Court Reject’s Teacher’s Disability Suit Over Lapsed Certificate

By Mark Walsh — December 09, 2011 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has ruled against an Idaho teacher who was dismissed after she let her teaching certificate lapse, despite her claim that a mental disability kept her from completing college coursework necessary for the re-certification.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled unanimously to uphold the Boundary County school district’s non-renewal of special education teacher Trish Johnson.

The majority said Johnson was not “qualified” within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 because she had failed to satisfy the prerequisites of the job by not having a valid teaching certificate.

Johnson had what court papers describe as a “major depressive episode” during the summer of 2007, just before her certification was to expire, and thus she did not complete college courses necessary for renewing her certificate. She sought to have the school district apply for a one-year provisional certificate on her behalf, but the school board refused.

The board chairmwoman said at the time that Johnson’s request was denied because she had five years to accumulate the required three hours of college credits but waited until just before her certification was to expire to seek the special accommodation. Johnson was terminated and her job was filled by a certificated teacher.

Johnson sued on various claims, including under the ADA and the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The sole issue before the 9th Circuit was whether she was a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA who merited an accommodation by the school board.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took the teacher’s side in the case, arguing in a brief that “selection criteria that are related to an essential function of the job may not be used to exclude an individual with a disability if that individual could satisfy the criteria with the provision of a reasonable accommodation.”

In its Dec. 8 decision in Johnson v. Board of Trustees of the Boundary County School District, the 9th Circuit court majority rejected the arguments of the teacher and the EEOC.

Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain said that barring a job prerequisite that itself has a discriminatory effect, which was not the case here, “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.”

Judge Richard A. Paez concurred in the outcome, but said the EEOC’s own interpretation of its guidance in this area deserved more deference.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.