Court Upholds School’s Termination Of Long-Time Employee Following Indefinite Medical Leave

CATEGORY: Nonprofit News
CLIENT TYPE: Nonprofit
DATE: Feb 09, 2024

Nancy Der Sarkisian was an English teacher at Austin Preparatory School, a private Catholic independent school in Reading, Massachusetts, for twenty-four years.  In September 2019, Der Sarkisian underwent hip surgery and told the School she would be out for approximately four weeks.  The School granted her request for leave and hired a substitute teacher to cover her classes.

Der Sarkisian intended to return to School in October 2019, but she then required a second surgery and so she informed the School she would need leave for the entire first semester.  The School requested that Der Sarkisian’s doctor provide an updated Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Certification because the leave was going to be longer than initially represented. In the certification, Der Sarkisian’s doctor opined that Der Sarkisian would likely require 2-3 months to recover, and would not be able to return until January 5, 2020.  The School gave Der Sarkisian information about the School’s long-term disability program at this time.

In November 2019, Der Sarkisian completed the long-term disability program application and notified the School that she required a third surgery and was unsure when she could return to school.  Der Sarkisian told the School she required intravenous injections of antibiotics at home until at least February 7, 2020.

Shortly thereafter, Der Sarkisian told the School she would need additional time to rehabilitate following her three surgeries.  At this point, Der Sarkisian had exhausted her available FMLA and sick leave, so the School asked her to have her doctor complete an accommodation form so the School could determine whether there was a reasonable accommodation that would allow Der Sarkisian to perform the essential functions of her job.  Der Sarkisian’s doctor indicated that her impairment would last three to six months, it affected a number of her major life activities, and she would have difficulty performing all of her job functions.  Der Sarkisian’s doctor did not suggest any accommodations aside from total temporary disability.

After reviewing the accommodation form on December 26, 2019, the School terminated Der Sarkisian’s employment, stating that they had a growing need to fill her position and could not provide an extended and continuing leave of absence with no set end date.  Der Sarkisian sued the School for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and related Massachusetts law.

The trial court granted the School’s motion for summary judgment, holding that regular attendance was an essential function of Der Sarkisian’s role when she was terminated.  The trial court concluded that Der Sarkisian had not satisfied her burden to demonstrate that a reasonable accommodation existed that would have allowed her to perform this essential function, and therefore she could not make out a disability discrimination case.  Der Sarkisian appealed.

To establish a claim for disability discrimination, Der Sarkisian must show that (1) she was disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) she was a “qualified individual;” and (3) she was discharged because of her disability.

The Court of Appeals concluded that Der Sarkisian’s claim failed at step one because she did not demonstrate that she was a qualified individual.  While Der Sarkisian held the skills and qualifications to teach at the School, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that in-person attendance was an essential function of her job.  The Court of Appeals determined that a further extension of her leave of absence would not have allowed her to perform her essential functions.

The Court of Appeals also agreed with the trial court that Der Sarkisian did not carry her burden to demonstrate that her request for a further leave of absence was facially reasonable.  Der Sarkisian argued that the School’s former policy of offering 110 sick days and a year-long unpaid leave of absence demonstrated that her request was reasonable.  The Court of Appeals disagreed.  The School deliberately removed those policies from their handbook before the school year at issue, and instead offered a disability insurance policy, from which Der Sarkisian received benefits.

On appeal, Der Sarkisian also argued that she would have taken an unpaid leave of absence and the School could have had other faculty members cover her classes pending her return.  The Court of Appeals said that the School did not have to lower its employment standards or reallocate essential functions of Der Sarkisian’s job to make other faculty jobs more onerous in order to accommodate Der Sarkisian.  Moreover, these accommodations would not have satisfied the School’s need for instruction of Der Sarkisian’s five classes and the need to give students continuity throughout the school year.

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision and granted summary judgment for the School.

Der Sarkisian v. Austin Preparatory Sch. (1st Cir. Nov. 7, 2023) 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 29679.

Note: LCW reported on this case in February.  This case shows that an employer may not need to provide an indefinite leave of absence for employees if the employer maintains appropriate documentation and justification as to why the leave would be unreasonable.

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