Failure to Change Teaching Methods is Not Protected Activity for Purposes of a Section 504 Interference Claim
In February 2012, full-time tenured special education teacher Michelle Frakes received an “unsatisfactory” performance rating. Frakes refused to sign the rating, asserting it was unfair, and she formalized her opposition in a written document entitled “Points of Rebuttal.” In the “Points of Rebuttal,” Frakes admitted she needed to improve her performance and classroom management but defended her teaching methods. Frakes was placed on a remediation plan, but before it went into effect she requested and was placed on medical leave due to serious health conditions. Frakes’ unsatisfactory rating placed her and nine other full-time tenured teachers in “Group 2” on the “sequence of honorable dismissal list.” On April 9, 2012 Frakes, along with 54 other teachers, was honorably dismissed in a voluntary reduction in force.
Frakes sued the District in federal court, alleging that her “unsatisfactory” rating and subsequent honorable dismissal interfered with her ability to aid students in exercising their rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The district court granted summary judgement for the District, finding Frakes did not provide evidence that she engaged in protected activity under Section 504. On appeal, in its first time addressing an interference claim under Section 504, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
The Court first noted that a Section 504 employment discrimination claim is controlled by the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so it looked at Frakes’ claim through the ADA anti-interference provision, which provides it is unlawful 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 the 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.” To prevail on her claim, Frakes would need to demonstrate that: (1) she engaged in activity 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 activity; and (4) the defendants were motivated by an intent to discriminate. Frakes asserted that she engaged in protected activity when she refused to change her teaching methods in response to the “unsatisfactory” rating, but the Court did not buy her assertion, pointing out that she did not dispute her teaching methods in her “Points in Rebuttal,” nor did she mention her students’ rights or interests at all. The Court succinctly held that “the law protects assertions of rights, not teaching methods. The fact that Frakes taught students who are protected by the ADA does not alone render her teaching ‘protected activity.’”