Family is allowed to pursue claim arising out of alleged retaliation to disability accommodation
A first-grader enrolled in the Shelby County school system in Tennessee suffered from Type 1 Diabetes (the type of diabetes that is not caused by lifetstyle isssues and in which the pancreas produces no insulin). Because of the severity of her diabetes and her youth, the child's sugar and insulin levels were wildly variable. The parents exercised extreme diligence in attempting to manage the disease, which was primarily controlled by an insulin pump and monitor attached to her hip.
Perhaps, when dealing with the school system, the parents were even too demanding in their attempt to control the child's environment and health. If so, their efforts would be understandable. They sought the assignment of a full-time nurse to the school, demanded that her four daily bolus shots be administered in the classroom rather than in the sick room, and her mother insisted on writing the child's medical plan.
The school staff acted with diligence in attempting to meet the child's needs and her parents' demands, however, several people involved lacked intimate knowledge of Type 1 diabetes and the accommodation requests by the parents placed a substantial demand on school resources. Two successive school nurses resigned from their position, citing the difficulties associated with meeting the mother's demands.
Ultimately, relations deteriorated as the principal mistakenly sent directly to the mother an intra-office e-mail that insulted the mother, and the assigned teacher encountered health problems which she related to the stress presented by the mother's demands. She and the principal concluded that part of the child's glucose fluctuation was a response to inadequate parental monitoring at home and eventually they reported the parents to child protective services. The report was accompanied by needlessly disparaging remarks that probably reflected a lack of knowledge and patience on the part of the Principal, rather than a lack of diligence by the parents.
The state investigation concluded that the parents were very well versed in their child's illness and appropriately invested in her health. The parents then filed a legal action under the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that the neglect report was a direct retaliation for the parents' accommodation requests. The District judge dismissed the parents' lawsuit, but the Sixth Circuit reversed.
The appellate judges unanimously ruled that the temporal proximity between the parents demand for in-classroom glucose testing and the abuse/neglect report, combined with the Principal's remarks suggesting that the parents "wanted something horrible to happen at school" and were simply "looking for a lawsuit" together created a strong inference of retaliatory motive. On that basis, the panel sent the case back to the lower court for a full trial on the factual merits of the claim.