Stringer v. N. Bolivar Consol. Sch. Dist.,
2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 5999 (5th Cir. 2018) Keywords:
ADA, ADA – general, education, employment, legal concepts, non-discrimination
Dr. Wanda Stringer worked as a principal and then as the Vocational/Alternative School Director for the North Bolivar Consolidated School District. Dr. Stringer accused the school district of multiple Americans with Disability Act (ADA) violations. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals considered multiple claims. The claims involved discrimination, failure to accommodate, constructive discharge, and retaliation. After looking at the case, the court dismissed Dr. Stringer’s claims.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Wanda Stringer worked as a principal in the defendant school district from 2007 to 2014. In February of 2014, the school district informed Dr. Stringer that her contract would not be renewed for the following year. The defendant pointed to Dr. Stringer’s failure to update certain required credentials. Dr. Stringer then filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She claimed that her termination was in retaliation for a previous EEOC complaint. However, once Dr. Stringer renewed her credentials the school district extended her contract into the next school year. Prior to the new school year beginning, Dr. Stringer sought an accommodation for her disability. Dr. Stringer, who has glaucoma, wanted a member of the staff to be named an inaugural assistant principal. Dr. Stringer said that the person in the new position would help her with many tasks including reading. Dr. Stringer can read on her own. However, her disability makes reading difficult. . After multiple requests, the superintendent said that the school district did not have funds to hire an assistant principal. However, the superintendent gave Dr. Stringer an alternative solution. He moved the money for a current teacher’s salary to a new part of the budget. This gave Dr. Stringer the freedom to assign duties like reading to the teacher. The teacher would simply perform those duties along with their standard job tasks. At the end of the first semester of the 2014-2015 school year, the superintendent told Dr. Stringer that she had been reassigned to a new position. The new position would take effect in the next semester. Her new job title would be Vocational/Alternative School Director (VASD). A recent consolidation of two districts mandated the reassignment and the creation of the job. The new position required Dr. Stringer to report to work at a different nearby school. The new location was approximately seven miles from her current school and office. Dr. Stringer’s salary remained unchanged. Responding to her reassignment, Dr. Stringer sought a public hearing. She argued that the ADA barred the reassignment. She said that the increased commute wrongfully interfered with the accommodations for her glaucoma. After she was denied a hearing, Dr. Stringer amended her EEOC claim to include this issue. She asserted that she was improperly demoted rather than receiving the help she needed. She also argued that this action was taken in retaliation. Shortly after hearing about her new job, she resigned without ever serving as the VASD. Following her resignation, Dr. Stringer filed her final EEOC claim. She argued that the school district violated the ADA when it failed to give her a raise for her new job. She wanted a raise in line with similar positions districtwide. The district court granted summary judgement for the school district. This means that the district court did not think that Dr. Stringer’s claims had enough merit to move forward. Dr. Stringer appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals agreed with the district court and dismissed Dr. Stringer’s case. This brief looks at Dr. Stringer’s ADA specific claims. However, when it dismissed the case, the court also considered Dr. Stringer’s claims of Title VII sex discrimination.
Issues of the Case
- What is required to prove an ADA discrimination claim?
- What is required to prove an ADA failure to accommodate claim?
- How do you prove a constructive discharge claim under the ADA?
- What is required to prove retaliation claims under the ADA?
Arguments & Analysis
1. What is required to prove an ADA discrimination claim?
Dr. Stringer appealed two ADA discrimination claims. One claim concerned her reassignment and the other involved her pay for the new job. The Court of Appeals laid out what is required to prove discrimination under the ADA. A person must prove (1) that they have a disability (2) that they are qualified for a job and (3) that they experienced an adverse employment action because of their disability. Initially, Dr. Stringer argued that her reassignment to VASD qualified as an adverse employment action under the third step. She asserted wrongful demotion. The court of appeals thought otherwise. The court acknowledged that a reassignment is adverse if it is equivalent to a demotion. However, to be a demotion, a reassignment must be “objectively worse” than the original job. Dr. Stringer failed to prove that her new job was objectively, or clearly, worse. The school district said that her duties would remain largely unchanged and that her pay would stay the same. Dr. Stringer tried to disprove these claims. However, she never actually worked the new job. Thus, she had no first-hand knowledge of what her duties would be. Accordingly, the court found that she did not have enough information to prove it was a demotion. Next, Dr. Stringer claimed that she experienced an adverse employment action when the school district did not pay her more for the new job. She asserted that her pay should have been comparable to similar districtwide jobs. To prove this form of discrimination Dr. Stringer had to show she was being paid less than other nondisabled employees doing the same work. As stated above though, the court found that Dr. Stringer had never been to her new job. Therefore, she did not have the knowledge necessary to compare it to other jobs. The court said that simply showing shared “districtwide responsibilities” was not enough to prove similarity. Therefore, the court found no discrimination and dismissed the claim.
2. What is required to prove an ADA failure to accommodate claim?
As part of her suit, Dr. Stringer also brought forth a failure to accommodate claim. This claim concerned her request for an assistant principal to help her with tasks like reading. The court of appeals dismissed this claim too. Importantly, the court said that an employee with a disability has a right to a reasonable accommodation. However, it does not have to be their requested accommodation. The court felt that by allowing an employee to help Dr. Stringer while doing their current job the school district offered an appropriate accommodation. The school district was not required to provide Dr. Stringer’s desired accommodation (promoting an inaugural assistant principal). The school district simply had to offer an accommodation that met Dr. Stringer’s needs. The court found that the school district did that. Dr. Stringer also claimed that the school district waited too long to address her accommodation request. The school district took approximately two months to respond to her request. The court found this timeframe was reasonable. The court explained that as long as the problem is “not truly imminent” then the employer is allowed to move at its own pace when granting accommodations. Dr. Stringer could function without the accommodation and serve in her role independently. Thus, the court found no ADA violation. Dr. Stringer further argued that the school district violated the ADA by failing to give her accommodations in her new job. However, the court did not accept this argument. It found that Dr. Stringer gave the school district no time to accommodate her at her new job. Instead, she resigned after receiving her reassignment.
3. How do you prove a constructive discharge claim under the ADA?
In addition to her other claims, Dr. Stringer also appealed her constructive discharge claim. Dr. Stringer essentially said that the school district made her work environment so unbearable that it forced her to resign. The court relies on a reasonable person test to evaluate constructive discharge claims. Would a reasonable person in Dr. Stringer’s shoes feel they had no choice but to resign? To support her claim Dr. Stringer relied on faulty arguments already addressed in this brief. These include claims of demotion and failure to accommodate. As stated earlier, the court concluded that these arguments were not supported. Dr. Stringer also asserted that she was constructively discharged when the school board accepted her resignation. She felt that the board should not have taken it knowing that she only left because of supposed ADA violations. The court dismissed this argument. It explained that actions taken after resignation couldn’t be used to prove constructive discharge. After her claim of an ADA violation leading to constructive discharge failed, Dr. Stringer asserted that the extended commute for her new job violated her doctor’s accommodation orders. Thus, she was forced to leave. However, her doctor only told her she could not drive. Therefore, even prior to reassignment Dr. Stringer had someone drive her to work. The court found that she could likely continue that practice when going the extra seven miles to her new job location. Even if such a change presented a problem, a reasonable person would have told the school district and another arrangement could have been worked out prior to her resignation. The court dismissed the constructive discharge claim.
4. What is required to prove retaliation claims under the ADA?
Dr. Stringer asserted all six of her retaliation claims on appeal. The court of appeals laid out several steps to prove a retaliation claim under the ADA. (1) A person must prove they took an action protected under the ADA (like filing a complaint) (2) The person must have experienced an adverse employment action and (3) the adverse employment action must be connected to the protected activity they engaged in. None of Dr. Stringer’s retaliation claims survived on appeal. Either they did not qualify as adverse employment actions, or their effects were not harmful enough to rise to the level of retaliation.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the district court. The court found that Dr. Stringer’s claims lacked merit. Accordingly, the school district did not act in violation of the ADA.
Policy & Practice
This decision reaffirmed many legal standards. The court laid out the requirements for discrimination, failure to accommodate, constructive discharge, and retaliation claims. Some stand out rules of law include:
- A reasonable accommodation does not have to be the requested accommodation.
- To prove a discriminatory reassignment a person must have personal knowledge of the new job.
- Actions following resignation cannot prove constructive discharge.
- Retaliation must be so harmful that an ordinary person would not report discrimination.
Disclaimer These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation.
These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.