Short Term Depression is not a Disability

In a recent case out of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Seibert v. Lutron Electronics, the court held that depression that was not permanent and caused by specific non-recurring events did not qualify as a disability under the ADA.  In Seibert, the plaintiff-employee suffered from depression that was caused by "her fiance's alcohol consumption, the stress of planning her wedding, financial problems, and her grandfather's illness."  This depression lead to the employee taking a leave of absence from April 2005 to October of 2005.  However, upon returning to work the employee continued to have attendance issues, which the court found were not attributable to depression, and the employer offered the employee the option to either resign her position or be terminated, with the employee choosing to resign.

The court explained that "[t]ransitory, temporary or impermanent impairments" do not meet the definition of an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity under the ADA.  In this case, accordingly, the court found that the depression was temporary.  The ADA itself defines transitory as lasting less than 6 months. 

The case is helpful for school districts in the ADA and Section 504 employment context in that it shows that short term depression caused by a specific event is not a disability.  Likewise, it is helpful under Section 504, which also applies to most school district, because Section 504 borrows the definition of disability from ADA.  Moreover, while perhaps a little less clear, this could also have implications for students in that students who claim to be disabled under Section 504 and/or IDEA due to depression might not so qualify if the depression is short term in nature and attributable to a specific event. 

TWO YEARS MAY REALLY MEAN TWO YEARS ... MAYBE

In a new case out of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Baker v. Southern York Area School District, the District Court applied in a Section 504 FAPE case a strict two year statute of limitations, borrowing the statute of limitations from the IDEA. Looking to a recent case from the Third Circuit, P.P. v. West Chester Area School District, discussed below, the Court simply looked to the filing date of the Complaint and limited the claims to two years prior to that date. However, it appears that there continues to be cases all over the map on how to apply statute of limitations in IDEA cases. It appears that will likely to continue until the issue is decided by the Third Circuit.   

THIRD CIRCUIT GIVES SOME GUIDANCE ON STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS UNDER IDEA AND SECTION 504, BUT STILL LEAVES SOME ISSUES UNRESOLVED

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a decision addressing the issue of the statute of limitations, or the time limits for bring a case, under both Section 504 and IDEA. In P.P. v. West Chester Area School District the only clear guidance that is given is that the statute of limitations provided for in IDEA is also applicable in Section 504 cases. Section 504 does not provide any statute of limitations. The Court also indicates that the exceptions available to the statute of limitations under IDEA would also be available under Section 504.

However, the Court leaves unanswered two issues. First, the Court refused to address whether the statute of limitations under IDEA is applicable at all to cases in which the alleged improper conduct occurred prior to the addition of the time limits in IDEA, which were new to the statute as reauthorized in 2004. The other unresolved issue is whether a strict two year statute of limitations applies or whether the “two plus two” concept is applicable. One approach would limit cases to strictly looking to alleged wrongful conduct two years prior to the filing of the Due Process Complaint. The second approach allows looking back two years from the date the parents of the student knew or should have known of the alleged wrongful conduct and then allows the parents two years from that date to file the claim. Thus, in theory, under the second approach you might be able to look at a four year window in total.

The Court does not address these two remaining issues and has left them for another day.   

ADA AND SECTION 504 ANTI-RETALIATION PROTECTIONS NOT LIMITED TO INDIVIDUALS WHO ARE DISABLED

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has found in the case of Barker v. Riverside County Office of Education (October 23, 2009) that the anti-retaliation provisions of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the ADA apply even if the person who claims to have been retaliated against is not themselves disabled. In Barker, a special education teacher voiced concerns that her employer’s special education program was not in compliance with federal and state law and then, along with a coworker, filed a complaint on this alleged non-compliance with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. In response to this complaint, according to the employee, the school district retaliated by reducing her case load, intimidating her, excluding her from meetings and other activities that, according to the employee, led to an intolerable work environment.

The employee filed suit claiming she had been retaliated against for filing the complaint and voicing concerns about the alleged non-compliance of the district’s special education program. The court was asked to determine whether this teacher, who herself was not disabled, was afforded the protections of the anti-retaliation provisions of the two statutes. Looking at both statutes the court found that both protected "any person" who was retaliated against. The court further noted its belief that Congress intended to protect other individuals in recognition of the fact that disabled individuals may need assistance in vindicating their rights.

The lesson of Barker is clear. If school districts or other educational entities have employees who complaint internally or to outside agencies about the treatment provided to disabled students or employees, they must be treated the same as other employees and any appearance of retaliation for the complaints must be avoided.