Employment Practices – Part 1

A federal court ruled that a church did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act when it failed to renew the one-year teaching contract of a teacher who disclosed to church officials that he was suffering from the HIV virus.

Church Law and Tax2001-05-01

Employment Practices

Key point 8-10. 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.
Americans with Disabilities Act

A federal court ruled that a church did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act when it failed to renew the one-year teaching contract of a teacher who disclosed to church officials that he was suffering from the HIV virus. A former teacher at a church-operated school sued the church for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by dismissing him after he informed school officials that he had been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (“HIV”). The church claimed that the teacher was hired for a term of one year; that future employment was dependent on an evaluation of the teacher’s performance during the prior school year; that at the expiration of the first year of employment the teacher’s contract was not renewed because of administrative reasons and not on discriminatory reasons; and the teacher had failed to comply with the conditions demanded by the church for working at the school. For his part, the teacher claimed that he had a legitimate expectation of continued employment based on his satisfactory job performance and the fact that most teachers were rehired year after year. Further, he insisted that the real reason for his dismissal was his disclosure that he was HIV-infected. The court rejected the teacher’s claim:

In this particular case we find that plaintiff has failed to establish all of the elements of his claim pursuant to ADA. Even assuming that he is a disabled person within the meaning of the Act, and that he was qualified for the position, he specifically failed to demonstrate that he suffered an adverse employment action … on account of his disability. In this regard, it is pertinent to note that plaintiff’s teaching contract had a term of one year, and it was not renewable. The … contract did not provide for any extension to be granted to the plaintiff as a matter of right. Quite the contrary, it provided that a subsequent contract was dependent on the [church’s] evaluation of the teacher’s work and a new agreement. The fact that most teachers had yearly contracts granted to them is of no consequence, for there is also evidence on the record of many other teachers whose contracts expired and were not retained …. In addition [the church] provided sufficient evidence … that show plaintiff’s difficulties in managing the students under his supervision, his frequent tardiness for work … Plaintiff’s only evidence on his behalf consists of an evaluation and letter of recommendation that qualify him as a teacher with good academic skills. However, [he] did not contradict all the other evidence presented against him, his tardiness, his problems managing the students under his supervision, and his disrespect of [clergy]. Moreover, plaintiff failed to establish that the decision not to rehire him was really discriminatory. The [church] had many legitimate and sound reasons not to extend another contract to the plaintiff, which were not controverted by the plaintiff ….

Application. This case illustrates that a church can dismiss an employee who is protected by a state or federal civil rights law so long as a legitimate nondiscriminatory basis for the decision can be demonstrated. Of course, even if church leaders believe that a nondiscriminatory basis exists to dismiss such an employee, they should consider the following points before making a decision to terminate the employee: (1) The employee may file a charge of discrimination with a civil rights agency (such as the EEOC), which can take months or even years to resolve. (2) The employee may sue the church on the basis of alleged discrimination. Such cases can consume years of time, inconvenience, and expense, even if the church wins. (3) Legal expenses incurred in the defense of a civil rights lawsuit are not covered under many church insurance policies. This means that the church will be responsible for retaining and compensating its own attorney, and this can quickly result in substantial fees. (4) An attorney should be consulted before dismissing an employee who is protected by a local, state, or federal civil rights law. (5) Many churches have eliminated the risk of legal expenses and liability by entering into a severance agreement with an employee. The employee agrees to resign his or her employment and waive all legal claims against the church in exchange for the church’s payment of a lump sum amount of money (often expressed in terms of a number of weeks’ salary). This can be a very attractive option that should be discussed with your attorney. Cajigas v. Order of St. Benedict, 115 F.Supp.2d 246 (D. Puerto Rico 2000).

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