The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a teacher’s statements on behalf of disabled students were “protected activity” under the ADA, and that the teacher had standing to sue for retaliation under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Barker v. Riverside County Office of Education, 9th Cir., No. 07-56313, Oct. 23, 2009.

Susan Lee Barker was hired as a Resource Specialist Program teacher with the Riverside County Office of Education in California in 2002. As early as 2003, Baker began to express her concerns to the County regarding its special education services for students with disabilities, and complained that the services did not comply with state or federal law. In 2005, Barker and a co-worker filed a lawsuit with the federal Department of Education’s Office related to those issues.

Barker resigned on August 1, 2006, stating that her working conditions had become intolerable after she filed the 2005 complaint. She subsequently filed a federal court retaliation claim under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, alleging that she was constructively discharges by being excluded from meetings, that her caseload was reduced, and that she was refused certain work, all because of her support of the students and complaints on their behalf. The district court granted the County’s motion to dismiss the case, finding that Barker lacked standing to sue for retaliation under either of the two statutes.

The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act include a broad anti-retaliation provision that shield’s “any individual” who is harmed after attempting to protect the rights of the disabled. The County argued that Barker could not sue because she was not a “qualified individual with a disability” and that she had no “close relationship” to the disabled students. However, the Ninth Circuit specifically found that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act grants standing to non-disabled people who are retaliated against for attempting to protect the rights of the disabled, as does Title II (the “public accommodation” provision) of the ADA.

The interesting issue in this case is that the lower court automatically analyzed the case under Title I (the “non-discrimination in employment” provision) of the ADA, because Barker was suing her employer. However, Barker’s claim addressed the County’s relationship with the students, and was appropriately brought under Title II. Based on this case, public employers should carefully analyze issues brought by employees regarding individuals with disabilities, and should be aware that adverse actions taken against such employees could have implications under the ADA or the Rehab Act.