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Sessoms v. Trustees of the Univ. of PA.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 24, 2017

THE TRUSTEES of the UNIV. of PA., d/b/a THE UNIV. of PA. HEALTH SYS., Defendant.


          GENE E.K. PRATTER, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Andrea Sessoms brings this employment discrimination suit against her former employer, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania (“Penn”), under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act. Penn has moved for summary judgment, arguing that Ms. Sessoms's claims all fail as a matter of law. The Court heard oral argument on May 4, 2017 and will grant Penn's motion in its entirety.


         Ms. Sessoms, an African American female, complains of sexual harassment, disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, racial discrimination, and retaliation in connection with her employment as a Human Resources Information Systems Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. At the time Ms. Sessoms began working in Human Resources for the Penn, there was only one other HRIS Coordinator in her department, a Hispanic male. In 2014, the department was reorganized, and Maria Colavita (a white female) became the new manager of the HRIS Coordinator team. Her supervisor was Margaret Alford (a white female). Another white female was also hired as an HRIS Coordinator in 2014.

         In early 2014, Ms. Sessoms received a performance review, on which she scored between a 2 (threshold) and a 3 (target). Ms. Colavita characterized Ms. Sessoms's performance as inconsistent, but also testified at a deposition that Ms. Sessoms's performance was, at that particular point in time, satisfactory. In April 2014, at the same time that Ms. Sessoms's mother suddenly fell seriously ill, Ms. Sessoms's work performance began to decline. Ms. Sessoms's mother passed away in May 2014, and Ms. Sessoms took two weeks of leave. Ms. Sessoms returned to work; her performance continued to decline. Ms. Sessoms argues that Penn offers no proof of this decline in work performance beyond the testimony of Ms. Colavita, but admitted that because of her grief over her mother's death and memory problems, she may have made errors.

         After Ms. Colavita became her supervisor, Ms. Sessoms claims that she was overlooked at meetings and verbally abused, unlike her non-black, non-disabled co-workers. Ms. Sessoms also claims that Ms. Colavita harassed her in a different way by touching Ms. Sessoms's inner thigh during a one-on-one meeting in September 2014, while discussing an incident in the past between Ms. Colavita and a male supervisor. Ms. Sessoms complained about Ms. Colavita's treatment of her to Ms. Alford and to others on multiple occasions, to no avail.

         On September 12, 2014, Ms. Sessoms received a written coaching memo due to her poor performance, pursuant to the department's policies. Ms. Sessoms claims that the coaching was written by Ms. Colavita, but signed by Ms. Alford. The written coaching was presented to Ms. Sessoms at a meeting attended by her, Ms. Colavita, and Ms. Alford. Ms. Sessoms claims that during that meeting, Ms. Colavita made a derogatory comment about her disability - namely, that Ms. Colavita said that her medical problems did not matter. On that same date, Ms. Sessoms requested leave pursuant to the FMLA because of acute stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and memory issues. The request was approved. While on leave, Ms. Sessoms filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. After she had exhausted her FMLA leave, Ms. Sessoms was permitted to take 12 more weeks of medical leave, pursuant to Penn's employment policies.

         On March 4, 2015, after her expiration of 24 weeks of leave, Penn reached out to Ms. Sessoms to invite her to submit a Certificate of Return to Work and/or an Employee Request for Reasonable Accommodation. On March 16, 2015, Ms. Sessoms submitted these forms, on which she indicated that she could not return to work without restrictions. The parties then met to discuss possible accommodations on April 13, 2015. Ms. Sessoms requested four items: (1) a part-time schedule, (2) time upon returning to work to become reacquainted with procedures, (3) ergonomic review of workspace, [1] and (4) transfer to a supervisor other than Ms. Colavita. Penn offered all of the accommodations except for reassignment to a new a supervisor.[2] Although she may have initially accepted the offer or in some way indicated that acceptance was likely, Ms. Sessoms eventually rejected the offered accommodations, claiming that accepting them would be against medical advice. Ms. Sessoms notes that she could have worked for another analyst or senior coordinator, or in another department, but that none of those options were offered to her. She does not, however, identify any other open positions for which she was qualified. On April 22, 2015, Ms. Sessoms was terminated. According to Penn, the termination was solely due to Ms. Sessoms's refusal to return to work with reasonable accommodations. Ms. Sessoms was eventually replaced with an African-American female with a disability.

         Ms. Sessoms filed this suit in June, 2016, seeking damages for failure to accommodate her disability; racial, gender, and disability discrimination; and retaliation. After the completion of discovery, Penn filed the pending motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of all of Ms. Sessoms's claims.

         Legal Standard

         A court shall grant a motion for 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). An issue is “genuine” if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Kaucher v. Cnty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A factual dispute is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the case under governing law. Id. (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). Under Rule 56, the Court must view the evidence presented on the motion in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. However, “[u]nsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment.” Betts v. New Castle Youth Dev. Ctr., 621 F.3d 249, 252 (3d Cir. 2010).

         The movant bears the initial responsibility for informing the Court of the basis for the motion for summary judgment and identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Where the non-moving party bears the burden of proof on a particular issue, the moving party's initial burden can be met simply by “pointing out to the district court that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Id. at 325. After the moving party has met the initial burden, the non-moving party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuinely disputed factual issue for trial by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Summary judgment is appropriate if the non-moving party fails to rebut by making a factual showing “sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.


         A. Failure to ...

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