Fired Specialist for Disabled Individuals Claims Disability Discrimination

 

By Jeffrey Rhodes May 14, 2019
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​A recreation specialist for individuals with disabilities who was fired after she left a camping trip for adolescents she was supervising when she became anxious about staffing issues can take her Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims to trial, a federal district court ruled.

The Northern Suburban Special Recreation District provides recreation opportunities to people with disabilities. The district hired the plaintiff as a site coordinator and eventually promoted her to recreation specialist for adults. The job description required her to lead recreation programs and overnight trips for individuals with disabilities and adapt to changes in assignments and scheduling.

The district scheduled a four-day event for adolescents at Camp Duncan and assigned the plaintiff and a youth recreation specialist to lead the event. The district subsequently excused the youth recreation specialist from the trip because of her pregnancy. Less than a week before the trip, the plaintiff's supervisor told her that the youth recreation specialist would not attend the trip.

The plaintiff reacted with concerns about the trip being understaffed and told her supervisor that she struggled with stress, anxiety, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue and that standing on her feet for extended periods of time made her weak. The plaintiff said she was uncomfortable about there not being another full-time staff member present because she had never been to Camp Duncan before.

According to the plaintiff, the supervisor agreed to send a full-time staff member to the camp during the day and overnight and said that the plaintiff could call the youth recreation specialist or the supervisor during the trip. The supervisor also said that the plaintiff would have the co-leadership of two other employees going on the trip, an intern and a part-time staff member.

The supervisor did not send another full-time staff member to Camp Duncan with the plaintiff, as allegedly promised. Instead, the district's manager of operations, the manager's supervisor and another staff member attended portions of the trip. The plaintiff's supervisor and the youth recreation specialist were also available by telephone.

The district's policy required that the program leader administer medications to trip participants. At the beginning of the camp, the plaintiff delegated this responsibility to the intern and part-time staff member. When a camp participant experienced a behavioral issue, the plaintiff engaged in a coping mechanism to deal with her own anxiety. A camp participant with a gluten allergy ingested food with gluten, which the plaintiff ascribed to a staff member mistake. By the second day of the camp, the plaintiff hyperventilated, cried, lost feeling in her hands and feet, and had multiple panic attacks, decreased mobility, difficulty speaking and increased pain.

When the manager of operations and the manager's supervisor visited the camp, they found the plaintiff sitting on her bed and the intern administering medications to camp participants. They coached the plaintiff on her duties. The plaintiff expressed her frustration with the trip and her lack of preparation for it, and was upset that her leadership was being questioned.

The next day the executive director learned about the coaching provided to the plaintiff and called her. The plaintiff said she could not stay at the camp without further help because she had been disrespected by staff members and had health concerns. The plaintiff left the camp early, and the executive director fired her.

The plaintiff sued the district for discriminatory discharge and failure to accommodate under the ADA. The district moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff's claims, asserting that the plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of leading recreation programs for the district.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]

The court found that the plaintiff presented evidence that she sought accommodations prior to the trip that could have enabled her to perform her job duties. The district argued that several of these accommodations would have removed job duties from the position—including the plaintiff's leadership responsibilities. The court disagreed and found that the plaintiff's evidence suggested that her firing may have stemmed from her disclosure of disabilities or her requested accommodations. The court thus denied the district's motion for summary judgment.

Schiller v. Northern Suburban Special Recreation District, N.D. Ill., No. 1:17-cv-08514 (April 1, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Employers face tough choices when presented with medical issues of an employee that could render the employee unable to perform difficult employment responsibilities. As this case shows, employers should err on the side of caution in assessing a disabled employee's ability to perform essential functions and entitlement to an accommodation.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on the Americans with Disabilities Act.]

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