March 15, 2011
A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit suggests that requiring a teacher to have a relatively large class size may not merely adversely impact the effectiveness of the teacher and the learning by the students—it may also constitute discrimination against teachers who have been determined to be disabled. Sepúlveda‑Villarini v. P.R. Dep't of Educ., 628 F.3d 25 (1st Cir. 2010). The author of the opinion in Sepúlveda‑Villarini was retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, The Honorable David Souter, sitting by designation.
The plaintiffs in the case were two public school teachers in Puerto Rico. Despite some different details, the teachers' circumstances were largely similar. Sepúlveda alleged that he had suffered a stroke while teaching, requiring heart bypass surgery, and that his doctor had ordered him to apply for accommodations upon returning to work. For five school years, the school accommodated Sepúlveda by providing him a classroom on the first floor, a reduced class size of 15 pupils in most of those years, and a rest period. Then, after the Secretary for the Puerto Rico Department of Education had issued instructions to keep class size at a minimum of 20, the school director enlarged Sepúlveda's class to 30 but provided an inexperienced teacher to share his duties. Sepúlveda claimed that the new arrangement was an unreasonable refusal to accommodate his disability, resulting in emotional consequences with physical symptoms requiring treatment, and he sought monetary and equitable relief.
The second teacher, Velázquez, alleged that she suffered from a throat condition, with symptoms including excessive coughing and shortness of breath, which had allegedly been aggravated by dust and debris stemming from construction at the school some years ago. Like Sepúlveda, on doctor's orders she sought accommodations for her disability. For four school years she was provided with accommodations virtually identical to Sepúlveda's, although her maximum class size was generally 20 rather than 15. When the Secretary's instructions were circulated, her class size was also increased, up to 30 students, without a team teacher to help. She, too, alleged that ensuing emotional and physical stress required treatment.
The issue in each of these consolidated cases was the sufficiency of the complaint to state a claim for failure to accommodate an employee's disability, as required by Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12111–12117, and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. The district court had dismissed each case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. The First Circuit vacated the district court decision and remanded the cases.
As determined by the district court, the particular deficiency in each of the teachers' claims under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act was a failure to allege in the pleadings how the smaller class-size accommodation that had been requested would enable the teachers to teach, but the larger class size would not. The manner in which the lower court dismissed the complaints required the First Circuit to address the more general matter of how much must be pleaded in a complaint to satisfy the requirement in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) for "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief."
As determined in two fairly recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the combined allegations of a complaint, taken as true, must state a plausible, not merely a conceivable, case for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 ("Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)." (footnote omitted) (citations omitted)). Under these precedents, a claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. The plausibility standard is not the same as a "probability requirement," but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.
In light of this guidance from the Supreme Court, the First Circuit ruled that in dismissing the disability discrimination claims in Sepúlveda‑Villarini, the district court had erred by demanding more than plausibility. Each set of pleadings included two significant sets of allegations that should have been seen as sufficient to survive the motion to dismiss. First, for a period of years the school administration had provided the reduced class size in response to the respective plaintiff's request, supported by some sort of medical certification attesting to its legitimacy. That accommodation established, in effect, a "baseline" of adequacy in response to an implicit acknowledgment that a statutory disability had required the provisions that were made. Second, each complaint described the raising of the class size to 30 and alleged that the plaintiffs' emotional and physical health subsequently deteriorated to the point of requiring treatment. It was not necessary for the complaints to describe a causal connection in terms of the exact psychological or physiological mechanism by which each plaintiff's capacity was overwhelmed. Reading the factual allegations as true should have meant accepting the changes in class size as the only variable, from which 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. As the court put it, "it does not seem remarkable that a teacher would be worn down by doubling the size, even with a young helper, who will need to be supervised." 628 F.3d at 29.In short, requiring allegations that explained "how" class size was significant and the change in size was actionable impermissibly amounted to a call for pleading the details of medical evidence in order to increase the likelihood that a causal connection would prove out as fact. The "plausibility" standard in a complaint does not require such a demonstration of likely success on the merits; rather, the standard is plausibility, assuming the pleaded facts to be true and read in a plaintiff's favor. Stripped down to its essence, the principle to be derived from Sepúlveda‑Villarini is that "[a] plausible but inconclusive inference from pleaded facts will survive a motion to dismiss[.]" Id. at 30.