Philadelphia school district denies ADA allegations, told to schedule settlement conference

By Sharon Brooks Hodge | Apr 5, 2016

PHILADELPHIA - A federal court judge has ordered a settlement conference to resolve a former teacher’s allegations that the Philadelphia school system discriminated against him because of a medical condition, then retaliated when he complained.

In March, attorneys for Martin A. Orzek and the School District of Philadelphia were given 30 days to contact Magistrate Judge Linda K. Caracappa to schedule a settlement conference, an order signed by Petrese B. Tucker, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said.

In October 2015, Orzek, a high school English and social studies teacher who had been reassigned to teach sixth grade, filed a lawsuit against the district seeking $150,000 to compensate him for alleged violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

He also claimed that the administration’s actions ran afoul of the Pennsylvania Human Rights Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

“Based on the complaint, this appears to be a pretty straight forward ADA case,” Boston College business law professor Stephanie Greene told the Pennsylvania Record. “The teacher appears to be a qualified person with a disability, and his employer failed to accommodate him.”

In court documents, Orzek said he had been diagnosed with medical conditions including osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease. These conditions constituted disabilities within the meaning of the ADA and PHRA because they rendered him significantly limited in major physical activity, the complaint said.

Orzek’s medical problems were exacerbated because he was required to perform strenuous labor, such as moving metal file cabinets and heavy bookshelves in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees, the complaint said.

Additionally he says he was assigned to a classroom on the third floor, which required him to walk up and down 32 stairs.

“What seems strange to me is the request to have a teacher move cabinets and bookshelves,” Greene said. “When we talk about the ADA, it is based on the employee performing the essential function of the job.

"In this case, that would be teaching. And certainly, it would be a reasonable accommodation to assign work space on the first floor instead of the third floor. That’s the kind of thing the ADA was designed to cover.”

After working four days in the elementary school, Orzek filed a Workers' Compensation claim and provided a medical form listing his restrictions. Instead of accommodating those limitations, Lea Elementary School’s principal, Jennifer Duffy, allegedly sent Orzek home on sick leave and told him she would assist him in getting transferred back to the high school if he would drop the Workers' Comp claim, the lawsuit stated.

When he declined, he was forced to retire, Orzek said in the complaint.

The school administration has challenged the significance of Orzek’s ailments.

“Plaintiff did not have a permanent disability, but only a temporary one,” the school system’s written response to Orzek’s complaint stated.

According to Greene, Orzek bears the burden to prove that he had a disability. Meanwhile, the administration would have to demonstrate how accommodating the disability would place an undue burden on the school, such as loss of productivity.

The degree of the teacher’s disability was not the only allegation that the school gas denied. Administrators contend the transfer was not an act of retaliation, but a situation Orzek had created by giving notice that he planned to retire, then rescinding that notification, a court document stated.

A date for the settlement conference has not been scheduled.

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