Teacher With Mental Illness Loses Disability Discrimination Case, Where Requested Accommodation (Unpaid Leave) Was Not “Reasonable” Absent Assurance of Return

In Petrone v. Hampton Bays Union Free School District (Summary Order dated May 28, 2014), the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim. This case illustrates that, in order to succeed on a federal disability discrimination claim – whether based on an “adverse action” or “failure to accommodate” theory – an employee must identify an accommodation that will allow them to perform the essential functions of their job.

In this case, John Petrone, a teacher, took a medical leave of absence to treat his mental illness. It was undisputed that, when he began his leave of absence, he could not perform the essential functions of a teacher without an accommodation. Specifically, he was unable to teach without experiencing symptoms of his generalized anxiety and panic disorder.

He sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, alleging that the school district failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation for, and forced him to resign because of, his mental illness.

Petrone lost. The district court held, and the Second Circuit agreed, that he failed to show that he could have performed the essential functions of his job, even with a reasonable accommodation.


The District Court concluded that Petrone had not established that he was a “qualified individual,” because he “did not, and could not, provide HBUFSD with any assurance that a temporary leave of absence would allow him to resume teaching.” This is because neither Petrone nor his doctor ever informed the District of a date when he anticipated being able to return to work or indicated how long a leave of absence might have to last.

Petrone argues that he was, in fact, capable of returning to work at the time the District demanded his resignation. But there is no evidence in the record that he or his doctor ever informed the District that this was the case.

Petrone also argues that he was entitled to additional leave under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement in place in the District. However, the relevant terms of the collective bargaining agreement state that the additional leave days “may be granted at the discretion of the Board [of Education]”. This is strong evidence that an accommodation of an extended leave of absence would not have been an undue hardship for the District, see 42 U.S.C. § 12111(10), but Petrone never met his initial burden to show that the accommodation was reasonable—that is, that it would have allowed him to return to work.

We agree with the District Court’s thorough opinion and conclude that Petrone failed to make a prima facie case that his requested accommodation of unpaid leave was reasonable, because he gave the District no assurance whatsoever that he would be able to return to work. Accordingly, Petrone has not met his burden to show that the accommodation of additional unpaid leave would have allowed him to perform the essential functions of his job.

The court next held, based on plaintiff’s failure to make a prima facie showing that a reasonable accommodation existed, the defendant could not be held liable for not engaging in a so-called “interactive process” with him.

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