What Do You Think: Was Teacher’s Termination After Supernatural Experience Based on Disability?

Frank Ferreri

Marietta, OH (WorkersCompensation.com) – When an employee’s religious experience prompts an employer to require her to undergo a psychological evaluation, does terminating the employee thereafter show disability discrimination?

That was the question in a recent case involving an employee’s alleged misconduct.

While shoveling snow one morning, a middle school physical education teacher experienced what she described as a “deeply religious event,” in which she lost consciousness and was lifted up and carried eight to 10 feet away by what she called a “supernatural power.”

The teacher claimed that during this experience, she saw several visions and felt that “God entered [her] body.” She also said that immediately after experiencing this event, she felt relief from chronic back pain and believed that “God had healed” her.

Based on the experience, the teacher felt that God wanted her to help others and that God was attempting to speak through her.

When she returned to work after several snow days, she recounted the experience for students and also told the principal that she might need to host a staff meeting to inform school staff about the experience.

Several days later, the teacher kept one of her classes for 20 minutes past the end of the period to tell them about the experience, making the students late for other classes. Following this, the teacher exchanged long emails with two students about her visions.

After students’ parents reported concerns about the teacher, the principal and superintendent met with her. At the meeting with the superintendent, the teacher said, “We are going to make national news,” and revealed that she had used marijuana in the past for pain relief.

Following the meeting, the teacher was placed on paid administrative leave. After the teacher was placed on leave, a “concerned citizen” contacted the sheriff’s office regarding one of the teacher’s Facebook posts, which again referred to being in the “national news” and also said, “You will all understand when it’s over.”

The police conducted a wellness check and determined that the teacher was not a threat to herself or others, but the district as well as the teacher arranged for psychological evaluations.

While on leave, the teacher sent Facebook messages to students, despite being instructed not to.

Eventually, after an administrative hearing, the school board terminated the teacher’s contract. The teacher sued, claiming, among other things, disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The court found in the district’s favor, explaining that the teacher did not present evidence that “cast substantial doubt” on the district’s reasons for terminating her employment.

The teacher appealed to the 6th Circuit.

Because the teacher’s disability discrimination claim was based on the termination of her contract, her argument was supported by indirect evidence. As a result, she had to prove that the district’s stated reasons for terminating her were just a coverup for disability discrimination.

Could the teacher show that discrimination based on her disability was the real reason the district parted ways with her?

A. Yes. The district relied on the psychological assessment in deciding to terminate her contract, in violation of the ADA.

B. No. While the teacher was on leave, she continued to undermine the school’s mission and interfere with its efforts to protect students.

If you went with B, you agreed with the court in Lockhart v. Marietta City Schools, No. 20-4308 (6th Cir. 10/15/21, unpublished), which held that the teacher could not demonstrate that her disability, rather than her misconduct, was the district’s reason for terminating her.

In particular, the court honed in on the teacher’s continued “persistent and inappropriate contact” with students.

“At that point, the administration had no choice but to recommend the termination of [the teacher’s] contract,” the court wrote. “Thus, a reasonable jury could not conclude that [the teacher] would not have been terminated for her misconduct, in particular her continued inappropriate communications with students while on administrative leave, but for her disability.”

As a result, the 6th Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling.

This feature does not provide legal advice.