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Lee-Owens v. School District of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 7, 2018



          Slomsky, J.


         Plaintiff Cheryl Lee-Owens brings this suit against her former employer, Defendant School District of Philadelphia (“Defendant” or “School District”). She alleges that Defendant failed to make a reasonable accommodation for her disability while she was employed at Wagner Middle School, which is part of the School District. (Doc. No. 34.) In addition, she argues that Defendant retaliated against her when she complained about the failure to provide her with a reasonable accommodation. (Id.)

         In Count I of her First Amended Complaint (“FAC”), Plaintiff alleges a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C § 12112(a) et seq. (Id. ¶¶ 77-87.)[1]This is the failure to make a reasonable accommodation charge. In Count III, she asserts a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a) of the ADA, which prohibits retaliation for making an accommodation request under the Act.[2] Defendant moves for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 45.) The Motion is now ripe for a decision. For reasons that follow, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 45).[3]


         Plaintiff is a former Educational Inclusion Specialist[4] at Wagner Middle School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was employed by the School District of Philadelphia. (Doc. No. 34 ¶ 18.) Because of her role as a Specialist, Plaintiff would travel from classroom to classroom to follow special education students to their various classes and would bring her materials along. (Pl.'s Dep., Nov. 9, 2017, 11:16-21.) She was responsible for approximately twenty to thirty students. (Id. at 12:1-6.) To perform her work assignment, Plaintiff had to physically exert herself by having to “stand, kneel, crouch, stoop and bend over students to provide individual instruction” while also having to “carry heavy books, computers, printers and other equipment.” (Id. ¶ 19.) Frequently, Plaintiff would have to physically lift or move students in order to break up fights or to engage in related activity depending on the circumstances if a “student wasn't compliant or if a student was ill or otherwise incapacitated.” (Doc. No. 50-3 at 10:3-11:5; 14:24-15:7.)

         On August 30, 2013, before the start of the 2013-2014 school year, Plaintiff submitted a request for accommodation to Andrew Rosen, the then Deputy of Employee Relations of the School District. (Pl.'s Dep., Nov. 9, 2017, 17:20-18:9; Doc. No. 44-1 ¶ 12.) Suffering from lumbar disc degeneration and lumbar spinal stenosis, Plaintiff requested a classroom assignment on the first floor or a classroom at another school with an elevator. (Pl.'s Dep., Nov. 9, 2017, 18: 5-9; Doc. No. 34 at ¶¶ 23, 35.) She supplemented her request with a letter from her two treating doctors, which stated: “[T]here should be no stair climbing due to [Plaintiff's] lumbar disc degeneration and lumbar spinal stenosis.” (Doc. No. 34 ¶ 35.) She also informed Maya Johnstone, her immediate supervisor and the Wagner Middle School principal, about her physical challenges if assigned to a higher floor. (Id. ¶ 29.) Nevertheless, Johnstone assigned Plaintiff to work in a classroom on the third floor of the Wagner Middle School, which did not have an elevator. (Id. ¶ 35.)

         As a result of her accommodation request, Plaintiff was scheduled by Carol Kenney, the Director of Employee Health Services, to meet on September 4, 2013 with Dr. Aribelle Jones, M.D., of the School District's Health Services Department. (Pl.'s Dep., Nov. 9, 2017, 22:18-23:16; Doc. No. 50-7 at 3.) During her examination, Plaintiff told Dr. Jones that she was “unable to ascend and descend the stairs several times a day.” (Doc. No. 50-8 at 1.) Dr. Jones instructed Plaintiff to return to work and resume stair climbing, despite her treating doctors' recommending the opposite. (Pl.'s Dep., Nov. 9, 2017, 24:2-7.) Dr. Jones told her that she would hear back from the School District with a decision on her accommodation request within five days. (Id. at 24:8-11.) Plaintiff did not receive any update on her request within the ensuing five days.

         On September 23, 2013, she took sick leave “due to the aggravation of her condition from climbing stairs daily for three weeks while waiting for a reasonable accommodation of a classroom assignment on a lower floor.” (Doc. No. 34 ¶ 43; Pl.'s Dep., Nov. 9, 2017, 28:14-21.) Before going on leave, Plaintiff tried to find out whether the School District had rendered a decision on her request by asking Johnstone and Rosen, but to no avail. (Pl.'s Dep., Nov. 9, 2017, 25:16-26:6.)

         On September 25, 2013, [5] nearly three weeks after the examination, Dr. Jones sent a memorandum to Rosen, stating that Plaintiff was requesting an accommodation of “limited stair climbing” and qualified for that accommodation. (Doc. No. 50-8 at 1.) In her memorandum, Dr. Jones noted that Plaintiff did not require a cane, which “solidif[ied Plaintiff's] declaration that she was work able.” (Id.) On September 27, 2013, while still on leave and waiting for the School District to make a decision on her request, Plaintiff submitted a notice of retirement, effective October 7, 2013. (Id.) She claims that “[b]ut for Defendant's intentional denial of a reasonable accommodation, Plaintiff would have worked until age 65 before taking her retirement.” (Id. ¶ 66.)

         On October 14, 2013, Plaintiff sent Rosen a request for status of her personal leave payout which she believed was owed to her. (Doc. No. 34 ¶ 68.) Rosen never responded. (Id.) On or about June 9, 2014, Plaintiff contacted Lincoln Investment, “because that was the entity that held onto [Plaintiff's] 401[K] and that was [her] separation pay.” (Pl.'s Dep., Nov. 9, 2017, 30:23-31:1.) A Lincoln Investment representative informed Plaintiff that the School District had updated her status to “terminated, ” rendering her ineligible to receive the payout.[6] (Doc. No. 34 ¶ 70.)

         On August 26, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against the School District of Philadelphia. (Doc. No. 1.) On October 24, 2017, she filed the FAC. (Doc. No. 34.) On February 23, 2018, the School District of Philadelphia filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 44.) On April 2, 2018, Plaintiff filed her Opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 50) and on April 11, 2018, the School District filed its Reply. (Doc. No. 57.)


         Granting summary judgment is an extraordinary remedy. Summary judgment is appropriate “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). In reaching this decision, the court must determine “whether the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file, and affidavits show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and whether the moving party is therefore entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Macfarlan v. Ivy Hill SNF, LLC, 675 F.3d 266, 271 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). A disputed issue is “genuine” only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable factfinder could find for the non-moving party. Kaucher v. County 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” only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Doe v. Luzerne County, 660 F.3d 169, 175 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Gray v. York Papers, Inc., 957 F.2d 1070, 1078 (3d Cir. 1992)). The Court's task is not to resolve disputed issues of fact, but to determine whether there exist any factual issues to be tried. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-49.

         In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the evidence and all reasonable inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Macfarlan, 675 F.3d at 271; Bouriez v. Carnegie Mellon Univ., 585 F.3d 765, 770 (3d Cir. 2009). Whenever a factual issue arises which cannot be resolved without a credibility determination, at this stage the Court must credit the non-moving party's evidence over that presented by the moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. If there is no factual issue and if only one reasonable conclusion could arise from the record regarding the potential outcome under the governing law, summary judgment must be awarded in favor of the moving party. Id. at 250.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         In Count I, Plaintiff asserts a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits employers from discriminating “against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions and privileges of employment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Also in Count I, Plaintiff raises a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A), which prohibits employers from “not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an . . . employee.”[7] § 12112(b)(5)(A). Finally, in Count III, Plaintiff alleges that the School District engaged in retaliation by changing her status to “terminated” with the Lincoln Investment Company after she requested an accommodation.

         The School District moves for summary judgment on all three counts based on the following three arguments. First, under Count I, Plaintiff is not a qualified individual who can make a claim under the ADA. Second, also under Count I, Plaintiff did not suffer any adverse employment action because she was not denied an accommodation. Third, regarding the claim in Count III, Plaintiff fails to set forth a prima facie case to establish retaliation.[8] The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.

         A. A Genuine Issue of Material Fact Exists as to Whether Plaintiff Is a Qualified Individual Under the ADA

         The parties dispute whether Plaintiff is a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA because they disagree on if she is able perform the essential functions of her job, with or without reasonable accommodation. This is an element of an ADA violation.

         The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating “against a qualified individual with a disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). A “qualified individual with a disability” is a person “with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” Taylor v. Phoenixville Sch. Dist., 184 F.3d 296, 205 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8)). To determine whether a person is a qualified individual with a disability, a court first looks to whether the individual meets the prerequisites of the position, “such as possessing the appropriate educational background, employment experience, skills, licenses, etc.” McNelis v. Pa. Power & Light Co., 867 F.3d 411, 415 (3d Cir. 2017) (citation omitted).

         A court must then determine whether the individual is able to “perform the essential functions of the position held or desired, with or without reasonable accommodation.” Id. In addition, a qualified person with a disability can make a prima facie case of discrimination if she can demonstrate that she is able to “perform the essential functions of the job with reasonable accommodation and that the employer refused to make such an accommodation.” Williams v. Phila. Hous. Auth. Police Dep't, 380 F.3d 751, 768 (3d Cir. 2004).

         To prove a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff has the burden to show that (1) she is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA; (2) she is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and (3) she has suffered an otherwise adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination.[9]Tay ...

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