In a recent ADA case arising out of Michigan, the Sixth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the employer. In Stallings v. Detroit Public Schools, 2016 WL 4036405 (6th Cir. July 28, 2016), the plaintiff had worked for the defendant school system since 2002, teaching kindergarten courses. In 2012, she was reassigned to a fifth-grade class and shortly thereafter aggravated a pre-existing osteoarthritic knee condition while breaking up a fight between students, and took medical leave. In a certification form, Stallings’ treating physician stated that she should would have to have a “sit-down job” with “no classroom” work. Shortly after her return to work, Stallings was placed in an administrative job performing clerical duties, and stayed at that job until the end of the school year in June 2013. Over the summer, Stallings underwent a total knee replacement surgery.
In August 2013, the school system sent Stallings a letter directing her to report to work at the start of the new school year in a “teacher position”. Stallings requested FMLA leave and was provided the appropriate certification forms. Her leave request was for four months’ leave, from August 2013 to January 2014. This time, her treating physician again stated that the plaintiff should have no classroom work and a sit- down job only. Further confusing matters, a few days later, the plaintiff sent a letter requesting a return to work as a classroom teacher in her previous assignment in the kindergarten area. Apparently in light of this inconsistency, the school system denied Stallings’ request for medical leave but offered to accommodate Stallings with a teacher’s aide and assigned her to a first floor first floor classroom. Stallings declined this offer and retired the next day. She subsequently applied for Social Security disability benefits eight days after she retired. She subsequently filed suit under the ADA and the district court granted summary judgment for the employer, finding that Stallings was not a qualified individual with a disability.
Citing Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795, 805-806, (1999), the court pointed out that in establishing whether a person is a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA, a plaintiff cannot simply ignore the apparent contradiction that arises out of a Social Security disability claim and must offer a sufficient explanation. The court explained that an ADA plaintiff can survive summary judgment by explaining that he can perform the essential functions of his position with a reasonable accommodation, which is a consideration the Social Security Administration does not take into account. However, in this case, the only accommodation Stallings requested was the four-month leave of absence she requested in her FMLA form. The court held that this request did not explain the contradiction or resolve the disparity created by Stallings’ later claim of total disability in her Social Security claim. In that document, Stallings asserted, and the Social Security Administration agreed, that she was unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. The court stated that it was incongruous for Stallings to claim she could perform her essential job functions after four months of leave, yet days later claim that she would remain incapacitated even with the benefit of that accommodation.
The court also pointed out that Stallings had not shown that four months of leave was reasonable based upon her bare assertion to that effect, particularly in light of the fact that the school system had excused her from teaching the previous semester. Stallings also complained that the school system had failed to engage in the interactive process with her, but the court noted that in the absence of an accommodation request that was reasonable, the defendant had no duty to initiate that process. The court also pointed out that Stallings’ request for reassignment to her kindergarten assignment likewise did not trigger the interactive process. The court stated that this could have been a reasonable accommodation request if Stallings had presented evidence that teaching the class mitigated the impact to her knee condition, but she did not. The court noted that the physician had recommended “no classroom” work and further that the plaintiff was not entitled to reassignment merely because kindergarten work was more consistent with her professional expertise. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the school system.