School district fails to establish that full-time work is an essential function of a teacher’s position in summary judgment proceeding

Last month in Incutto v. Newton Public Schools, et al., the United States District Court – District of Massachusetts denied a Newton Public Schools’ motion for summary judgment regarding a former kindergarten teacher’s claim for disability discrimination, despite the school district’s assertion that the teacher’s ability to work full-time was an essential function of her job as a full-time teacher.

The Plaintiff, a former elementary school kindergarten teacher, brought suit against her former employer, Newton Public Schools, for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and state disability laws, alleging the school failed to accommodate her documented disability of fibromyalgia by denying her repeated requests to work on a part-time basis. She also filed a complaint alleging retaliation.

Newton Public Schools filed a motion for summary judgment on both the discrimination and retaliation claims. The Court denied Newton Public Schools’ motion with respect to the claim for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, finding a genuine dispute of fact existed.

The ADA  prevents employers from discriminating “against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). A “qualified individual” is “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8).

Newton Public Schools contended that full-time work was an essential function of the Plaintiff’s role as a teacher and that, because the Plaintiff was employed as a full-time teacher, her full-time presence from 8:20 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. was required.

However, the Court found that the record contained evidence that the Plaintiff had worked part-time by job-sharing in previous years, and that every school year from 2008-2009 through 2017 – 2018, between 3 and 7 elementary classroom teaching positions were job-shared between two teachers. Additionally, in the time frame during which the Plaintiff was seeking part-time employment, multiple job-share or part time positions were available within Newton Public Schools.

The Court conlcuded that the position of elementary school teacher is not inherently, or as implemented by Newton Public Schools, a job that requires performance by a single teacher all day, every day, for each classroom. It stated that a jury could find that the Plaintiff’s position was “elementary school teacher” rather than “full-time teacher.” Thus, a genuine dispute of material fact existed as to whether an essential function of the Plaintiff’s job was full-time presence by the same teacher in the classroom.

The Court specifically pointed to Newton Public School’s failure to assert additional facts that would explain how full-time presence was an essential function of the plaintiff’s job, stating, “This is particularly so because at summary judgment, NPS [Newton Public Schools] failed to assert that continuity with a single teacher in each classroom is essential (i.e. the job always requires full-time presence of the same teacher in each classroom), nor has it asserted that idiosyncratic scheduling considerations preclude an accommodation for partial attendance or job sharing.”

The Court did not agree with Newton Public Schools’ position that the Plaintiff’s request for part-time work was an unreasonable accommodation, nor did the Court agree that shifting the Plaintiff’s position to part-time work would have necessarily changed the essential functions of her job. Newton Public Schools also failed to assert that allowing the Plaintiff to work part-time would have imposed an undue hardship on Newton Public Schools.

Therefore, the Court denied the motion for summary judgment on the failure to accommodate claim and the teacher’s case will go forward.


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