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  • Date: November 9, 2022
Vol. 20-002, January 27, 2020
(OAH Case No. 201800600 (2019).)

The Gist
If an employee’s poor performance is related to the employee’s disability, evidence that the school district failed to appropriately accommodate the employee may undermine district’s ability to dismiss the employee.

The Details
Over three consecutive school years, a psychiatric social worker in the district’s mental health clinic made errors in her paperwork, missed deadlines in submitting and completing documentation, failed to keep accurate records of her time with clients, habitually failed to complete required documentation in a timely manner, and failed to maintain client confidentiality.

During the relevant time period, the social worker’s vision deteriorated and ultimately, it was established that she was legally blind. The social worker informed the school district of her disability and engaged with the district in the interactive process. The district accommodated the social worker by providing an assistant to help enter required data into the district’s electronic system. On several occasions, the social worker informed the district that the assistant was ineffective. However, the district did not augment the provided accommodation.

Despite her disability and due to its performance concerns, the school district moved for her dismissal, charging the social worker with immoral conduct, unprofessional conduct, dishonesty, unsatisfactory performance, evident unfitness for service, and persistent violation of, or refusal to obey school rules and state law.

At the hearing before the CPC, the social worker asserted that the school district failed to provide reasonable accommodations to her for her disability. The social worker also asserted that the assistant provided was ineffective and inaccurate in her work. The social worker argued that if the district had provided her with text-to-speech software, which would have allowed her to directly access the district’s electronic information system, her performance would not have suffered.

The CPC found that it could not determine whether the alleged deficiencies were attributable to the social worker or the district’s failure to provide additional and/or more appropriate accommodations to the social worker. Although the CPC noted that whether the school district violated the ADA and/or FEHA was beyond the scope of its inquiry, because it was clear that the district’s accommodations were not effective or appropriate, the social worker could not be terminated.

Practical Pointers
Failure to accommodate an employee may compromise a school district’s ability to discipline an employee for poor performance. Therefore, school districts should engage all disabled or potentially disabled employees in the interactive process as soon as the district becomes aware of an employee’s disability or has reason to believe the employee is disabled. If the disabled employee can be accommodated, school districts should continue to engage the employee in the interactive process and make appropriate modifications to the provided accommodations to ensure the disabled employee can fulfill all essential job functions of the assigned position.

Dismissal Overturned. 

Please note, nothing contained in the CPC Blog is intended to be legal advice.  Please feel free to contact any of our offices for additional information and/or consult legal counsel regarding any particular matters.