On September 16, 2016, the 7th Circuit reversed an order of summary judgment entered by the district court in a federal lawsuit in which the plaintiff, a special education teacher diagnosed with PTSD, alleges that the School District failed to provide her with reasonable accommodation for her disability by refusing her request to be transferred to another special education job in the District that does not involve behavioral or emotional disorder students. Lawler v. Peoria School District No. 150, No. 15-2976 (7th Cir. 9/16/2016). She was tenured by the District after nine years of satisfactory performance. However, when she suffered a relapse of her PTSD, and the District then learned about her disability for the first time, the District transferred her to a different school, to teach children with not only learning disabilities, but also severe emotional and behavioral disorders. The plaintiff and her new supervisor at the new school thought that this was a bad idea. She was rated satisfactory after a year in the new position, but at the start of her second year, she was injured by a disruptive student. Her psychiatrist notified the District that the incident had retriggered her PTSD, and that she needed to be transferred to a different teaching environment. The District did not transfer her, but instead accelerated her next performance appraisal, rated her as unsatisfactory, and terminated her employment as part of a reduction-in-force through which all but unsatisfactory rated teachers were rehired.
She filed a lawsuit under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, claiming that the District failed to accommodate her PTSD and fired her in retaliation for requesting an accommodation. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Rehabilitation Act, the employer and the employee are responsible for engaging in an interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s disability. Both parties are required to make a good faith effort to determine what accommodations are necessary. The Director of Human Resources summarily refused to authorize a transfer, despite a letter from the plaintiff’s psychiatrist, which explained the accommodation request. The District failed to make any reasonable attempt to explore possible accommodations, such as looking for open positions in other schools, and instead refused her request outright. A jury could reasonably conclude that the plaintiff’s need for a transfer easily could have been accommodated, because there were several openings for special education teachers in other schools within the District. Reassignment of an employee to a vacant position is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The 7th Circuit concluded that a jury could find that the District failed to accommodate her PTSD, vacated the judgment and remanded the case for a jury trial.