other things. As part of her lawsuit, she alleged she was transferred to the junior high level, which caused her health to rapidly deteriorate due to her phobia of being around children. The teacher alleged that her phobia was a disability under the ADAAA, the school did not accommodate her request to be transferred back to the high school, and she was, consequently,  unlawfully “forced” into retirement. The school filed a motion to dismiss part of the claims in her lawsuit.

Allegations
In 1969, the teacher immigrated to the United States from Cuba when she was eighteen years old. After completing her education, she began teaching French and Spanish language classes in the Ohio public school system. In 1997, the teacher was assigned to teach classes of students “who were younger than high-school age, including elementary school students” and the prospect of such an assignment “caused extreme anxiety” for her. The teacher made the school aware of her condition, and the school permitted her to stay at the high school level.

In 2009, the school informed the teacher that it was planning to eliminate the French program the following school year. The teacher informed some of her students’ parents about this change in the curriculum.  The school principal and superintendent then had a meeting with the teacher about what they considered to be her wrongful disclosure of that information Later that year, the school transferred the teacher to the middle school to start up the Spanish program there.

The teacher alleged that she successfully started the Spanish program but that “working with. . . younger students adversely affected [her] health, due to her disability.”  On January 26, 2011, the teacher asked to be transferred back to the high school for 2011-2012 school year, but her request was denied for the stated reason there were “no openings.” The teacher alleged she was forced to retire, in March of 2011, at the age of 59, because of her health.

The Lawsuit
The teacher brought a lawsuit against the school in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, alleging discrimination based upon disability, sex, and age. She also brought claims under Ohio law, which included claims for emotional distress, promissory estoppel, discharge in violation of public policy, and breach of implied contract. The school filed a motion to dismiss the Ohio law claims of promissory estoppel, discharge in violation of public policy, and breach of implied contract.

The Federal Court granted the school’s motion to dismiss the three Ohio law claims. The Court held that promissory estoppel, a theory for breach of contract, was not a viable form of relief for the teacher.  Under Ohio law, parties cannot simultaneously have a written agreement and implied agreement for the same matter. The teacher argued that her 1997 letter detailing her request to remain at the high school level and the school’s acceptance of that arrangement created a binding implied contract. The Court found that, in Ohio, public school teachers are employed pursuant to express contracts. Therefore, the teacher could not assert a claim for promissory estoppel or breach of an implied employment contract.

The Court also dismissed the teacher’s claim for discharge in violation of Ohio public policy. The teacher alleged that she had been constructively discharged from her job when the school failed to reassign her to the high school level. The Court held that a “public policy” claim is only available to “at-will” employees, who have no contractual or statutory rights to their employment. The Court reasoned that because the teacher was employed pursuant to an express written contract, as all Ohio school teachers are, she was not an “at-will” employee and could not bring a public policy claim against the school.

Takeaway
While the Court did not address the main allegation in the teacher’s complaint, namely the disability discrimination, it did dismiss three of the teacher’s seven claims. The remaining claims will be subject to further litigation. For the teacher to prove her discrimination claim under the ADAAA, she will not only prove that she was “disabled”, but she will have to prove that she was a “qualified individual.”  In addition, the teacher will have to prove that she was discriminated against on the basis of her disability when the school transferried her to the middle school, or that the school failed to provide a reasonable accommodation by failing to transfer her back to the high school

 

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