Don’t make me go to a pep rally! I’ve got PTSD!

New Caney ISD was faced with an interesting situation when teacher Stephen Seidel asked his principal for an accommodation of his PTSD.  Mr. Seidel is an Iraq War vet, and he informed his principal that loud noises in enclosed spaces would exacerbate his symptoms. Of course there are few things in life louder than a high school pep rally in the gym. So Mr. Seidel asked to be excused from pep rallies at the school.  The principal agreed to this. The plan was for Mr. Seidel to patrol the hallways during the pep rally, rather than attending.

Apparently, this worked just fine for a year and a half.  Then, on December 21, 2012, the high school held a “Lip Dub.”  The court tells us that this event “resembles a pep rally in its loudness.”  Mr. Seidel’s supervising teacher, who was also his department chair, perhaps unaware of the agreement, told him to attend.  Mr. Seidel told her that he could not do this. He explained that “he does not go to the pep rallies.”  According to the court, the supervising teacher insisted that he needed to go into the gym, like the other teachers.

The court’s opinion tells us that Mr. Seidel at first stayed near the door to the gym, but “Later, other unnamed administrators forced him into the bleachers, over his objections.” The “Lip Dub” included “students rushing in, screaming, popping balloons, shooting off confetti cannons.”  In other words, it was loud in there.

Mr. Seidel claims in his lawsuit that all this chaos did, in fact, bring about a “flashback” to his days in Iraq.  With help from his students he left the gym, but he experienced panic attacks and flashbacks the rest of the day.  He left the school, and did not return “out of fear of having a flashback and possibly hurting a child.”

Eventually, Mr. Seidel filed suit, alleging disability discrimination.  New Caney filed a Motion to Dismiss the suit, arguing that Mr. Seidel was not a “qualified individual” able to perform the work of a teacher. In a suit under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), the employee must establish that he or she was able to perform the essential functions of the job. Here, the district cited Mr. Seidel’s own admission that “he can no longer work as a teacher.”  Mr. Seidel’s argument was that he was fully capable to work as a teacher until the “Lip Dub” incident when the district revoked the accommodation he had had.

The court said that the key issue was “the relevant time for assessing whether Mr. Seidel can work as a teacher.”  The court held that the “relevant time” is “when the alleged ADA violation occurred.”  In other words: was Mr. Seidel qualified and capable of serving as a teacher on December 21, 2012, the day when he alleges that the district violated the ADA.  He was. Thus the court refused to dismiss his lawsuit.

This case has a long way to go.  Mr. Seidel has only jumped the first hurdle. He still faces a heavy burden of proof.  If the case ends up going to trial, Mr. Seidel will have to prove the truth of his allegations.  He did not have to do that in this proceeding.  On a Motion to Dismiss, the court assumes the truth of the allegations, thus giving the plaintiff the benefit of every doubt.  On top of that, if it goes to trial, Mr. Seidel will be asked to explain why he felt bound by the directions of a department chair when he already had an agreement in place with the principal.  The district will argue that Mr. Seidel could have respectfully refused to comply with the direction to enter the gym.

But there is a good legal nugget for us here. See today’s Dawg Bone!  The case of Seidel v. New Caney ISD can be found at 2015 WL 6549895. The federal court for the Southern District of Texas ruled on the Motion to Dismiss on September 18, 2015.