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Willis v. Norristown Area School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

February 20, 2014



JAN E. DUBOIS, District Judge.


This is an employment discrimination case. Plaintiff, Ronald Willis, alleges that his former employer, Norristown Area School District ("District"), discriminated against him on the basis of his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 951 et seq., when it failed to accommodate his disability and terminated his employment. Presently before the Court is defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants the Motion.


In February 1997, plaintiff was hired by the District to work as an art teacher. Statement of Material Facts ¶ 1 (ECF No. 18-46) [hereinafter Def.'s Material Facts]. In 1999, plaintiff began teaching art at Norristown High School ("NHS"). Id. ¶ 2.

In 2004, plaintiff sought counseling due to problems with his marriage. Id. ¶ 3. In early March 2005, a parent and several students accused plaintiff of using profanity in class and making inappropriate comments to several students.[2] Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. 1. After conducting an investigation of the allegations, the District suspended plaintiff without pay for two weeks, gave plaintiff an unsatisfactory performance evaluation for the 2004-2005 school year, and directed that plaintiff undergo professional counseling to address his use of inappropriate comments to students. Id.

On March 17, 2005, plaintiff sent an email to, inter alios, then-Director of Human Resources Eugene Mayo and NHS Principal Joseph Howell, in which plaintiff requested that he (1) be "allowed to record all [his] classes on [his] cassette recorder, " because of the verbal nature of the allegations and, (2) that he be given a mentor "to help [him with] coaching, " which he stated he had "been requesting... for years." Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. 2. Eugene Mayo responded by email, stating that the "District cannot permit you to record your classes on your personal recorder, " and that, as "a tenured teacher, it is not a practice that the [District] provide you with a mentor." Id.

In May 2005, additional allegations were made against plaintiff.[3] The District then began an investigation of those incidents. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. 3. At the time of the investigation, plaintiff denied all of the May 2005 allegations. Id. ¶ 19. During his deposition, however, plaintiff admitted that he told a group of black students that they could not go outside during their lunch period, but that white students could go outside. Id. ¶ 20. After completing its investigation, the school suspended plaintiff without pay for one day and directed that he undergo additional counseling. Id. ¶ 21. In 2005, at plaintiff's request, he was transferred to Stewart Middle School ("Stewart"), also within the District, where he continued to teach art. Id. ¶ 23.

In February 2007, plaintiff attempted suicide at his home and was hospitalized from February 17, 2007, to February 18, 2007. Id. ¶¶ 26-27. When asked at her deposition if she was aware of plaintiff's suicide attempt, Dr. Rachel Holler, Stewart's principal, testified that she "believe[d] there were rumors that were swirling about at Stewart at some point. But I really couldn't confirm - or that was really what I've heard were rumors about some kind of problems with [plaintiff]." Holler Dep. at 21:25-22:7, 3/15/13, ECF No. 19-30.

In early January 2008, plaintiff was accused of making additional inappropriate comments to several of his students.[4] Def.'s Material Facts ¶ 30. On January 24, 2008, Holler met with plaintiff to discuss the accusations. Id. ¶ 32. In a January 28, 2008, letter to plaintiff memorializing the meeting, Holler wrote that plaintiff admitted using the word "damn, " telling two female students "I'll freak on you, " and telling a male student that he should not be "jerking off" in the bathroom. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. 5. At his deposition, plaintiff admitted the first two allegations, but stated that he told the male student he should not be "jerking around" in the bathroom. Willis Dep. at 81:14-85:2, 3/22/13, ECF No. 18-25. Holler's letter also states that plaintiff, during the January 24, 2008 meeting, said that he "wanted to make a point of record that [he] [is] going through a divorce. [He] stated that [he] stopped seeing [his] therapist and [that he had stopped] taking prescribed medications. [He] stated that [he is] now taking two different medications to help [him] with [his] nerves and to be able to cope with stress." Def.'s Mot. Sum. J. Ex. 5. After investigating the allegations, the District issued plaintiff a reprimand. Def.'s Material Facts ¶ 35.

On January 31, 2008, plaintiff again met with Holler to discuss more allegations.[5] Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. 6. In a February 1, 2008 letter to plaintiff, memorializing the meeting, Holler states:

[Y]ou requested some assistance because you said that a lot of your students this trimester are needy and seek attention. I told you that I would be happy to set up a peer visit so that you can observe other teachers in action with these same students.... I told you that we would set-up some focus questions for your visit and discuss them at the conclusion of the visit.

Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. 6.[6] Two subsequent meetings were held at the District offices on February 20, 2008 and March 6, 2008 to discuss the late January allegations. Id. ¶ 43. During the meetings, plaintiff told District Superintendent Janet Samuels that he was going through a divorce. Id. ¶ 44. At the conclusion of the meetings, the District suspended plaintiff for two days without pay. Id. ¶ 46.

In late March and early April 2008, several more accusations were made against plaintiff. Id. ¶ 47.[7] On April 2, 2008, Holler delivered to plaintiff a letter describing the March and April allegations and setting up a meeting to discuss them for the next day, April 3, 2008. Id. ¶ 50. Later on April 2, 2008, however, plaintiff checked himself into the Horsham Clinic, where he was hospitalized from April 2, 2008 until April 9, 2008. Id. ¶ 51.

After leaving the Horsham Clinic on April 9, 2008, plaintiff did not return to work. Id. ¶ 54. Rather, on April 8, 2008, plaintiff filed a claim for long-term disability benefits with Madison National Life Insurance Company ("Madison National"). Id. ¶ 55-58; Pl.'s Resp. Ex. 18. On April 18, 2008, plaintiff also applied for a Leave of Absence for Restoration of Health with the District. Def.'s Material Facts ¶ 56. On May 6, 2008, plaintiff's union representative faxed the District a letter in support of plaintiff's application for Leave of Absence for Restoration of Health. The letter, from Dr. Evan Thomas of the Horsham Clinic, states that plaintiff was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Cognitive Disorder. Pl.'s Resp. Ex. 17. On June 16, 2008, plaintiff's long-term disability claim was granted, effective June 10, 2008. Pl.'s Resp. Ex. 18.

In December 2008, plaintiff's psychiatrist, Dr. Ketankumar Patel, sent Madison National a form stating that plaintiff would be able to return to work at the District on January 1, 2009. Def.'s Material Facts ¶ 62. On the form, in response to the question "What activities should Mr. Willis be engaging in to assist in return to work, " Dr. Patel ...

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