On November 7, 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts’ dismissal of a teacher’s suit against her former employer, Austin Preparatory School (“Austin Prep”), in which she claimed the school fired her for requesting extended leave as an accommodation following multiple surgeries. In Der Sarkisian v. Austin Preparatory School, the First Circuit held that Nancy Der Sarkisian’s request for extended leave, with no end date, was unreasonable considering the circumstances specific to teaching at a school. This decision is a win for employers, and especially schools, that may struggle to accommodate employees while meeting operational needs.
Der Sarkisian was an English teacher at Austin Prep. Just before the 2019-2020 school year began, Der Sarkisian learned she would need hip surgery, and thereafter informed Austin Prep that she would have surgery on September 5th, the third day of the 2019-2020 school year, and be out for four weeks. Austin Prep granted this four-week leave of absence and retained a substitute teacher on a per-diem basis to cover Der Sarkisian’s classes.
Five weeks later, on October 13, 2019, Der Sarkisian informed Austin Prep that there was a complication with her initial surgery and that she would need a second surgery and additional recovery time. Der Sarkisian's doctor completed a “Certification of Health Care Provider for Employee's Serious Health Condition” on October 28, 2019, in which he stated that Der Sarkisian would be “incapacitated” until January 5, 2020. Austin prep agreed to extend Der Sarkisian’s leave of absence to January 6, 2020. However, on December 5, 2020, Der Sarkisian alerted Austin Prep that she would not be back in January because she had undergone a third surgery.
Accordingly, Austin Prep sent Der Sarkisian’s doctor an “Accommodation Request Inquiry Form” and job description, requesting information about “whether there [wa]s a reasonable accommodation that would allow [Der Sarkisian] to perform the essential functions of her job.” The doctor responded that Der Sarkisian was “substantially limited” in her ability to perform several “major life activities,” was having trouble performing all job functions because of her limitations, and that he expected that her impairment would last three to six months. Der Sarkisian’s doctor suggested “total temporary disability” as a suggested reasonable accommodation. But Austin Prep could not accommodate Der Sarkisian’s request for an “extended and continuing leave of absence with no set end date,” and accordingly, terminated her employment on December 26, 2019.
Der Sarkisian thereafter filed suit, alleging disability discrimination in violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act and M.G.L. c. 151B, and age discrimination in violation of M.G.L. c. 151B, § 4. After a failed mediation and engaging in discovery, Austin Prep moved for summary judgment on both claims, which the district court granted in full. As to Der Sarkisian’s disability discrimination claim, the district court held that regular attendance was an “essential function” of Der Sarkisian’s role at the time of termination, and that she had not satisfied her burden to demonstrate that a reasonable accommodation existed that would have allowed her to perform this essential function. Der Sarkisian’s appeal followed.
On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment. In evaluating Der Sarkisian’s disability discrimination claim under the MacDonnell Douglas three-step burden-shifting framework, the First Circuit looked no further than step one, in which Der Sarkisian had the burden of showing that she (1) was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, (2) was a “qualified individual,” and (3) was discharged in whole or in part because of her disability.
The First Circuit held that Der Sarkisian’s claim failed at this stage because she had not demonstrated at least a genuine issue of material fact that she was a “qualified individual,” or more specifically, that she was able to perform the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation. Rather, the First Circuit agreed with the district court that “in person attendance” was an essential function of Der Sarkisian’s teaching position, and she did not carry her burden to demonstrate that a reasonable accommodation existed that would help her perform this function.
In so holding, the First Circuit disagreed with Der Sarkisian’s argument that her request for a further extension of her leave of absence, which would have allowed her to perform this essential function, was facially reasonable. Instead, the First Circuit adopted the district court’s reasoning on this point, that in the context of teaching and related responsibilities of a school, an extended period of leave with no end date was not reasonable because of its negative effect on the school’s interest in maintaining consistency in educators for its students, and because the school would risk relying on a temporary replacement educator with no formal contract who could leave at any time.
This is a positive decision for employers, and especially those whose operations rely on the consistent attendance of employees. However, employers should still proceed with caution, continue to evaluate each employee request for accommodation on a case by case basis, and consult with counsel on issues relating to accommodation, and in particular continued leaves of absence, as every situation is different and may present its own set of risks.
- Member of the Firm