- An Ohio school system did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act when it fired a middle school physical education teacher for misconduct related to her mental illness, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (Lockhart v. Marietta City Schools, et al., No. 20-4308 (6th Cir., Oct. 15, 2021)).
- The teacher set the events leading to her termination in motion when she returned to school after several snow days talking about an event she described as "deeply religious." After she informed students of this event, both in person and over email, she was put on paid administrative leave. Despite this, she continued to post about her experience on social media, and she used Facebook to send students private messages, including one that was 12 pages long.
- The school hired a psychologist to evaluate the teacher's mental health. The teacher also sought out a professional, as she stated she did not trust the one hired by her school. Both professionals diagnosed the teacher with mental illnesses. The doctor hired by the school stated that the teacher's illnesses made her incapable of "performing the essential functions of her current position as teacher and within the legal and ethical boundaries of [her school] and her profession." The school terminated the teacher, and she sued, alleging disability discrimination.
The school stated three reasons for the teacher's termination: that she used her position to discuss her religious beliefs; that she stated she lacked control over what she said (because, after her religious event, "God tells her what to say and to whom"); and that she corresponded with students to discuss her employment after she was told not to do so.
The 6th Circuit pointed out that "there is reason to believe" that the misconduct the teacher was fired for qualified as disability-related conduct. The court considered whether it is lawful for an employer to fire a worker for misconduct that is due to a disability.
"An employer may not rightfully fire an employee for disability-related conduct that is not related to work performance and does not violate some work-place or societal rule," the 6th Circuit said in its analysis, referencing a 1997 case. "Rather, an employer should tolerate eccentric or unusual conduct caused by the employee's mental disability, so long as the employee can satisfactorily perform the essential functions of his job."
There are limits to this prohibition, the court pointed out. "An employer may legitimately fire an employee for conduct, even conduct that occurs as a result of a disability, if that conduct disqualifies the employee from his or her job," the 6th Circuit opined.
In this instance, the school forbade teachers from sharing their religious beliefs with students — a policy that the court found to be job-related and consistent with public education. The teacher expressly violated this rule, and the school did not violate the ADA by firing her, even though her conduct was "almost certainly related" to her disability.