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1st Circuit Upholds Summary Judgment in Favor of School After Terminating an Employee

January 30, 2024

Important Takeaway: The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employee could not move forward on disability or age discrimination claims where she was unable to perform the essential functions of her job with or without an accommodation.

Facts: Nancy Der Sarkisian was a teacher at Austin Preparatory School (Austin Prep). At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Der Sarkisian began a four-week leave of absence for hip surgery. Her leave of absence was extended for three months because she experienced complications requiring further surgery. After finding out she needed a third surgery, Der Sarkisian submitted a disability benefits application to Austin Prep. Austin Prep then sent her doctor an Accommodation Request Inquiry Form, stating that she had requested an accommodation to do her job and asking if a reasonable accommodation would allow her to perform the essential functions of her job. Der Sarkisian’s doctor told Austin Prep that she would be unable to work with or without accommodations for an additional three to six months. Upon reviewing the information from her doctor, Austin Prep then terminated Der Sarkisian and offered her the chance to reapply when she was cleared to return to work.

Der Sarkisian then sued Austin Prep for disability discrimination in violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Massachusetts laws for age discrimination. The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted summary judgment for Austin Prep. The district court found that Der Sarkisian had not met her burden of making a prima facie case that she was a qualified individual under the ADA or Massachusetts law so could not move forward on her disability claim. The district court also found that the Sarkisian had failed to demonstrate a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Austin Prep’s reason for her termination was pretextual and therefore she could not move forward on her age discrimination claim either.

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals explained that to establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination, the plaintiff must show (1) they were disabled within the meaning of the ADA, (2) they were a qualified individual and (3) they were discharged in whole or part because of their disability. To be a qualified individual under the ADA, Der Sarkisian had to show that she possessed the requisite skill, experience, education, and other job-related requirements for the position and that she was able to perform the essential functions of the position without or without a reasonable accommodation. Regular attendance was an essential function of her job and neither party disputed this. A further extension of her leave of absence would not allow her to perform this essential function as neither Der Sarkisian nor her doctor could provide a specific date that she would be able to return to work. Der Sarkisian did not meet her burden to prove she was a qualified individual because with or without an accommodation, she could not perform the essential functions of her job.

The Circuit Court also held that her requested accommodation was not financially reasonable because the school needed to provide continuity in the adequacy of instruction. The school previously had a policy of allowing employees to have 110 sick days and a year-long unpaid leave of absence that they removed, showing this kind of policies and leaves were not financially reasonable for the school. Since Der Sarkisian did not demonstrate a reasonable accommodation existed, the Court did not address whether the school failed to engage in the interactive process.

The Circuit Court also held that Der Sarkisian could not show she was terminated because of her age. In fact, Austin Prep presented evidence that another employee who was 38 years old was also terminated in the 2019-2020 school year after her doctor completed an Accommodation Request Inquiry Form which said she was unable to perform any essential functions of her job with or without an accommodation.

The Circuit Court upheld summary judgment in favor of Austin Prep.

What this means: In the 9th Circuit, where Montana is located, the elements for showing a prima facia case of disability discrimination are the same as in this case. The Supreme Court of the United States also recently held in Groff v. DeJoy that the standard to show whether an accommodation is reasonable is substantial costs. If an employee is claiming disability discrimination, they must make a prima facie showing using the above elements and then the employer must show that the accommodation is not reasonable by showing there is a substantial cost to providing the accommodation.

The Montana Supreme Court has also held in Mysse v. Martens that an employee who could not perform job requirements could not prove a prima facie case of age discrimination because the employer had a nondiscriminatory reason for terminating the employee. If an employee is unable to perform their essential job functions, the employer has a nondiscriminatory reason to terminate them, and the employee cannot succeed on an age discrimination claim.

An employer is likely to be protected from disability and age discrimination claims for termination of an employee when the employee is unable to perform the essential duties of their job with or without a reasonable accommodation.

About this case: Der Sarkisian v. Austin Preparatory School, 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, November 9, 2023. Read it here.

As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Megan, Beth, Kevin, and Kali at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.

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