DODEA teacher with disabilities who asked to come late to school wasn’t discriminated against, court rules
Stars and Stripes November 24, 2023
The Defense Department did not discriminate against a former teacher in Germany who was required to use sick leave when arriving up to two hours late to work due to health issues, a federal court ruled this week.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s finding that Tamica Smithson could not perform her job as a science teacher at Vilseck High School while missing time each morning.
Smithson also asked for a less repetitive class schedule and to be excused from dealing with angry people as part of her disability accommodations, according to court documents.
Smithson, a Department of Defense Education Activity teacher since 2004, sued under the Rehabilitation Act. She alleged disability discrimination and failure to make a reasonable accommodation for a disabled person.
The appeals court on Monday said DODEA demonstrated why it was essential to have teachers at school and that federal law allows employers to require sick leave for an absence due to illness, when in-person attendance is necessary.
“A delay in arrival that consumes twenty-five percent of the school day on a regular basis is not a reasonable accommodation as a matter of law,” circuit judge Ilana Rovner wrote.
Smithson, a military veteran, began teaching at the U.S. Army base in Vilseck in 2006.
Smithson is afflicted with migraines, affective disorder, vertigo, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and intracranial hypertension, a buildup of pressure around the brain that can cause headaches and other symptoms. She struggles with balance, has difficulty walking and driving, has breathing problems and suffers from impaired vision, speech and memory, court documents state.
Initially, Smithson asked to report 15 minutes late on certain days, depending on her symptoms. She told her principal in 2010 she didn’t expect this to happen often and would make the time up at the end of the day, court documents say.
Over the next eight years, Smithson’s condition worsened and her list of accommodation requests grew.
She asked for immediate relief in the classroom during anxiety attacks; immediate communication of any concerns about her performance; to be excused from situations she found frustrating, such as irate parents or co-workers; memory aids such as email reminders and extra time to complete grading, paperwork and training.
In 2017, Smithson asked for a more varied schedule to avoid getting bored after she was asked to teach five sections of biology, according to court documents.
The following year, Smithson asked for software and a tablet computer so she could monitor students’ research and assist them from her desk since she could no longer move around the classroom.
The school tried to accommodate Smithson, the court found.
But the stumbling block was a request for a flexible reporting time of up to two hours, “the main point of contention in this lawsuit,” the court wrote.
Smithson’s doctor said she needed to work in a dark area in the mornings to alleviate her symptoms and the side effects of medication.
DODEA did not dispute Smithson’s disability or her teaching ability, court papers state. Principal Marc Villareal testified that when “she’s here and she’s well, she’s a fully successful teacher. She’s a very good teacher.”
Smithson said her late arrival wouldn’t result in missing any classes she had to teach. But the agency asserted she could not perform all her duties if routinely absent early in the day, when training, teacher collaboration, interaction with parents and ad hoc instruction occurs.
Smithson contended she wasn’t required to take sick leave before when late, and that due to school policy, she would have to use half-day increments of sick leave for missing two hours.
Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic resolved the situation, the court noted. Smithson was hired to work full-time from home as a teacher in DODEA’s virtual school in August 2020. Even so, she filed her appeal during the pandemic.
Smithson said Wednesday her symptoms are worse in the mornings. Being able to work from home with the virtual school “was perfect,” she said. But DODEA removed her from the program in June and she was medically retired Nov. 13, she said.
“All in all, they lost a great educator,” Smithson said. “I’ll return to education online once I decompress from the trauma that DODEA has caused.”
Smithson had filed an earlier, separate suit against DODEA alleging discrimination because of her race, color, gender and disability. An Indiana court in December 2022 rejected the case, saying the allegations describe “perfectly innocuous workplace incidents that are objectively inoffensive and … have nothing to do with Smithson’s membership in protected classes.”
A DODEA-Europe spokeswoman said Wednesday the agency does not comment on court rulings.