Ex-secretary sues DeKalb schools over COVID accommodations

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Johnson’s position at the school. It has since been updated.

A former employee is suing the DeKalb County School District for denying her the opportunity to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic despite documented medical issues, according to a complaint filed in federal court this month.

Zakiya Johnson accused the district of firing her from her position as an assistant to the principal at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School, where she had worked since 2016, while she was on disability leave. The suit alleges the district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate Johnson, for discriminating against her, interfering with her rights and retaliating against her.

The district did not respond to a request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but does not usually comment on ongoing litigation.

Johnson worked at the school when the pandemic began. DeKalb employees were notified they needed to return to in-person work in January 2021, the suit states. Johnson requested temporary remote work as an accommodation for severe hypertension, the complaint stated. A doctor stated that Johnson would be at high risk for COVID complications.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggested that telework was a reasonable accommodation during the pandemic, depending on an employee’s disability. It also states that other accommodations, like barriers to maintain physical distance, could be adequate alternatives depending on the situation.

The DeKalb County School District told Johnson it was not considering any requests for telework, the complaint stated.

Johnson was denied leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, but was granted short-term disability leave between April and September 2021. She was also granted long-term disability leave after that. Repeatedly during those months, the district ignored Johnson’s FMLA requests and erroneously told her that she needed to report to work, according to the complaint.

A district employee said that a regional superintendent with the district “just wanted [Johnson] gone,” so they could hire someone else for her position, the complaint stated.

In September 2021, Johnson received a letter that stated she had failed to report to her work location since the prior month. She was terminated for “abandoning” her position.

The suit asks that the district hire Johnson back, or pay her for damages and lost wages.