It sounds like a joke: A former teacher is suing her employer for discriminating against her because she has a phobia about small children. But the case could turn out to be a new yardstick for just how far employees’ ADA claims can reach these days.
According to a story in the New York Times, Maria Waltherr-Willard taught Spanish and French at a Cincinnati high school for more than 25 years before she was transferred to a middle school.
Dealing with seventh- and eighth-graders triggered her phobia, Waltherr-Willard told authorities, and caused her blood pressure to soar to dangerous heights.
She claimed she was forced to retire from teaching in the middle of the 2010-2011 school year.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court, Waltherr-Willard said her fear of younger children, and her resulting physical symptoms, qualified as a disability under the ADA.
She claimed the school district violated the ADA by transferring her and then discriminated against her by refusing her request to be transferred back to the high school.
Real reason for transfer?
OK, so that whole story’s pretty strange. But there’s more.
Waltherr-Willard’s attorneys said the school’s real reason for the transfer was “a deliberate, systematic and calculated effort” to fire her after she made some unauthorized comments about the closing of the French program at the high school.
District officials countered that she’d been transferred because the high school’s French classes were being move online, and the middle school needed a Spanish teacher.
The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in February 2014, the newspaper said. That leaves a lot of time for a potential settlement.
The long arm of the ADA
Seems like ADA claims are getting more and more out there in recent years — something many observers claimed would be the case following the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) a few years ago.
This one’s certainly unusual — and each new twist in ADA claims just increases the chances that someone in your workforce will find grounds to sue you for not accommodating a disability.
This case serves as another reminder of the importance of engaging in the “interactive process” of investigating each and every disability accommodation request.