Tuesday, December 14, 2010

First Circuit: Justice Souter on Class Size/ADA

Can smaller class size be a "reasonable accommodation" for disabled teachers under the Americans with Disabilities Act? Late last week, retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, sitting by designation and writing for a unanimous First Circuit panel, said yes (at least at the motion to dismiss stage).

The appellants "are [two] public school teachers in Ponce, Puerto Rico." One allegedly "suffered a stroke while teaching and required heart by-pass surgery." The other allegedly has "a throat condition," which causes "excessive coughing and shortness of breath." The teachers' impaired health was medically certified and both were given small classes (between fifteen and twenty students) for a period of several years.

However, after the Puerto Rico Education Department Secretary raised the minimum to twenty students, both teachers' class sizes went up—actually beyond the minimum, to thirty students. One was given a team teacher to assist, but that person was new and required supervision. Both teachers brought suit, alleging that the increased class size caused "emotional and physical stress requir[ing] treatment."

The district court dismissed the complaints for failure to state a claim, but the First Circuit, with Justice Souter writing for the panel, disagreed and vacated the lower rulings.

Citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), a decision he authored, and other cases, Justice Souter found that the district court required too much. Viewing the allegations in the plaintiffs' favor, "one would infer that there probably is some causal connection between the work of a doubled class size and the physical and emotional deterioration of the disabled teacher." Under Twombly, "[a] plausible but inconclusive inference from pleaded facts will survive a motion to dismiss," Souter wrote.

Previous Appellate Daily coverage of Justice Souter sitting on the First Circuit is here.