Last month, a federal jury awarded a Massachusetts teacher $900,000 in back pay and damages when it found the teacher’s former school district failed to reasonably accommodate her medical needs, effectively forcing the teacher to retire. 

In Eustace et al v. Springfield Public Schools, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts found the Springfield Public Schools violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it denied the teacher’s request for a transfer. The teacher requested a transfer from an alternative school, where her medical conditions of anxiety and depression were exacerbated, to a calmer environment in a non-alternative school. Although the teacher’s physician submitted documentation recommending a transfer, the School District denied the teacher’s request and, instead, suggested she apply for vacant positions in other schools in the District, in accordance with District policy. 

The Court noted that re-assignment is explicitly provided as a form of reasonable accommodation under federal law and, therefore, is reasonable on its face. The burden then shifts to the employer to establish re-assignment would pose an undue hardship to the employer based on the specific facts involved. The Court also noted that merely permitting a disabled employee to compete for a vacant position like any other employee does not fulfill the obligation to re-assign as an accommodation. 

More noteworthy than the Court’s discussion of the ADA and re-assignment as a reasonable accommodation, however, is the Court’s analysis pertaining to a school district’s authority over voluntary transfers. Before the Massachusetts Education Reform Act was amended in 2012, courts had consistently construed a principal’s authority over “hiring” under Section 59B of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 71, to include the authority to decide whether to accept “voluntary transfers” into his or her school building from elsewhere in the district. Courts also recognized that school committees could establish a district-wide personnel policy that set out procedures for hiring and transfers, as long as the principal retained the ultimate decision-making authority. 

In the Springfield Public Schools case, however, the Court determined the 2012 amendments to the Massachusetts Education Reform Act give superintendents authority and responsibility for voluntary transfers, subject only to consultation with the principal and not requiring the principal’s approval. This represents a substantial departure from the rule previously established by judicial precedent. The Court relied on the language of the 2012 amendment to Section 59B in reaching its conclusion.[1] It is important to note that District court decisions are non-precedent setting. Districts must, however, be mindful of this decision when considering voluntary transfers.

We recommend you consult with counsel before responding to an employee’s request for a voluntary transfer regardless of the reason for the request. 

[1] The 2012 amendments added the following language to Section 59B:

Prior to any assignment to a school of a teacher previously employed in another school in the district including, but not limited to, voluntary transfer, involuntary transfer, reduction in force, and recall, the superintendent shall consult in good faith with the principal concerning the assignment and application of any collectively bargained for selection criteria. In the case of an assignment in connection with the involuntary transfer or recall of a teacher to another school, any collectively bargained for selection criteria shall include the factors set forth in the seventh paragraph of section 42.