The Americans with Disabilities Act does not require an employer to accommodate dangerous behavior, according to a new federal appeals court opinion, even if the cause of the behavior is a covered disability. This principle is particularly important where the employer cares for vulnerable populations such as children.
In this case, a middle school art teacher spiraled into deep depression after her parent died, and the school supported her need for mental health counseling. Unfortunately, at one point, she hit a new low. She took more than the prescribed dosage of her depression medicine while at school and told fellow teachers that she had contemplated killing herself and her son, who was a student at the school. Later, the school heard reports that she had considered ways to harm school personnel that she thought had wronged her. Based on all of these events, the school district decided not to renew her contract at the end of the school year.
The teacher disputed all of these facts and sued for lack of accommodation under the ADA. The appeals court affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the school district. “Whatever the cause, the District acted within its rights to eliminate [the teacher’s] behavior from [the school], especially since [the teacher’s] job required that she be responsible for the welfare of her students.”
One important point for youth-serving organizations is that the school’s early efforts to determine whether she posed a continuing danger did not show that the school based its termination decision on her mental health status. “That the District first sought to find a way for [the teacher] to return to work without endangering the safety of students and staff did not preclude the District from later deciding not to renew her contract because it considered her past misconduct to be disqualifying.”
In sum, youth-serving organizations such as schools have an obligation to accommodate mental health disorders of their employees. However, they also have an equally binding responsibility to keep their staff and students safe from harm. When those two rights collide, safety becomes paramount.