Employer Loses Disability Discrimination Claim Due to Medical Opinion Based on Failure to InvestigateThursday, April 1st, 2010
In an unpublished decision by the New Jersey Appellate Division today, the court affirmed a finding that a school district unlawfully failed to reinstate a teacher who took a psychological disability leave after he was accused of improper comments and behavior. Ponsi v. Cliffside Park Board of Education, Docket No. A-5902-07T2 (Apr. 1, 2010). On May 23, 2003, John Ponsi, a teacher at Cliffside Park High School, was unexpectedly called into the principal’s office for a meeting with two students, who accused him of making racial and lewd remarks earlier that week. Another teacher was also at that meeting, who accused Ponsi of pushing her that same week. Four days later, the Board of Education notified Ponsi that he was suspended with pay, pending the outcome of an investigation and psychological examination.
Contrary to the notice, the Board did not conduct an investigation. Ponsi did, however, see his physician, who referred him to a psychiatrist due to depression and anxiety resulting from the accusations and suspension. In September 2003, Ponsi was also evaluated by Dr. Meyerhoff, a psychiatrist appointed by the Board, who concluded that Ponsi was unable to teach for the foreseeable future. As a result of that examination, the Board notified Ponsi that he was ineligible to teach until he provided proof of recovery and that, if his absence exceeded two years, his employment would be terminated.
On January 31, 2005, Ponsi’s psychiatrist provided a written report, finding that Ponsi’s depression and anxiety had sufficiently abated and that that he could return to teaching. The Board then had their initial psychiatrist re-examine Ponsi. The psychiatrist agreed that Ponsi’s depression and anxiety had abated, but found that Ponsi should not return to work, because he showed no repentance or remorse over the alleged lewd and racial remarks, or the pushing incident. Dr. Meyerhoff wrote:
Though Mr. Ponsi is ready to return to work and, in theory is less overtly troubled and distraught than previously, he is not repentant about the previous school problem, offers no additional information which would logically explain why a teacher and two students, in effect, conspired against him, and conveys an astonishingly comfortable, serene and tolerant attitude as he, veritably, would accept reinstatement in school, without care or concern. Probably, with the aforementioned sense of self righteousness he could stand before a classroom for days or even weeks, but it is likely he would unravel, at some point. If the Cliffside Park Board of Education seriously wishes to reinstate him, it is not unreasonable that he be re-interviewed, as a “returning” employee, by the same administrators he suggests have been incompetent.
Although the Board had conducted no investigation, its psychiatrist accepted all allegations against Ponsi as if they were true and, based on this assumption, decided that the Board should not reinstate Ponsi. The Board, knowing that it had conducted no investigation, and that the allegations had not been proven, agreed with its psychiatrist’’s evaluation, and decided not to reinstate Ponsi.
Ponsi then retained a second psychiatrist. This psychiatrist disagreed with Dr. Meyerhoff, who
diagnosed a delusional disorder, because Mr. Ponsi was not repentant, offering no additional information to logically explain why a teacher and two students would have conspired against him . . . Mr. Ponsi does not use the term, “conspiracy,” with me. I do not discern any paranoid delusions. His account of the accusations made against him is plausible and does not appear to be delusional. He raises reasonable doubts as to the validity of such allegations for which he cannot honestly express remorse or logically explain. In my view, this cannot be held against him. Since he is not delusional, I cannot agree with Dr. Meyerhoff that he will “unravel” at some point when teaching in a classroom.
The Board nevertheless decided not to reinstate Ponsi, and still did not investigate the underlying accusations against him.
After an evidentiary hearing, the Division on Civil Rights found that the Board violated that Law Against Discrimination by failing to offer a reasonable accommodation for Ponsi’s disability. The Appellate Division affirmed this ruling. The court noted that it was clear that Ponsi had a disability. Further, as the Division on Civil Rights found that Ponsi’s experts were more credible than Dr. Meyerhoff, the court found that Ponsi established that he was qualified to return to work. The court also reasoned that, once Ponsi claimed that he was entitled to reinstatement, the Board was obligated to engage in an interactive process, to determine whether Ponsi could return and, if so, whether Ponsi needed any reasonable accommodation. As the court observed, the Board did not even bother investigating the allegations, even though itknew that its psychiatrist’s opinion was based entirely on the assumption that the allegations were true. The court summarized, “If Dr. Meyerhoff’s assumption that the allegations against Ponsi were true is discounted, his diagnosis supports Ponsi’s reinstatement. Furthermore, the Board did not even follow Dr. Meyerhoff’s recommendation that Ponsi be interviewed, a clear signal that they had no intention to reinstate him.”
There are several lessons to be learned from Ponsi. First, depression and anxiety may be considered protected disabilities, even if they are caused by job-related stressors. Second, while it is understandable that the Board might have been reluctant to call Ponsi in for an investigation while he was on leave suffering from depression — and may have had difficulty conducting an investigation into a few remarks two years later, when Ponsi was able to return — employers that do not investigation allegations, and who rush to judgment, do so at their own peril. Third, employers that retain their own doctors to examine employees should take care to ensure that accurate and objective information is being provided. Fourth, if there are clear factual errors, or internal inconsistences, in an examination, the employers should not blindly accept the report and its recommendations.
A copy of the decision is on file with the author, and is available on request.