In December 2014, the California Court of Appeal (“Court”) found that Morongo Unified School District’s (“School District”) failure to reassign a disabled teacher to her preferred position raised a triable issue of fact. Swanson v. Morongo Unified School Dist. (Cal. App. Ct. 12/23/14), Case No G050290. In doing so, the Court reversed the School District’s summary judgment as to the teacher’s disability claims, thereby permitted the claims to proceed to trial. This ruling addressed employers’ unique and ongoing responsibilities when handling accommodations of disabled employees.
In Swanson, the plaintiff was a highly accomplished elementary school teacher with more than 30 years of experience. In July 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent significant treatment. The School District initially accommodated her by placing her on medical leave for much of the 2007/2008 school year.
When the teacher was ready to return to work in the fall of 2008, she was offered an open fifth grade teaching assignment. Yet, the teacher objected on the ground that this would be her third different assignment in three years, and explained that her precarious health would prevent her from doing the necessary work required for a new assignment. Rather, the teacher requested a position at the second grade level because she recently had taught that grade at a different school. Her supervisor, however, assigned another teacher to the second grade opening and assigned the plaintiff to a kindergarten class. The plaintiff expressed concern about working with kindergarten-age children because her cancer treatments damaged her immune system and she feared that exposure to the many illnesses of kindergarten children would pose further health risks. Nonetheless, and despite her objections, the plaintiff was assigned to the kindergarten class.
Unfortunately, the plaintiff was subsequently forced to take another medical leave because of illness that she attributed to her kindergarten teaching assignment. Then, when she returned from her second leave, she received poor evaluations. Next, the School District voted not to renew the teacher’s contract for the 2009/2010 school year. The plaintiff ultimately filed suit for disability related claims including, failure to provide a reasonable accommodation. The trial court initially granted the School District’s Motion for Summary Judgment as to her disability claims. However, the California Court of Appeal reversed.
By way of background, the Court explained that when providing a reasonable accommodation, an employer does not have an obligation to create a new job, reassign another employee, or promote a disabled employee. However, an employer does have a duty to reassign a disabled employee if an already funded, vacant position at the same level exists. Moreover, a disabled employee seeking reassignment to a vacant position is entitled to preferential consideration.
With these important concepts in mind, the teacher argued that the School District should have assigned her to the second grade—instead of the kindergarten or fifth grade—class because she was familiar with the curriculum and children of that age. The Court of Appeal agreed. Indeed, the Court explained that the School District failed to show that the kindergarten or fifth grade classes were a reasonable accommodation that allowed the teacher to adequately perform her essential job duties. Further, the Court determined that the School District failed to show that the second grade position was either not available or otherwise not a reasonable accommodation. Based on the foregoing, the School District failed to satisfy its burden of showing that it provided the teacher with a reasonable accommodation.
The takeaway here is that although an employer does not have to always provide an employee with a specifically requested accommodation, employers do have an affirmative obligation to determine what available positions, if any, will allow the employee to adequately perform the essential job duties. This case is also an important reminder to employers that when multiple employees and/or applicants seek the same position, a disabled employee seeking reassignment is entitled to preferential consideration.