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School’s Termination Of Long-Time Teacher Following Indefinite Medical Leave Was Upheld
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 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.
After 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, that it affected a number of her major life activities, and that 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 and related Massachusetts law.
To establish a prima facie claim for discrimination, Der Sarkisian must show that she had a disability under the ADA; that she was nonetheless qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and that, despite the foregoing, the School discharged her. If Der Sarkisian can establish a prima facie case for discrimination, the burden shifts to the School to show a legitimate reason for the adverse employment action. Then, if the School shows a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Der Sarkisian’s employment, she must demonstrate that the action was a pretext, and taken because of her disability, not because of the reason offered by the School.
The School did not contest that Der Sarkisian was disabled under the meaning of the ADA, but did contend that she could not establish her case for disability discrimination because she was not a qualified individual. The School argued that it provided her an initial accommodation, but she did not specifically request any other reasonable accommodation. Finally, the School stated that even if she could meet these requirements, she could not demonstrate pretext or discriminatory animus. In response, Der Sarkisian argued that the School failed to engage in the interactive process to determine a reasonable accommodation.
The Court found that to be a qualified individual, the employee must meet the job-related requirements for the position, and be able to perform the essential functions of the position, with or without reasonable accommodation. Der Sarkisian never taught students remotely or via video, and when not teaching, her job required that she be on-call for substitute teaching and class coverage. She was expected to attend various School events and to meet with people at the School, making regular attendance an essential function of her position. The Court found that while Der Sarkisian possessed the skills necessary to perform her job, by being unable to attend school in person, she could not fulfill the essential functions of her position.
The Court noted that if Der Sarkisian could show that she could perform the essential functions of her position when given a reasonable accommodation, then she would have a claim.
When Der Sarkisian made a request to extend her leave of absence due to her third surgery, she made a request for accommodation, which triggered the School’s duty to engage in the interactive process. The School upheld its obligation by explicitly asking Der Sarkisian’s doctor to fill out the accommodation form. The doctor only indicated that Der Sarkisian needed to be on total temporary disability and offered no reasonable accommodations. The Court noted that the School did not have an obligation to accommodate an employee by exempting her from an essential job function, in this case, exempting her from in-person attendance. The Court determined that Der Sarkisian did not set out a prima facie case of disability discrimination and granted summary judgment for the School.
Sarkisian v. Austin Preparatory School (D. Mass. Dec. 6, 2022) 2022 WL 17683765.
This opinion is from a federal trial court in Massachusetts, so it is not precedential in California. Nevertheless, the case does provide some insight as to how one trial court interpreted a school’s decision to terminate a long-time employee on indefinite medical leave.