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Trish Johnson v. Board of Trustees of the Boundary County School

December 8, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Idaho B. Lynn Winmill, Chief District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 2:09-cv-00061-BLW

The opinion of the court was delivered by: O'scannlain, Circuit Judge:



Argued and Submitted December 8, 2010-Seattle, Washington

Before: Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain and Richard A. Paez, Circuit Judges, and Virginia M. Kendall, District Judge.*fn1

Opinion by Judge O'Scannlain; Partial Concurrence and Partial Dissent by Judge Paez


We must decide whether a disabled teacher is a "qualified individual with a disability" under the Americans with Disabilities Act.



Patricia ("Trish") Johnson, who had a history of depression and bipolar disorder, taught special education in the Boundary County School District No. 101 ("District") in Idaho for a decade. In May 2007, Johnson entered into a standard teaching contract with the District requiring her "to have and maintain the legal qualifications required to teach" special education during the 2007-2008 school year. In Idaho, "[e]very person who is employed to serve in any elementary school or secondary school in the capacity of teacher . . . shall be required to have and to hold a certificate issued under authority of the state board of education." Idaho Code § 33-1201. The Idaho State Board of Education ("ISBE") issued Johnson a teaching certificate valid from September 1, 2002 to September 1, 2007. Hence, Johnson's teaching certificate was set to expire around the start of the 2007-2008 school year.

To renew her certificate, Johnson was required to complete at least six semester hours of professional development training, at least three of which had to be for college credit, during the five-year period that her certificate was valid. Idaho Admin. Code § During this period, Johnson completed a number of courses toward renewal of her certificate; however, by the summer of 2007, she was still short the required three semester hours of college credit. According to Johnson, she had taken "much more than just three hours" of college-level courses by the start of the summer but had not received any credit because she never paid for the courses.

However, during that summer Johnson experienced a major depressive episode that rendered her unable to take any college courses. Shortly before classes resumed in the fall, Johnson met with the District Superintendent, Dr. Don Bartling, and explained that her certificate would soon expire because she had failed to complete the three college credits. Superintendent Bartling informed Johnson that she would need to petition the District's Board of Trustees ("Board") to apply for provisional authorization from the ISBE to teach without a certificate during the upcoming school year.

School districts in Idaho could apply for provisional authorization to hire teachers who lacked the appropriate certification by submitting a letter of request signed by the superintendent and chair of the board of trustees explaining the need for provisional authorization, "outlining the 'good faith effort' the district made in attempting to hire someone with appropriate certification," and specifying the teacher's qualifications. Upon ISBE approval, the teacher would be allowed to teach for a nonrenewable one-year term.

Johnson appeared before the Board on September 6, 2007, and requested that the Board apply for provisional authorization for her to teach during the school year. The Board voted to deny the request. According to the Chairman of the Board, Melanie Staples, the reason for the denial was that Johnson "had five years to get those three credits and didn't approach administration until just before school started where her certificate was up." Staples testified that the Board applied for provisional authorizations only when there was an open position but no certificated teachers available. Because there were two certificated special education teachers available to teach in the District, one of them was hired to fill in for Johnson.

The Board mailed a notice of possible non-renewal of John-son's teaching contract for the 2007-2008 school year to Johnson on October 1, 2007. Two weeks later, the Board held a hearing to determine whether Johnson had violated the terms of her contract by allowing her teaching certification to lapse. Johnson was represented by counsel at the hearing and given the opportunity to testify and to present evidence. Johnson testified at length about her history of mental illness, as well as how her depressive episode during the summer of 2007 had prevented her from completing the required college credits. At the conclusion of the meeting, the Board decided to "stand on [its] previous decision" not to seek provisional authorization because of "Ms. Johnson's lack of action over the last five years." Consequently, Johnson was terminated, and the substitute teacher filling in for her was hired on a full-time basis.


On January 12, 2009, Johnson filed a complaint against the Board in state court alleging statutory and constitutional due process violations, breach of contract, and disability discrimination in violation of the Idaho Human Rights Act ("IHRA"), Idaho Code § 67-5909; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.; and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. The Board removed ...

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