Labor & Employment Law Daily Social worker with depression not denied accommodation where he was allowed early start time
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Thursday, December 10, 2020

Social worker with depression not denied accommodation where he was allowed early start time

By Tulay Turan, J.D.

He failed to show how his requests for office equipment, such as his own dedicated shredder, would help him accomplish the essential functions of his job.

A Chicago Public School social worker who suffered from depression and anxiety cannot proceed with his disability and gender discrimination or retaliation claims, the Seventh Circuit ruled, affirming the district court’s grant of summary judgment. The Board sufficiently accommodated his disability and the timing of his placement on a performance improvement plan alone did not raise retaliation liability (Williams v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, December 8, 2020, Ripple, K.).

Placed on improvement plan. Employed with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) since 2008, the social worker suffered from depression, anxiety and chronic sinusitis, which affected his sleep and ability to concentrate. For the 2013-14 school year, he received a low performance rating of “developing,” and the Board of Education put him on a Professional Development Plan (PDP). In September 2014, he applied, but was not selected, to be a Social Work Lead, a designation that did not constitute a promotion or involve a salary increase.

First request for accommodation. In October 2014, he asked for his first accommodation, which was a consistent start and end time to his workday at his assigned schools, which each had different schedules. The Board denied the request but allowed him to arrive early at one of his schools. Throughout the 2014-15 school year, he had performance problems and was put on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) by the end of the year.

Second request. In April 2015, he filed a discrimination charge, alleging the Board failed to award him a Social Work Lead position because of his gender and disability and in retaliation for his accommodation request. A month later, he submitted a second accommodation request for a start time of 7:45 a.m., reduced caseload of no more than 20 students, assignment to a single school, and removal of another school from his responsibilities. The Board denied these requests because there were no openings at schools with 7:45 a.m. start times, a review of his caseload showed no justification for such a reduction, and his request to be assigned to one school would have resulted in a de facto part-time position.

Third request. In September 2015, the social worker requested a private office and dedicated equipment. The Board gave him access to a private space and computer monitors but denied his other equipment requests. In December 2015, he filed his second charge of discrimination, alleging he was not selected for a summer or Saturday assessment team because of his disability and in retaliation for his previous requests and charges.

District court ruled in Board’s favor. After receiving a right-to-sue letter, the social worker filed this action. His third amended complaint alleged gender and disability discrimination, and retaliation for his accommodation requests and EEOC charges. The Board moved for summary judgment, and the district court ruled in the Board’s favor. The court found the Board’s failure to select him as a Social Work Lead did not constitute an adverse action under the ADA or Title VII. With respect to participating in summer and Saturday assessments, the court concluded he failed to produce evidence that he had the necessary qualifications. Regarding his accommodation requests, he failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact. As to retaliation, none of the alleged actions rose to the level needed to trigger retaliation liability. The social worker filed this appeal.

No failure to accommodate. The appeals court first found the district court correctly concluded the social worker failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact regarding his accommodation claims. Regarding his request for a consistent start and end time to his workday, although the Board denied the request, it did allow him to arrive early at one of his assigned schools. The court found this satisfied his need for a consistent morning routine.

Interactive process. Next, the court rejected the social worker’s argument that the Board failed to engage in a good-faith interactive process. He contended there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether his healthcare professionals provided sufficient information to support his accommodation request because his doctors denied speaking to the Board. The record showed none of these providers started treating him until after the Board’s denial of his October 2014 accommodation request. Even if there were a breakdown in the interactive process, that alone does not establish an ADA violation.

Regarding his second accommodation request, the social worker again argued the Board failed to engage in the interactive process. He pointed to his request to be assigned to a single school, which the Board denied because it would be part-time work based on the number and needs of students. He claimed the Board did not address whether another school might have been available, but the court found the Board did consider this possibility and addressed it in a letter, denying the request because there were no available vacancies.

Lighter workload. The court also rejected his argument that other social workers had less of a workload than he did and, therefore, a full workload was not a requirement of the job. The two non-disabled social workers that he presented as comparators were not similarly situated as they were social work leads who had different roles and additional job duties assigned to them.

In addition, the court found the Board was not required to create a light duty position for an employee with a disability as a reasonable accommodation unless the employer has a policy of doing so for employees who are occupationally injured. The social worker did not contend the Board had a policy of creating light-duty positions.

Unreasonable office equipment requests. Regarding his third accommodation request, the court found the social worker failed to establish his requests for office equipment, such as his own dedicated shredder, were reasonable. Also, he did not explain how it would help him accomplish the essential functions of his job.

Failure to change title. The court also rejected the social worker’s argument that the Board discriminated against him when it did not designate him as a Social Work Lead or Social Work Field Instructor. His contentions regarding these positions—that they were an important step towards advancement and resulted in a reduced workload—were not supported by the record.

Failure to hire for summer assessment team. The social worker’s argument that the Board discriminated against him when it declined to hire him for its Saturday or summer assessment teams also failed. In choosing social workers for the teams, CPS gives priority to those who, among other things, are bilingual and have achieved at least a “proficient” rating. The social worker did not claim to be bilingual and he had not obtained a rating of proficient. He failed to present evidence of social workers who were chosen for assessment teams but had not achieved that rating. Thus, under these circumstances, a jury could not conclude the Board’s decision was discriminatory.

No suspicious timing. Turning to the retaliation claims, the court found the social worker’s placement on a PDP within a few months of requesting an accommodation was not suspicious timing. He acknowledged that any teacher who receives a “developing” rating is placed on such a plan. Furthermore, his plan was based on his rating from the 2013-14 school year, which pre-dated his initial request for accommodation in October 2014.

The court also rejected his argument that his June 2015 PIP was retaliatory because it closely followed his first charge of discrimination in April 2015. The social worker noted the events precipitating the plan spanned the 2014-15 school year and the plan was based on an accumulation of incidents over time. In addition, he was on medical leave from February until March 2015 so the plan could not have been given to him before he filed his charge. Again, the court noted that suspicious timing is rarely sufficient to create a triable issue of fact. “Here, that principle is surely applicable given the plausible explanation for why the plan began when it did and given that [he] produced no other evidence that the plan was based on his disability,” the court wrote.

Thus, the court found the district court correctly determined the social worker failed to identify a genuine issue of triable fact regarding his discrimination and retaliation claims. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s judgment.

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