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California Court Rejects Religious School’s Motion to Dismiss Disability Discrimination Claim

Key point 8-14.1. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers with at least 15 employees, and that are engaged in interstate commerce, from discriminating in any employment decision against a qualified individual with a disability who is able, with or without reasonable accommodation from the employer, to perform the essential functions of the job. Accommodations that impose an undue hardship upon an employer are not required. Religious organizations may give preference to nondisabled members of their faith over disabled persons who are members of a different faith.

A federal district court in California rejected a church-affiliated school's motion to dismiss a former employee's disability discrimination claim. A 67-year-old teacher (the "plaintiff") at a church-operated school sustained serious injuries as a result of a fall in a stairwell at her school causing her to strike her head. As a result of the fall, the plaintiff suffered from "vision problems, including symptoms of dizziness, instability, loss of balance, and double vision and migraine headaches." Due to her injuries the plaintiff has fallen on several occasions and is no longer able to drive at night.

After the fall, the plaintiff requested, and received, a one-week leave of absence. During this leave, the plaintiff claimed that she received electronic communications from the school principal "pressuring her to return to work." Over the next several months, the principal inquired about the plaintiff's health and was told she continued to suffer from double vision, dizziness, and migraines.

The principal thereafter informed the plaintiff that various categories of work performance and work behavior were "areas for growth" and that her contract was not being renewed.

The plaintiff sued the school, claiming that her termination amounted to unlawful discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act; and, the school's failure to renew her teaching contract amounted to "wrongful termination."

ADA

As evidence of disability discrimination, the plaintiff noted that the school:

  • Failed to determine the extent of her disability and how it could be accommodated;
  • Failed to take any affirmative steps to inform plaintiff of any job opportunities at the school;
  • Failed to consider the plaintiff for and move her into openings for which she was qualified and could handle;
  • Failed to engage in a timely, good faith, interactive process with the plaintiff to determine effective reasonable accommodations;
  • Discriminated against her based on her taking or requesting leave to which she was entitled by law or under school policy;
  • Discriminated against her on the basis of her age;
  • Failed to renew her teaching contract;
  • Discriminated against her by terminating her employment based on the "false and pretextual reason" that she had performance problems;
  • Replaced her with, and treated more favorably, a less experienced, less senior, younger and nondisabled individual; and
  • Failed to rehire her.

The court noted that "the elements of a disability discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are (1) the claimant has a disability, (2) the claimant is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, (3) the claimant has suffered adverse employment action because of the disability.

The court concluded the plaintiff's lawsuit satisfied "all elements" of an ADA claim:

She alleges that her disability resulted from a fall and injury to her head that led to on-going concussions, vision problems, dizziness, instability, and the loss of balance. These conditions allegedly and substantially limited her ability to work, walk, and see … .
She also adequately alleges that she was qualified to perform her job and that she suffered an adverse employment decision because of her disability. She alleges that the school was openly hostile to Plaintiff, subjecting her to unfair and excessive monitoring of her teaching performance. Further, Plaintiff alleges that she suffered disability harassment because, in part, she was subjected to an "annual" performance review that had not been conducted for several years. Such allegations, plaintiff argues, establish that she was disabled or "regarded" as disabled.

As a result the court rejected the school's motion to dismiss the plaintiff's ADA claim.

Wrongful termination

The plaintiff also alleged that the school's failure to renew her annual teaching contract amounted to wrongful termination. The school argued that any cause of action for wrongful termination fails because in Daly v. Exxon Corp., 63 Cal.Rptr.2d 727 (1997), the court held that a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy cannot be based upon the nonrenewal of an employment contract. In Daly, the parties entered into an employment contract for a period of one year. The contract was renewed for two additional one-year extensions. During the third year, the employee complained to the employer about unsafe working conditions. Several months later the employer provided the plaintiff with written notice that his contract would not be renewed and in fact was not renewed.

The plaintiff sued the employer for wrongful termination. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and a state appeals court agreed that the wrongful termination claim based on nonrenewal of the employment contract had to be dismissed, concluding that "a decision not to renew a contract set to expire is not actionable in tort."

The plaintiff in the California case asked the court to reject the Daly decision, since according to that case "an employer could discriminate on the basis of a prohibited reason (i.e., race, religion, disability, etc.) and there would be no basis for a wrongful termination cause of action." But the court disagreed: "This argument is not persuasive. While a common law tort for wrongful nonrenewal of an employment contract does not exist, the injured hypothetical party has viable statutory remedies (i.e. the ADA, Title VII, or various other state or federal statutory schemes). Consequently, Plaintiff cannot state a claim for tortious nonrenewal of the employment contract."

What This Means For Churches:

This case is important because of its analysis of a disability discrimination claim, and because of the court's rejection of any cause of action for "wrongful termination" based on an employer's decision not to renew employment contracts of stated terms. Baker v. Roman Catholic Diocese, 2015 WL 1344958 (S.D. Cal. 2015).

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Posted:
  • June 23, 2016

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