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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Defender Association of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

October 3, 2019



          Rufe, J.

         Plaintiff Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed suit[1] against Defendant Defender Association of Philadelphia alleging that the Defender Association failed to provide Megan Perez with a reasonable accommodation for her disability and terminated her employment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).[2] The Defender Association has moved to dismiss the Complaint.[3] This motion will be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND[4]

         The Defender Association provides legal defense for indigent juveniles and adult criminal defendants pursuant to appointment by the Pennsylvania state courts. In September 2007, the Defender Association hired Perez as a full-time staff attorney, and in July 2012, the Defender Association promoted Perez to Assistant Supervisor of the Juvenile Special Cases section (“JSCS”) where her role was to defend juveniles accused of sex crimes. About a year later, the Defender Association promoted Perez to Supervisor of the JSCS. In June 2014, the Defender Association assigned Perez as a Sexually Violent Predator (“SVP”) specialist. Knowing that Perez was uncomfortable with this assignment, her supervisor assured her that it would only last two years. However, it lasted until November 2016. After a temporary assignment, the Defender Association again assigned Perez to supervise the JSCS, where she was once again required to defend juveniles accused of sex-related crimes.

         In July 2017, Perez began therapy sessions with a licensed clinical social worker, and later that month, Perez took a leave of absence under the FMLA. During this time, Perez also began receiving short-term disability benefits. In August 2017, Perez was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder which were caused, in part, by her work as an SVP specialist and in the JSCS.

         On September 11, 2017, Perez met with her then-supervisors Elton Anglada and Lisa Campbell and sought, pursuant to her therapist's recommendations, medical leave until January 2018, and upon her return, a transfer to a unit not involving sex-related criminal offenses. Anglada and Campbell agreed to Perez's proposed January 2018 return date, and asked that she remain in the juvenile unit, but not the JSCS. Perez agreed to this assignment and stated that she was excited to return to the juvenile unit in January 2018.

         On October 20, 2017, Perez's FMLA leave expired and she applied for, and received, long-term disability benefits. On October 24, 2017, Perez's therapist prepared a memorandum (“Medical Memorandum”). In the “Recommendations going forward” section, Perez's therapist wrote:

The plan is for Ms. Perez to return to her job in January 2018. I am unable to currently say at this time whether that is feasible, but if it is, I would recommend that she phase in part time as it has been very hard for her to tolerate discussions about work in our sessions, and the one time she went to the office, she had a panic attack and was unable to go into the building. I do not currently see that it would be wise or advisable for her to resume work in any capacity where she needs to perform work in the previous role as related to working as a mitigation specialist or trainer working with the sex offender population. While Ms. Perez has a passion for social justice she and the Defender Association may be better served if she works in a less triggering unit at this organization.[5]

         On November 30, 2017, Sherri Darden and Mark Sappir, both Human Resource representatives for the Defender Association, initiated two phone conversations with Perez. During the first call, Darden informed Perez that she was to be terminated because she was being placed on long-term disability and was not capable of working. Perez noted both her September 11, 2017 meeting with Anglada and Campbell, and her anticipated return in January 2018, as well as the Medical Memorandum indicating a January 2018 return to work. Darden and Sappir asked Perez to provide them with a copy of the Medical Memorandum. A few hours after the first call, Darden and Sappir called Perez again, reiterating that they were terminating Perez's employment, as they interpreted her therapist's recommendations as not containing a definitive return date.


         To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a plaintiff must plead “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged”[6] and “enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element” of a claim.[7]Specifically, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact) . . . .”[8] The question is not whether the plaintiff ultimately will prevail but whether the complaint is “sufficient to cross the federal court's threshold.”[9]

         In evaluating a challenged complaint, a court must “accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.”[10] Although the Court must draw all reasonable inferences from the allegations in favor of the plaintiff, [11] it “need not accept as true ‘unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences, '”[12] or the plaintiff's “bald assertions” or “legal conclusions.”[13]


         The ADA prohibits covered employers from “discriminat[ing] against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to . . . [the] discharge of employees.”[14] This includes “not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an . . . employee, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business.”[15] To state a claim of disability discrimination, the plaintiff must allege that “(1) he is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA; (2) he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and (3) he has suffered an otherwise adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination which in this context includes refusing to make reasonable accommodations for a plaintiff's disabilities.”[16]

         The Defender Association's Motion to Dismiss is based on two arguments: 1) that all reasonable requests for accommodation were granted; and 2) that Perez was not qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation request.[17]

         A. Whether the Defender Association failed to make reasonable accommodations

         The Defender Association argues that it provided Perez with every reasonable accommodation she requested including a leave of absence and both short-term and long-term disability benefits.[18] The Defender Association claims that the only accommodation request that it denied was Perez's request for indefinite leave which, it argues, is unreasonable as a matter of law.[19]

         The Defender Association bases its claim that Perez asked for indefinite leave on the Medical Memorandum that she provided to them, [20] and argues that the Memorandum does not “provide a definitive return-to-work date” or a “favorable prognosis” and is therefore a request for “indefinite leave” since the therapist was unsure whether it would be feasible for Perez to return in January 2018.[21] Therefore, the Defender Association contends that because Perez's request was for ...

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