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A request for reassignment to another school in the district is reasonable on its face in light of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA), Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 71, § 59B. Under the amendments to MERA, a principal's approval is not required to effectuate a voluntary transfer of a teacher into the principal's school. Instead, the superintendent has the authority over voluntary transfers. The superintendent, as someone who oversees all of the schools in the district, is well-situated to consider how to manage reassignments between schools to comply with federal anti-discrimination requirements and the needs of the district and its schools.
Defendant SPS employs approximately 2,040 teachers in more than 60 schools in the school district of Springfield. SPS faced challenges that include: a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students (67% in 2015-2016); a high percentage of high needs students (78% in 2015-2016); and numerous reported assaults and/or batteries on staff (95, 92, 41, 35, and 30 in the five schools with the most reported assaults and/or batteries in 2015-2016. Some of SPS's schools are "alternative schools," where the student population presents more behavioral problems than in non-alternative schools.Plaintiffs Mary Jane Eustace, Ruth Chappel, Constance Rodd, and Deryl Blanks ("Plaintiffs") were teachers for SPS, members of the labor union Springfield Education Association ("SEA"), and subject to a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") that included provisions concerning the hiring, transfer, and promotion of teachers. The CBA included a policy whereby teachers wishing to transfer to another building for the next school year are directed to use the "voluntary Annual Transfer Process," which began no later than April 15 of each year. The process required a teacher to apply for positions she would like to transfer to for the next school year. The principal of the school to which transfer is requested must consider and make a decision on the applications received. The Annual Transfer Process was in essence an opportunity to apply for a new or different position within the district. The CBA indicated that "the convenience and wishes of the individual teachers will be honored to the extent that these considerations do not conflict with the instructional requirements and best interests of the school system and the pupils."
Each of the four Plaintiffs sought reasonable accommodation from SPS for an alleged disability, specifically in the form of a transfer to a school that they currently did not work in. In response to their request, each Plaintiff was advised that she could avail herself of the Annual Transfer Process to apply competitively for a vacant position in another school (or simply in a school, in the case of Chappel). SPS would not transfer Plaintiffs unless the principal of a school to which transfer was desired approved Plaintiffs for a vacant position. Some of the Plaintiffs received interviews with the principal of a school with a job opening, but none received a job offer. After not receiving job offers through the Annual Transfer process and being refused their request for transfer, all Plaintiffs stopped working for SPS. They then filed the instant action, alleging that SPS violated multiple nondiscrimination laws. They also brought a claim for declaratory judgment that SPS’s reliance on the Massachusetts Education Reform Act ("MERA"), Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 71, § 59B, in refusing to transfer employees to vacant positions as a reasonable accommodation is in violation of the ADA. Both parties moved for summary judgment.
Should Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment on SPS’s reliance on the MERA being a violation of the ADA be granted?
As a result of the 2012 amendments, under MERA a superintendent has the authority to effectuate voluntary transfers even without a principal's approval as long as there has been a good-faith consultation with the principal. Accordingly, SPS cannot deny reassignment as a reasonable accommodation based on MERA or the fact a principal does not approve the reassignment. The court's decision did not mean that any employee must be transferred regardless of the employee's disability status or the specifics of each case, as SPS implied in arguing that the request for declaratory judgment is overbroad. It also did not mean that reassignment is mandated for every employee or Plaintiff without context or examination of the facts. The fact-intensive, burden-shifting Barnett framework still applied in the instant case, and at trial SPS may still rebut the evidence showing reasonableness or present evidence showing undue hardship. Lastly, with respect to preemption, SPS argued "if the Court decides that a forced transfer, without the principal's permission is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, the Court would next need to determine that the ADA preempts the authority granted to a principal to make hiring decisions under MERA for the plaintiff to prevail on her declaratory judgment claim." The court's interpretation that the amendments to MERA shifted the authority over voluntary transfers from the principal to the superintendent eliminated this issue of preemption.