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Sharyn Solomon v. School District of Philadelphia

March 12, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dalzell, J.


Plaintiff Sharyn Solomon ("Solomon") sues defendant School District of Philadelphia (the "District"), asserting claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act ("§ 504"), 29 U.S.C. § 794, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 955(a). Solomon alleges that the District failed to accommodate her "musculo-skeletal and neurological problems," Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 22, discriminated against her based on these problems, and then retaliated against her for seeking accommodations and filing a complaint with the EEOC.

The District filed a motion for summary judgment challenging Solomon's claims that has now been fully briefed.*fn1

For the reasons we articulate below, we will grant the District's motion in part.

I. Factual Background

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) provides that "[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law," and Rule 56(c) elaborates that "[a] party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . . ; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." We will thus present the facts as to which the parties agree, pausing occasionally to note areas of factual disagreement.

A. Solomon's Career With The District

Solomon began working at the District in the early 1970s, Def.'s Stmt. of Facts ("Def.'s Stmt.") ¶ A-1*fn2 ; Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Stmt. ("Pl.'s Resp.") ¶ A-1. According to Solomon, she was transferred to Greenberg Elementary School ("Greenberg") in 1975. Pl.'s Resp. ¶ A-2 (citing Def.'s Ans. ¶ 20). The District employed Solomon as a special education teacher. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ A-3; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ A-3. Shortly after her transfer to Greenberg, Solomon was assigned to Room 213, located on the second floor of the building. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ A-4; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ A-4. During the years that Solomon worked in this classroom -- until 2007 -- she never complained of any disability or identified any restrictions that prevented her from accessing the room. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ A-10; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ A-10.

B. The District's Decision To Relocate Solomon's Class

In 2005, Gina Hubbard ("Hubbard") became principal of Greenberg. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ B-1; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ B-1. In October of 2007, the District notified Hubbard that a new autistic support program would begin operating at Greenberg in November of that year, and that she needed to choose a classroom to house the program. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ B-2 to B-3; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ B-2 to B-3.

Hubbard testified that in initially identifying the classroom she considered guidelines for special education classrooms, the school's layout, the need to keep grades physically close to each other, the age of students in the program, and the need to avoid isolating special needs students from their peers. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ B-4; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ B-4. After considering several rooms and consulting a few teachers, Hubbard chose Room 213 to house the program. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ B-5 to B-6; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ B-5 to B-6.

According to Hubbard, Room 213 was the most desirable location for the new autistic program because it was large and was located near the kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. Furthermore, relocating Solomon's class would create the least disturbance for the school as a whole, since the class had fewer students than classes in the other rooms Hubbard considered. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ B-7 (citing Ex. C to Def.'s Stmt. ("Hubbard Dep.")*fn3 at 68-69). Solomon disagrees that Room 213 was the most desirable location for the new program, inasmuch as the program did not require a large class space, Pl.'s Resp. ¶ B-7 (citing Ex. E to Def.'s Stmt. at 42-43). Solomon also disagrees that placing the program in Room 213 would have created the least disturbance for the school in general since (1) Solomon's class required many materials that would not fit in a smaller room,*fn4 id. (citing Ex. D to Def.'s Stmt. ("Solomon Dep.") at 80), and (2) at least one parent*fn5 objected to moving Solomon's class. Id. (citing Ex. P-9 to Pl.'s Resp.). The parties agree, however, that autistic support classes are typically placed on the first or second floor of a school, and that Henry Gross, the Director of Special Education for the Northeast Region (presumably, in the District), determined that Room 213 was appropriate for the program after completion of an inspection.*fn6 Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ B-8 to B-9; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ B-8 to B-9.

On October 9, 2007, Hubbard sent a memorandum to Solomon advising that her classroom had been reassigned from Room 213 to Room 311*fn7 -- which was located on the third floor of Greenberg. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ C-1, B-11; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ C-1, B-11. Room 311 was comparable in size to the classrooms of other resource room teachers, Def.'s Stmt. ¶ B-13; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ B-13. Hubbard also testified that Room 311 was appropriate for Solomon's class because she only had a limited number of students, Def.'s Stmt. ¶ B-15 (citing Hubbard Dep. at 68), though Solomon denies that she had a smaller number of students. Pl.'s Resp. ¶ B-15 (citing Solomon Dep. at 238). Hubbard's memorandum offered the services of the school engineering staff to assist Solomon in moving classrooms. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ C-2; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ C-2.

By October 18, 2007, Solomon had not begun the process of preparing to transfer classrooms, and that day Hubbard sent her a second memorandum setting a deadline of October 31, 2007 for the completion of the move. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ C-3 to C-4; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ C-3 to C-4. Solomon never complied with Hubbard's requests to move and made no steps toward moving. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ C-5 (citing Solomon Dep. at 65-66).*fn8 Instead, she wrote letters to Hubbard and orally protested the move. Id. ¶ D-1 (citing Solomon Dep. at 80). On either October 18 or 19, 2007, Solomon told Hubbard that Room 311 was too small for her class because her supplies would not fit in the new room. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ D-3; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ D-3. On October 24, 2007, Solomon wrote an email to Hubbard explaining that "[i]t would be beneficial to remain in my present classroom" and that "[i]f I am not able to work in a classroom of equal size, then it is impossible to bring the inventory in my current room to a room that cannot and is not equipped to house my resources. Therefore, it will affect my ability to teach." Ex. I to Def.'s Stmt. Notably, Solomon did not state that she would prefer to work on a particular floor, Def.'s Stmt. ¶ D-5; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ D-5, and her email did not mention any physical impairments or any need for accommodations. Def.'s Stmt. at 5 (citing Ex. I to Def.'s Stmt.). On November 7, 2007, Hubbard sent Solomon a memorandum directing her to complete her move by that same day, Def.'s Stmt. ¶ F-1 (citing Ex. H to Def.'s Stmt.), and offering the assistance of the building engineering team. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ F-2; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ F-2. The memorandum noted that failure to comply would result in disciplinary action -- including possible suspension -- an unsatisfactory rating, or termination. Pl.'s Resp. at 4 (citing Ex. H to Def.'s Stmt.).

On November 15, 2007, Solomon wrote a letter to Hubbard in which she summarized their discussions regarding the move and proposed three alternatives to moving her classroom from Room 213. Ex. N to Def.'s Stmt. Solomon recalled that I tried to explain to you that, in addition to placing my first through third graders on a floor with the seventh and eighth-graders, room 311 is so much smaller than my present room that I would not have the space for my computers, file cabinet, desks, work stations, activity charts, supplies, and other learning aids which are currently set up in my present location. . . . I stated that I needed all of the supplies in order to teach the students.

Id. at 017. Solomon added that "[i]f any of my above suggestions are not workable, I will move to the third floor lounge, as you have requested." Id. at 018.

As we discuss below, on October 9, 2007, Solomon had told Hubbard that she was having back problems, and by November 15, 2007 she had supplied the District with three doctor's notes limiting her activities. Though Solomon's letter explained that she needed custodians to help her with any move due to her back condition, she did not justify her request that her classroom remain Room 213 with any reference to her physical condition. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ H-3, H-6 to H-7; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ H-3, H-6 to H-7. Hubbard did not respond to Solomon's letter, Pl.'s Resp. at 25 (citing Solomon Dep. at 118-19), and Solomon's class was eventually moved from Room 213 to Room 311 in January of 2008 --in her absence. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ I-11; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ I-11.

C. The Parties' Discussions Regarding Accommodations

Solomon testified that on October 9, 2007, she told Hubbard that she was having problems with her back. Pl.'s Resp. at 3 (citing Solomon Dep. at 79). Ten days later, the day after Hubbard's second memorandum to her, Solomon secured a note from her primary care physician, Dr. John Telegadis ("Dr. Telegadis"), stating that she "'should not do any lifting or bending'" because it "'may aggravate her current injury'". This was the first doctor's note mentioning that Solomon had any physical limitations and was also Solomon's first request for accommodations from the District.*fn9 Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ E-1 to E-3; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ E-1 to E-3. The note specified that Solomon was "under my care for low back pain, sciatica and anxiety." Ex. J to Def.'s Stmt. On October 23, 2007, Dr. Telegadis issued a note reiterating that Solomon should not engage in any lifting or bending, and two days later she produced a third note repeating these restrictions and adding a carrying limitation. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ E-4 to E-5; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ E-4 to E-5. Importantly, Dr. Telegadis's notes did not propose any specific accommodation for Solomon's physical limitations.*fn10 Def.'s Stmt. ¶ E-9 (citing Exs. J-L to Def.'s Stmt.).

Solomon testified that her lifting and carrying limitations left her unable to lift or carry items weighing more than five pounds, and that her bending limitation rendered her unable to bend in the course of daily activities. She admitted that her job as a teacher required her to bend and lift more than five pounds since the books and materials she used in teaching weighed more than this limit. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ E-6 to E-8; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ E-6 to E-8. Solomon stresses that lifting and bending were not essential functions of her job. Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ E-8 (citing Ex. P-3 to Pl.'s Resp.).

According to Solomon, on November 2, 2007, she met with Hubbard to discuss the proposed move and her medical condition.

This meeting did not go well. Hubbard allegedly screamed at Solomon when she attempted to provide Hubbard with copies of Dr. Telegadis's notes, and refused to provide Solomon with any accommodation for her back problems.*fn11 Pl.'s Resp. ¶ F-1 (citing Exs. P-5, P-6 and P-7 to Pl.'s Resp.). Solomon then took sick leave beginning on November 13, 2007. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ G-1; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ G-1. As of that date, she had only provided the District with notice that she should not engage in lifting, bending, or carrying, and had neither advised of any restriction involving climbing stairs nor requested a first-floor classroom. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ G-2 to G-3; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ G-2 to G-3.

On December 31, 2007, Dr. Telegadis issued a note stating that Solomon had been diagnosed with a lumbar disc protrusion*fn12 and neural foraminal stenosis,*fn13 Ex. P to Def.'s Stmt., and thus "'has to be placed on the first floor.'" Def.'s Stmt. ¶ I-1; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ I-1. Dr. Telegadis suggested that if Solomon's condition improved and the recommended room change occurred, she could return to work by January 28, 2008. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ I-1; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ I-1. In his testimony, Dr. Telegadis explained that to avoid exacerbating her pain Solomon should not climb more than one flight of stairs, consisting of seven or eight steps, per day.*fn14 Def.'s Stmt. ¶ I-7; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ I-7.

In January of 2008, Hubbard called Solomon on the telephone and asked what the District could do to help her physical condition. Def.'s Stmt. ¶ K-1 (citing Ex. Q to Def.'s Stmt.; Solomon Dep. at 17-19). According to Solomon, she explained that she would have her doctor write the District another letter about her needed accommodations. Solomon Dep. at 19-20. On January 22, 2008, Solomon forwarded Hubbard a letter from Dr. Telegadis explaining that she was still under his care for a lumbar disc protrusion and neural foraminal stenosis, and that "[d]ue to her condition [he] strongly recommend[ed] that she be placed on the first floor of the school building prior to her returning to work." Ex. Q to Def.'s Stmt. Solomon requested that Hubbard respond to the letter by January 29, 2008, id., but, according to Solomon's testimony, Hubbard "just ignored it." Solomon Dep. at 20. Solomon initiated no further contact with Hubbard. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ K-5 to K-6; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ K-5 to K-6.

The parties agree that (1) Solomon was aware that there was an elevator at Greenberg, (2) other teachers used the elevator for medical reasons, (3) Solomon observed other teachers using the elevator, and (4) Solomon made no attempt to use the elevator. Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ L-1, L-2 to L-5; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ L-1, L-2 to L-5. In her deposition, Solomon testified that Hubbard never mentioned the elevator to her, Solomon Dep. at 156, though she ...

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