Teacher's Case Spurs Debate Over Scope of A.D.A.

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School officials in Pauls Valley, Okla., just breathed a sigh of relief.

After facing a potentially long and costly legal battle, the Pauls Valley school district settled out of court last month with a speech pathologist who had challenged her 1993 dismissal.

District administrators fired Vicki Perryman from her job at an elementary school because she refused to release medical records that would have given details about her history of manic depression, according to Bill Wilkinson, the lawyer for the school district. Ms. Perryman's lawyer disputes that account.

But while the facts surrounding Ms. Perryman's firing are in dispute, her lawsuit against the district has garnered national attention as one of the first known cases involving the mental-disabilities protections contained in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

Administrators across the country--worried they might face similar suits--have called the 1,400-student district southwest of Oklahoma City.

The A.D.A., which essentially bars all forms of discrimination against people with disabilities, has its merits, school officials say. But they worry that the nation's schools will have a hard time navigating the law's gray areas, particularly those involving mental illness.

"If you have someone in a wheelchair, it's fairly clear what kind of accommodations can be made," Mr. Wilkinson said. "But what do you do, where do you draw the line, with the mentally disabled?" he asked.

'Good Practices'

Advocates for the disabled, however, say the law does not unduly burden districts.

"I believe all the A.D.A. asks is that employers institute and implement good labor-management practices," said David Raizman, the executive director of the Western Law Center for Disability Rights, based in Los Angeles. The nonprofit center at the law school at Loyola Marymount University provides legal services to people with disabilities.

"It does not mean an employer has to live with conduct that's otherwise unacceptable," Mr. Raizman said, pointing out that under the law employees must be able to perform the "essential functions" of a job.

The law prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in hiring, firing, promotion, and compensation, among other provisions. Its protections extend to an estimated 43 million people nationwide. (See Education Week, 1/15/92.)

Under the act, which took full effect last year, school districts and other employers must make "reasonable accommodations" for workers with disabilities, including those with mental disorders. The decision to include those disorders has triggered some debate over how far the law should go.

Most public schools already had to insure that they did not discriminate against the disabled under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

But while the A.D.A. covers much of the same ground, its high visibility has raised awareness about the rights of the mentally ill in particular. Before the passage of the 1990 law, many people with mental illnesses did not know they were protected, Mr. Raizman said.

Now, some legal experts say, claims are booming in that area of the law. From July 1992--when the law was phased in for employers with at least 25 workers--until August 1993, nearly 10 percent of the more than 14,000 A.D.A.-related complaints filed involved with mental disorders, according to the Western Law Center.

Case History

In schools, the law has brought renewed attention to employment practices. In the Pauls Valley, Okla., case, the district asked to see Ms. Perryman's medical records after it learned that she had been admitted to a mental facility during a six-week absence from work, Mr. Wilkinson, the district's lawyer, said. Ms. Perryman had said that she was being treated for cancer during that time.

But Kindanne Jones, Ms. Perryman's lawyer, said the district had made its decision to fire her client when officials learned of her mental illness--before she refused to release her medical records. In addition, Ms. Jones, who works for the Oklahoma Disability Law Center, said school officials would not accept letters from her client's doctors assuring them that she was not a danger to herself or others and could perform her job.

Ms. Perryman said her condition, which is marked by alternating periods of manic excitation and depression, could be controlled with medication, Ms. Jones added.

In her lawsuit, filed last year, Ms. Perryman challenged her dismissal under the A.D.A., arguing that she was a victim of discrimination. Ms. Perryman settled last month with the Oklahoma district for an undisclosed sum.

Ms. Jones said her client, who now works at a school in New Mexico, is doing well in her new job.

Connecticut Suit

A number of cases like the one in Pauls Valley have surfaced in the past few years in other districts.

In Connecticut, for example, a 5th-grade teacher in the Lyme-Old Lyme public schools claimed that the 1,370-student district violated the A.D.A. last fall when it put her on a leave of absence pending more information about her mental condition. The teacher, Kathleen Welch, is manic-depressive.

Her lawyer, Gary Phelan, said that Ms. Welch was taking medication to control her illness and that her performance did not suffer. In fact, she routinely received superior evaluations from administrators and was named the district's top teacher in 1990, her lawsuit, filed in October of last year, says.

But district officials saw things differently, said Thomas McGarry, their lawyer. Parents' complaints about Ms. Welch prompted the district to place her on medical leave until a psychiatrist deemed her well enough to teach.

Ms. Welch, however, contends that she was treated differently after news of her disability spread through the district, Mr. Phelan said. He added that school officials refused to meet with her when she opposed their decision to put her on leave.

Like Ms. Perryman, Kathleen Welch is back in the schools. She is working at her old job while lawyers try to resolve her case through mediation.

More To Come?

Most of the lawsuits filed by school employees with mental disabilities have been settled before they went to trial and involved small amounts of money. But higher-stakes cases may not be far behind.

Last week, lawyers for Walter L. Marks, the former superintendent of the Kansas City, Mo., schools, said he plans to file a suit under the A.D.A. and two other state and federal laws. The lawyers said his suit could seek more than $1 million. The Kansas City school board fired Mr. Marks last month after the district questioned his travel expenses and a local television station filmed him lifting heavy objects while on medical leave for a bad back. (See Education Week, 2/15/95.)

Mr. Marks said his medical problems were accompanied by a stress-induced depression that he had not disclosed. A psychiatrist hired by the school board appeared to support Mr. Marks's claim that he suffered from a stress-related disability.

Mr. Wilkinson, the lawyer for the Pauls Valley schools, said districts should do whatever it takes to resist such claims--or they could multiply.

But Mr. Raizman of the Western Law Center said the A.D.A. is doing exactly what it was intended to do: protect workers who have disabilities--mental or physical--but can get the job done.

Vol. 14, Issue 39

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