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July 2014: Disability Discrimination, First Amendment, Search for Cell Phones

16-Jul-2014

Eleventh Circuit

Siudock v. Volusia County School Board, 2014 WL 2463009 (11th Cir. Jun. 3, 2014)

In this case, a teacher diagnosed with diabetes and diabetes-related illnesses asked that he be transferred from teaching regular classes to teaching gifted classes because teaching students with academic or behavioral difficulties caused him stress and hampered his ability to manage and check his glucose levels. The principal denied his request, but the following year, made some adjustments to the teacher’s schedule to accommodate his health concerns. The teacher and his doctor continued to complain that he needed less stressful students. The teacher was ultimately approved for disability retirement, but filed suit against the board claiming that it failed to accommodate him, retaliated against him and discriminated against him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the board holding that the teacher could not establish that he was a qualified individual because he could not demonstrate that he had the ability to teach and manage a classroom effectively. The court also noted that even gifted students have behavioral and discipline problems and cause stress, so the teacher was not a qualified individual because he could not perform the essential functions of his job. The trial court also rejected the teacher’s claim that the board retaliated against him by assigning him a more rigorous teaching schedule and removing him from a leadership positions. The teacher appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit agreed with the trial court that the teacher could not establish he was a qualified individual because he could not manage students, regardless of whether they were gifted or not. The Court also noted that the teacher had claimed on his social security disability application that he could not teach any students. This claim was directly contradictory to his claim in his lawsuit that he could teach gifted students, and therefore, the teacher was estopped from claiming otherwise in his lawsuit. Moreover, because the teacher was not a qualified individual, the board did not have to accommodate his disability.

Matters of Interest

Lane v. Franks, 2014 WL 2765285 (U.S. Jun. 19, 2014)

In this case which originated in Alabama, the US Supreme Court addressed whether a public employee’s sworn testimony given in a matter related to his job is entitled to the protection of the First Amendment. The case originated when an employee was fired allegedly in retaliation for his testimony given during the two-year college scandal. The Court ruled that the employee was protected by the First Amendment as his speech was a matter of public concern, not merely unprotected employee speech. Nevertheless, the college president was entitled to qualified immunity because, at the time he terminated the employee, it was not clearly established in the law that his conduct violated the Constitution.

Riley v. California, 2014 WL 2864483 (Jun. 25, 2014)

In the last issue of Court Report, we told you of two cases pending before the United States Supreme Court regarding whether the warrantless search of cell phones by law enforcement violates the Fourth Amendment. The Court consolidated the two cases and heard oral arguments. In a victory for privacy advocates, the Court ruled that cell phones could not be automatically searched by police incident to arrest without a warrant. Students in schools do not enjoy the same level of Fourth Amendment protections as those in contact with law enforcement, but they still maintain a constitutional right against unlawful searches. School officials must have a reasonable suspicion that a student’s belongings contain evidence of a crime or violation of a school rule. While this ruling did not involve or address searches of cell phones in the school context, administrators need to be aware that the Court views the search of cell phones restrictively. Accordingly, cell phones should be treated like other student property to be searched and school officials need a reasonable suspicion to do so.

-Jayne Harrell Williams

Jayne is General Counsel & Director of Legal Advocacy 

for the Alabama Association of School Boards