By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.
A special education teacher who alleged that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated when her employer searched her tote bag, discovered prescription medications, and seized all of it will take those claims to trial, a federal district court in Pennsylvania ruled. Questions of fact, including whether the medication was in plain view and whether students had access to the bag, remained with regard to the constitutional claims levied by the teacher. Other claims, including those under the FMLA, ADA, and Rehab Act, were felled by the defendants’ summary judgment motion (Feistl v. Luzerne Intermediate Unit, April 6, 2018, Mannion, M.).
After four years of satisfactory service as a special education teacher for the Luzerne Intermediate Unit at the Alternative Learning Center, the employee’s performance ratings began to decline. She requested and received intermittent leave under the FMLA in early 2013. Two months later she was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan, her second since 2010. Shortly thereafter, in early April, the Dean of Students entered the office where the employee worked—an office also used by others for conferences and meetings—and noticed her bag, which held prescription medication bottles—one for Xanax and one for Adderall.
Suspended. The Dean locked the door and contacted the principal and the executive director for the center. The administrators turned the bag over to the police. The next day a meeting was held between the employee, a union representative, and two of the administrators. The employee was informed that she was suspended with pay pending an investigation. Ultimately, it was determined that the medications had been properly prescribed and the employee could pick up her bag from the police.
Reports of threats. A few days later, the employee was asked about whether she had any physical or medical problems contributing to her deficient work performance. The employer promised to implement accommodations and the employee could return to work. However, there were reports that the employee had made threatening comments about shooting everyone and about harming herself. The ensuing investigation was inconclusive. The employee, who was on paid suspension, was required to complete a physical and mental health evaluation as a condition of her return. She did and shortly thereafter, she asked to be placed at a different work location. She was told she could either remain where she was or go to an elementary school as an Autistic Support Special Education Teacher. She declined the alternative assignment.
Unexcused absences and dismissal. Her intermittent FMLA leave period came to an end in January 2014. Between the end of that month and the beginning of May, the employee accumulated 26 days of unexcused absences, most of which were taken without following call-off procedures. She was also placed on another PIP during the intervening months. She did not file another request for FMLA leave. Ultimately, she was dismissed. She sued her former employer, alleging a variety of claims under 42 USC 1983 (illegal search and seizure and due process violations), the Rehabilitation Act, the FMLA, the ADA, and the PHRA. After a partially successful motion to dismiss, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment.
Fact disputes on search. With regard to the Fourth Amendment claims, there were key factual disputes that led the court to deny the motion. Noting that the employee shared her office with others and that the dean had testified the office door was unlocked, the defendants had argued that she did not have an expectation of privacy. The employer also contended that the medications were in plain view at the top of her tote bag. However, there was a fact question as to whether that was true. Although the dean contended that they were visible at the top of the bag, the employee claimed that they had, in fact, been placed in a pocket that was within the bag and, therefore, could not have been in plain view.
And, although the defendants argued that a search, if it occurred, was reasonable because it was justified and, as conducted, was reasonably related to that justification, the court found that additional fact questions existed. Specifically, while the defendants argued that the location of the medications was within the reach of a student, which justified the need to retrieve it, the court explained that this contention was based on disputed facts. Further, the parties disputed whether the door was locked. Moreover, there was evidence that students would not have been in the building because it was after school hours. Thus, there was a question of whether the search was justified at its inception. Those same disputes undermined summary judgment as to whether the search was reasonably related to the employer’s motivation.
Seizure and qualified immunity as well. The question of whether the medications were in plain view also undermined summary judgment on the seizure claim. In turn, the questions of fact with respect to the reasonableness of the seizure precluded summary judgment on the employee’s due process claim. And the fact questions regarding whether the employee’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated led the court to deny summary judgment to the individual defendants, who had argued they were entitled to qualified immunity.
Otherwise granted. As to the employee’s other claims, however, the court granted the motion. The record included no evidence that the employee had requested unpaid leave after learning her FMLA leave had expired. Evidence of 26 days of unexcused absences, moreover, led the court to conclude that she could not establish she was otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of her job. With regard to her retaliation claims, the employee failed to present any evidence of pretext.
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