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Employment decisions in public and private schools should be based on qualifications, performance, merit, and seniority, rather than race, national origin, gender, religion, age, or disability. Teachers and other school personnel can sue for employment discrimination if they are wrongfully dismissed or demoted, if they were prevented from initially obtaining a job, or not appropriately accommodated for a disability or medical condition. Most employment discrimination violates either state or federal law, and legal protections are found in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Additionally, two primary federal statutes prohibit disability discrimination in employment: the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

Statutes are extensive, complex, vary considerably, and can be confusing. As such, there is no simple solution to every case involving employment discrimination. But a careful review of the progression of events associated with a complaint often will bring litigation to a reasonable conclusion. In such cases as a teacher being fired or an applicant being excluded from a job interview, attorneys representing plaintiffs and schools must present a clear timeline of events leading up to a decision. Often, this task is accomplished in retrospect after a lawsuit has been filed, and any lack of documentation can make it difficult for plaintiff to argue employment discrimination or for a school to defend its decisions.

Reconstructing the file - an employee's discrete, day-to-day personnel issues or the employment interview and process, for instance - is necessary to be able to determine whether the school, through its administration, acted appropriately, reasonably, and within the professional standard of care. Knowledge of employment law and the nuances that often exist in the school context is helpful to attorneys in representing the best interests of their clients in employment discrimination claims. Above all, however, a timeline of events and analysis of each significant entry are most important in determining whether a school met the law.

Anatomy of an Employment Discrimination Lawsuit

The importance of a timeline is illustrated in a recent case in South Carolina. Spartanburg School District Seven reportedly will pay $62,000 to settle a former teacher's employment discrimination suit. Frances Grady claimed she faced discrimination over her disability, race, and age. Full details of the case were not disclosed publicly; however, court documents reveal the basics.

Grady, who was employed by the district for more than 30 years, was diagnosed with a condition that weakened her immune system. Grady said the school made accommodations for her, allowing her to teach smaller groups of students as an "interventionist." In my opinion, such an accommodation would be appropriate and reasonable, and would have met the needs of the employee and the school at that time. Of course, a district's needs may change over time, possibly necessitating a restructuring of staff. In other words, Grady's accommodation might be viable one year but not the next. The following year, the school reassigned her to teach first grade.

This brings up a question: When did the school know of Grady's disability? Did it make an accommodation for her by assigning her to teach as an interventionist - or did Grady disclose her disability after the school reassigned her to teach first grade?

In her employment discrimination lawsuit, Grady claimed to have told school officials that her condition prevented her from teaching first grade. Further, she said, the school told her it would no longer use interventionists, forcing her to go on leave without pay because, in her belief, the school would no longer accommodate her disability. Subsequently, Grady was not offered a teaching contract.

Later, Grady, who is white and in her 50s, learned that a younger, less-experienced African-American male was hired as an interventionist, thus prompting her claims of race and age employment discrimination.

If it could have been demonstrated that the school knew of Grady's disability, accommodated her by assigning her to the interventionist position, then reassigned her to first grade - knowing that her disability would not allow her to be effective in that role - and finally replaced her with someone else, the school would have had difficulty justifying its position.

In its own defense, the school denied that Grady had been offered the interventionist position because of her health. The school also claimed that it was only after her reassignment to first grade that Grady submitted medical documentation about her diagnosis and requested an accommodation. The school acknowledged that Grady was not offered a teaching contract after granting her request for medical leave, but denied its action stemmed from any discriminatory or retaliatory reason.

If the school can show that it declined to offer her a contract because of a change in the school's staffing structure - and not because of her disability - then it is likely the school would have been able to justify its position.

Title VII School Employment Discrimination Protections

Title VII prohibits entities with 15 or more employees from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin. The statute covers hiring, promotion, and compensation practices, as well as fringe benefits and other terms and conditions of employment. Discrimination in hiring can be established by showing that the applicant is a member of a protected class, applied for and was qualified for the job, and was denied the position while the employer continued to seek applicants with the plaintiff's qualifications.

When a public or private school posts a position for a teacher, lists the qualifications, interviews several qualified candidates but denies the position to a highly qualified individual who discussed her religious affiliation with interviewers, this individual might believe she was subjected to religious discrimination. In this example, the candidate would need to show, at a minimum, that she met the posted requirements for the positions, that other candidates were not as experienced and thus not as qualified, that the school did not offer her the position, and that it continued to interview.

In its own defense, the school would need to state a reason for its decision that does not violate Title VII. A reason for not hiring may be objective, such as the requirement that the candidate possess a graduate degree; subjective, such as an assessment of interpersonal skills; or a combination of both in determining which applicant is best qualified. If the school is unable to show a nondiscriminatory reason for its action, a decision for the plaintiff most likely would be granted. Additionally, the school should present a timeline of events from the time the position was posted (including a copy of the posting), through the interview, reference check, and finally a decision to hire another person. If the timeline reveals gaps in documentation and the school is not able to account for actions that should have been taken, this will strengthen a decision for the plaintiff.

Given the ease of presenting a nondiscriminatory reason, schools should be able to provide a satisfactory response in nearly every instance. For example, if the school hiring the teacher can show that discussions with past employers revealed that a candidate was not liked by fellow staff and often argued with them in an unprofessional way, these are valid considerations in the hiring process. How much weight this should have, however, is often argued in litigation. The school should develop a process for documenting interviews with former employers, particularly with respect to specific statements provided by an interviewee and the impressions of the person making the call.

If the school argues that nobody who interviewed the candidate knew of her religious affiliation and that it was not included on the application, then it has a good chance of showing that it acted appropriately, reasonably, and within the professional standard of care, and that it met the requirements of Title VII. On the other hand, if one of the interviewers pointedly asked the candidate about religious holidays she would be likely to take during the school year, this may be interpreted as obtaining information about the person's religion that later factored into a hiring decision. In a situation where events during the interview might be the subject of disagreement, the jury will address the credibility of the witness.

After the school provides a rebuttal, the plaintiff then has the additional burden of proving that the school's stated reason for not hiring is false and is but a pretext for prohibited intentional discrimination. In most instances, it is difficult to show a pretextual basis for discrimination. The plaintiff is likely to be successful only when it is clearly articulated, verbally or in writing, that the candidate was not hired because of a protected factor. This information may be found in a thorough document review during discovery. Notes made by people who interviewed the candidate might reveal bias through comments such as "too many religious holidays."

Protection against discriminatory employment practices is not absolute. Facially discriminatory practices on the basis of religion, gender, or national origin (but not on race or color) may be permitted if they relate directly to a bona fide occupational qualification, such as a requirement that the head of a Catholic school be Catholic.

Disability Employment Discrimination

Another area that often comes forward in employment lawsuits is disability, either that of an individual applying for a position or that of a current employee. Federal disability law protects individuals who can show that they are "otherwise qualified" for a job, although reasonable accommodations may be needed at times. If a person meets the requirements for a position but uses a wheelchair, for instance, the school must consider how it can make an accommodation so that the individual can function successfully in the job.

When a person with an identified disability applies for a position at a school, the school must determine whether he or she is otherwise qualified. To be an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, the applicant must be able to perform the essential functions of the job in spite of the disability, although reasonable accommodation at times may be necessary. Consider, as an example, a school that posts a position for a high school social studies teacher. The announcement attracts the attention of a junior high school social studies teacher who has taught in the district for seven years. When it first hired her, the district assigned the teacher to a classroom on the second floor of a three-story building. Because of her disability, the teacher used a wheelchair and used an elevator to get to her classroom. The high school is in an older building with three floors but no elevator. In this situation, the school must first consider the applicant's qualifications for the position, regardless if she uses a wheelchair. If she is otherwise qualified, then the school must consider reasonable accommodations necessary for her to function in the position.

Would it be reasonable, in this case, for the school to construct an elevator to accommodate the teacher if she were to be assigned to a classroom on the third floor? Alternatively, would it be a reasonable accommodation to move the social studies class to the first floor so she would be able to get to the classroom? Assuming she was otherwise qualified but not offered the position, the teacher would have a valid claim that she was discriminated against because of her disability and could present the position that simply moving the class to the first floor would have been a reasonable accommodation.

In defense against such a suit, the school should produce documentation that during the interview process and afterward, it considered what accommodations would be necessary for the person to be successful in the position. Suitable documentation would include a checklist of potential accommodations and/or modifications, such as moving a class to the first floor for a teacher who uses a wheelchair or constructing a handicapped-accessible bathroom on the first floor of an older building.

Conclusion

Basing employment decisions strictly on qualifications, performance, merit, and seniority, rather than race, national origin, gender, religion, age, or disability is the law. However, prospective employees or current teachers or staff can interpret employment decisions any number of ways, raising questions of equity. Sorting out what is in the best interest of the school while assuring that an individual's rights are maintained can be confusing. Sometimes, decisions need to be made for the school, but not to the exclusion of the employment rights of the individual. It is not easy to balance the institution's needs with its provision of an adequate education for students and the employment rights of its teachers and staff.

For both plaintiff and defendant attorneys, clearly documented timelines are essential. These are necessary for reviewing and analyzing whether a school acted within the law when making employment decisions. Documentation of candidate interviews, reference checks, and of issues leading to a decision to bypass a candidate for a job is essential for determining whether a school acted within the professional standard of care.

The important thing to remember is that treating all potential or current employees the same may not accommodate individual needs and may inadvertently result in discrimination resulting in employment discrimination lawsuits. Alternatively, treating each person differently may provide advantages to some over others. There is no simple solution for every case.

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Dr. Edward Dragan, provides education expert consultation for high-profile and complicated cases. As an educator and administrator, he has more than 35 years' experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of special education. He also has served as a state department of education official.

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