Education

Paterson Teacher Loses Lupus Symptom Discrimination Appeal

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PATERSON, N.J. - The Paterson school district did not discriminate against a teacher who claimed she was inadequately accommodated because she had lupus symptoms, an appellate court recently ruled, according to officials. 

The Superior Court appellate panel upheld the state Division on Civil Rights in its Final Determination on the case, according to state Attorney General Christopher Porrino.  

In a statement, Porrino said the teacher, who worked for the Paterson district since 1998, filed a Civil Rights Division complaint in December 2010. She accused the district of failing to provide her with reasonable accommodations for her disability, subjecting her to a hostile work environment and retaliating against her after she made her requests, Porrino said. 

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The case was transferred in 2011 to the Office of Administrative Law and an administrative law judge (ALJ) heard five days of testimony in 2012. The judge dismissed the teacher's complaints in December 2013, Porrino said. 

Civil Rights Division Director Craig Sashihara issued a Final Determination in 2014 that substantially affirmed the ALJ’s ruling, but the teacher appealed, Porrino said. A 2-judge appellate panel heard the appeal in April and recently upheld Sashihara's determination, Porrino said. 

“We believe the court’s ruling is consistent with the record in the case,” said Sashihara in a statement. “There was no dispute as to whether the teacher had a disability. But there was insufficient evidence to support her claim that the school district failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. Nor was there sufficient evidence to support her contention that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and retaliation for seeking accommodations.” 

Porrino said the hearing record "documents a lengthy history involving the Paterson teacher and her principal. Among other things, it recounts numerous requests for disability accommodation by the teacher over a period of years, as well as several changes to her  teaching assignment and classroom location initiated by the principal." 

The attorney general noted that the principal several times to change the teacher's classroom at Paterson Public School 11, efforts that "precipitated conflict." He said these problems were usually "rooted in the teacher’s objections that the new assignment would in some way exacerbate her physician-documented medical conditions, which included hip and knee pain. A recurring complaint by the teacher was that certain work assignments and planned relocations of her classroom were insensitive to her need to avoid climbing stairs, avoid walking too far, and work near a bathroom at all times. The teacher also objected to being required by the district to provide an annual medical note that explained her conditions and need for accommodation." 

Porrino noted that, in her original decision, the ALJ found that, while the teacher had trouble with stairs, she was not unable to climb them and that the teacher, being capable of walking "reasonable distances," didn't need to be near a bathroom all the time. 

"The ALJ also held that the school district had followed its policy with respect to medical accommodations in dealing with the teacher, and had provided reasonable accommodations for her each time she requested them," Porrino said. "In issuing his final determination, Division Director Sashihara noted that the school district did, as it is bound by law to do, engage in an “interactive process” with the teacher on a continuing basis to identify and assess her needs. And although that process may have occasionally resulted in some uncertainty and “brief delays,” Sashihara wrote, the record supports the conclusion that “each time (the teacher) raised any accommodation issue, Respondents addressed it.” 

Additionally, Porrino pointed out that "a series of reported admonitions and scoldings from the principal over time" which the teacher blamed on a hostile work environment and retaliation, had no relation to the teacher's disability "and in any event did not rise to the level of adverse employment action" under the law. 

“She (the teacher) was not denied a promotion," wrote Sashihara, according to Porrino. "She did not receive a loss of remuneration of benefits or suffer a significant, non-temporary adverse change in employment status, or the terms and conditions of employment. She was not disciplined. Although there was talk of transferring her to another school or having her work on another floor, those things never came to fruition.” 

The attorney general said Sashihara also found no evidence the teacher suffered any “palpable harm” as a result of her principal’s “sometime abrasive manner” toward her.

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