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Seventh Circuit Sets Proof Paradigm for ADA Interference Claims

Too often, we think of Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) claims in terms of discrimination and failure to accommodate. Employment lawyers typically see interference claims in the context of other employment statutes, such as the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). However, the ADA also includes a provision prohibiting interference. It is unlawful for an employer to “coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere with any individual in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of his or her having exercised or enjoyed, or on account of his or her having aided or encouraged any other individual in the exercise or enjoyment of, any right granted or protected by the ADA.” 

In Frakes v. Peoria School District No. 150, the Court addressed, for the first time, the elements of the cause of action for an ADA interference claim. Frakes involved a special education teacher who was placed on a layoff list as a result of an unsatisfactory performance review she received from her supervisor. She also received similar unsatisfactory reviews from prior supervisors. When the plaintiff challenged her review, she defended her teaching methods. She did not indicate that she was exercising rights under the ADA generally, or that she was advocating on behalf of the special needs students to whose classroom she was assigned. 

Noting that the ADA’s interference provisions were modeled after the statutory language in the Fair Housing Act (FHA), the Seventh Circuit said it could use the FHA framework to establish a proof paradigm for interference claims. The Court then noted that any plaintiff seeking to prove an interference claim under the ADA must demonstrate: (1) she engaged in activities statutorily protected by the ADA; (2) she was engaged in, or aided or encouraged others in, the exercise or enjoyment of ADA-protected rights; (3) the defendants coerced, threatened, intimidated, or interfered on account of her protected activities; and (4) the defendants were motivated by an intent to discriminate.

Applying the proof paradigm to the facts of the case, the Seventh Circuit found the plaintiff’s evidence lacking and affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment. While she claimed in her lawsuit that her teaching methodology was a better approach for dealing with disabled and special needs students, Judge Ann Williams, writing for the 3-judge panel, noted the dispute over teaching methodology was not an assertion of rights on behalf of disabled students. In fact, there was no mention of students’ rights or interests at all in the dispute over her performance review. 

Employers, employment law defense counsel and school law attorneys need to recognize the fact that an interference claim is viable under the ADA. Borrowing concepts from the FHA and traditional retaliation claims, it is clear plaintiffs must demonstrate a protected activity and either an intent to discriminate or a causal connection between the protected activity and challenged employment action.

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