Breaking News: U.S. Supreme Court takes on Case involving Person with Narcolepsy

by julie on March 28, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court will take on a case to decide whether a Lutheran Elementary School can be sued for possibly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in firing a teacher with narcolepsy or whether the school is exempt under the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

First – a brief summary of some of the facts*:

Cheryl Perich worked at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School from 1999-2004.  The school hires two kinds of teachers – “lay” and “called” teachers.  To be a “called” teacher, one must complete University-Level training in Lutheran theology and be declared prepared for ministry by a faculty committee.

In 1999, Perich first worked as a contract teacher teaching kindergarten, but then completed her classwork and became a called teacher in 2000.  By 2004, she was teaching third and fourth grade.  She taught a full time academic curriculum – including math, language arts, social studies, art, and music.  In addition, she taught a religion class four days a week, attended chapel once a week with her class, lead a chapel service twice a year and led her class in prayer daily.  In total, activities devoted to religion took up about approximately 45 minutes of the seven hour school day.

In the summer of 2004, Perich became ill and underwent a series of medical tests to determine the cause.  In August, still without a definitive diagnosis, the school administrators suggested Perich apply for a disability leave of absence for the 2004-2005 school year, which she did.  The school principal assured her she would have a job when she returned to health.

In December 2004, Perich informed the school that her doctor had confirmed a diagnosis of narcolepsy and that she would be able to return to work in two to three months once she was stabilized with medication.  Three days later, in an annual congregational “shareholder” meeting, the school board expressed the opinion that it was unlikely that Perich would be physically capable of returning to work that school year or the next.  In this meeting, the congregation accepted a “peaceful release agreement” proposed by the school board – meaning that if Perich would agree to resign her call, the congregation would, in exchange, pay her medical insurance premiums through December 2005.

Perich obtained a release from her doctor in February 2005 stating that, stabilized with medication, she would be fully functional and able to work as of Feb 22, 2005 (and therefore no longer eligible for disability coverage).  That February, she met with the school board – they presented their peaceful release proposal and in turn, she presented her doctor’s work release note.  The school board continued to ask Perich to resign, but she refused this and said she would report to teach on Feb. 22nd.

When she reported to teach on Feb. 22, the school did not have a job for her.  On this day, she refused to leave the premises until receiving a letter from the school stating that she had reported to work.  Once receiving the letter, she left the premises.  The school said that Perich’s conduct on Feb. 22nd was “regrettable.”

After much disagreement between Perich and the school that spring, the  congregation voted to rescind Perich’s call on April 10, 2005.

Summary of legal matters:

In May 2005, Perich filled a charge of discrimination and retaliation with the EEOC against the school.  The EEOC filed a complaint against Hosanna-Tabor School in 2007 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan alleging one count of retaliation in violation of the ADA.  In 2008, this district court granted summary judgement in favor of Hosanna-Tabor, dismissing Perich’s claim because the school fell into the “ministerial exception” to the ADA.

The “ministerial exception” bars most employment-related lawsuits against religious organizations by employees who perform religious functions.  What is at debate here is whether this exception applies in this case – where a teacher performs both a full secular curriculum and teaches daily religious classes, including leading students in prayer and worship.

On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit, the federal appeals court ruled that the school was not protected from the ADA suit, despite First Amendment protection as a religious organization, because Perich’s worked most of the time on secular duties.  (Click here to read the appeals court decision.)

As described in an ABA Journal news story, “Federal appeals courts are spilt on this issue. They agree that the establishment clause protects religious organizations from employment suits filed by pastors, priests and rabbis, the cert petition says. But the courts are evenly divided over whether this ‘ministerial exception’ also protects churches from suits filed by other employees.”

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has granted the School’s petition for writ for Certiorari to hear the case and granted various religious organizations leave to file amici curiae briefs. The court will hear the case later this year. (To read the petition for a writ of certiorari, click here)

The case is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (*Important Note: I tried to give an overview of the facts here based on the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court Decision and the Petition for a writ of certiorari, but every detail of the case is NOT included. For more information on the case, check out the SCOTUS Blog and the ABA Journal News Article. I will post more articles as they come out – as this is breaking news!)


In closing, a few personal thoughts:

As a person with a J.D., this seems like a very fascinating case challenging the boundaries of the First Amendment establishment clause protecting religious organizations’ freedom to choose their religious leaders.  I do not know where the boundaries lie or ought to lie within the context of a religious school in which a teacher has full-time secular duties but also holds important religious duties. I believe that smart awesome people may disagree on this matter for many different reasons.

It is important to remember that Perich’s claim of retaliation under the ADA is not the question before the U.S. Supreme Court.  What is at question is whether a religious school can be held to the standards of the ADA under these circumstances. (If the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the school can be held accountable under the ADA, than a lower court will take on this case and decide on Perich’s claim of retaliation based on the ADA.)

As a person with narcolepsy, I must admit that it is hard to separate my intellectual understanding of this as a First Amendment question from my emotional feelings of sympathy and frustration for Cheryl Perich’s  situation.  Without commenting on the religious aspects of this case, I must say that my heart goes out to Cheryl Perich and her friends and family for all that she has been through. Being a part of any long-term legal suit like this can take a large emotional and physical toll on anyone.  I wish her my very best for health and happiness despite this legal matter.

Although the circumstances of Perich’s case are unique in that she worked for a religious school – it is certainly not unique that a person with narcolepsy faces conflict with an employer upon disclosing their diagnosis and trying to work with their employer to find proper accommodations.

Narcolepsy, a neurological illness of the sleep/wake cycle, is grossly misunderstood in our society. Some people think that an individual will fall asleep while standing up. Other people think it’s a joke (not even an illness).  Although I have given up my privacy to speak out about narcolepsy – many are unable to do this because of the extreme misunderstanding of narcolepsy in our society.

One final note on the general topic of narcolepsy and employment: it is important not to make judgements about a person with narcolepsy without knowing that person’s individual circumstances. Narcolepsy affects people differently – not everyone experiences all of the possible symptoms nor experience these symptoms to the same degree.  In addition, the medications currently available for narcolepsy may help some people return to a very full-functioning life while others do not have such success with these treatments.  Some people with narcolepsy are unable to work full-time while others do so quite successfully.  This is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis.  Like most things I suppose, it’s best not to judge a book by the cover.

(*Important Note: I tried to give an overview of the facts here, but every detail of the case is NOT included. For more information on the case, check out the SCOTUS Blog and the ABA Journal News Article. I will post more articles as they come out – as this is breaking news!)

Articles:
Court to decide if teacher can sue church school by the Associated Press (on Bloomberg Businessweek website).

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Sasha March 28, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Julie-
Great post, especially the very last paragraph. Narcolepsy is truly unique for each individual who suffers from this neurological condition.
-Sasha

Reply

thomas.flygare March 28, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Even though narcolepsy is not the issue before the Supreme Court, maybe publicity about the case will help raise public awareness of narcolepsy. If the Supreme Court allows the case to go forward, I believe Cheryl Perich has a very strong case of discrimination and retaliation.

Reply

erin March 28, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Fascinating post! I did a google search for "ministerial exception" and found that many people have been waiting for a case like this to come to SCOTUS for a long time. Many feel that religious institutions use the ministerial exception clause to place themselves above the law, when the clause is there only to protect the church's freedom of religion and nothing more.

Personally, I am really excited to see this case and the outcome!

Reply

Angela March 28, 2011 at 6:47 pm

As a narcoleptic I lost my job as a youth pastor because a woman in the congregation wanted my job. She began to tell people I was not on meds & was a danger to their kids. I don't drive, I was never alone w/the kids as a precaution just so people couldn't say anything. I ended up losing that job due to all her gossip. I couldn't do a thing about it either. 🙁 I get tired of churches being able to do anything they want. Just because they don't like to face people God doesn't heal doesn't mean they can take my right to do ministry away by their ignorant prejudice!

Reply

NarcoGirl March 29, 2011 at 9:44 am

Hey Julie-you are awesome for posting this. Would you mind if I reposted this on my blog?

Thanks!
Narcogirl

Reply

Gail March 29, 2011 at 9:48 am

Very informative posting. Thank you for taking the time to separate the issues and clarify the suit for lay people. It is fascinating to learn about the church's exemption from ADA. I would have thought they would be the last to discriminate not using their exemption under the first amendment. Please keep us informed as this case progresses.

Reply

Saraiah March 29, 2011 at 10:28 am

I understand that this isn't the contested issue in the court case, but the decision to dismiss Cheryl Perich before waiting to see what her functioning would be like after treatment is so frustrating, and my hunch is that it happens frequently. Like Sasha, I greatly appreciate your point that every person who has narcolepsy has a unique set of symptoms and a unique response to treatment, and so each case should be evaluated individually.

Though there are many people who respond to my narcolepsy diagnosis thoughtfully, others seem to land on either end of a continuum of responses. Some people disbelieve that the diagnosis is correct and that my behavior has anything to do with a medical illness. And others assume that I cannot be trusted to do much of anything (or trusted to know and take responsibility for what I am able and not able to do reliably), based upon a vague understanding of what narcolepsy might be.

Thanks, Julie, for your incredible work to raise public awareness of the disease – and of what individual people with narcolepsy can do in spite of our symptoms!!

Reply

thomas.flygare March 29, 2011 at 12:55 pm

I am worried about the outcome of this case. The majority on this Court almost always supports the corporation or the institution over the rights of individuals. The vast majority of Justices are Roman Catholic, and while there is nothing wrong with that, it may mean they are predisposed to expand the religion exemption.

Cheryl Perich will now have to wait about 18 months before finding out if her case can even go to trial. Considering that she filed her complaint with the EEOC six years ago, she has already waited a long time for justice.

Reply

Nancy U March 30, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Cases like this just make me throw up my hands and give thanks that I'm not a Supreme Court justice.

My sympathies do lie with Cheryl. But as unfair as her firing was, deciding against the school would be another blow against the ability of those in a private institution to make decisions about what is best for the organization.

Weakening the rights of private institutions is dangerous. Where there is only one source of power, then horrible things like the Holocaust, Stalin's starvation and purge of 30 million, and the Killing Fields of Cambodia occur.

And to say that Americans are 'special' and that we'd never do things like that is arrogant to the extreme.

Best not to create a situation where there is no significant opposition to those in power who are looking for convenient, unpopular groups to scapegoat.

I'm not saying that deciding in Cheryl's favor will lead to an American Holocaust. That's ridiculous.

What I am pointing out is that there's many implications to a case like this. And some of them could lead to a tipping point towards a future that nobody wants.

So glad I'm not on SCOTUS.

Reply

Nightboss April 11, 2011 at 10:22 am

People fear most that which they don't understand. As a lifelong narcoleptic who has served my country, worked hard for a degree, and worked in law enforcement for 17 years, I know that it is possible to "soldier on" even when one doesn't know why or where the fog and exhaustion come from. It wasn't until I changed jobs and sat at a desk in a cubicle for eight hours a day at a software provider that narcolepsy took me down. Unlike Cheryl's case, my body is non-responsive to every medication my family physician and three neurologists have prescribed for me. Once I invoked my LTD insurance, I was terminated from my employment. At my age, I doubt I will ever work, or drive, again.
As an evangelical Christian, I have a hard time understanding why Cheryl was not accommodated. If Christians don't care for their own, who will they care for?

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: