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Childers v. Hardeman County Board of Education

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

January 15, 2015

NORMA CHILDERS, Plaintiff,
v.
HARDEMAN COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

J. DANIEL BREEN, Chief District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendant, Hardeman County Board of Education's ("BOE"), motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket Entry ("D.E.") 23.) Plaintiff, Norma Childers ("Childers"), has filed a response. (D.E. 28.) For the reasons discussed below, the motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

Background

Childers was employed from 1977 until 2013 by the BOE in a variety of teaching and administrative positions. (Def.'s Stat. of Material Facts ¶¶ 1-3, 8, 19, 65-66, D.E. 23-3.) She had been diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, diverticulitis, and irritable bowel syndrome ("IBS"), which have several symptoms, including the need to use the restroom frequently. (Id. ¶ 5; Declaration of Norma Childers ("Childers Dec.") ¶¶ 2-4, D.E. 28-11.) The majority of her employment with the BOE was spent at Middleton (Tennessee) High School, where in the early 2000s she was the technology lab supervisor. (Def.'s Stat. of Material Facts ¶¶ 2-3, D.E. 23-3.) The lab's location, and the presence of a teaching aide, allowed Plaintiff to use the restroom6> whenever necessary, so she never needed, or requested, any accommodation for her conditions. (Id. ¶ 6; Childers Dec. ¶ 6, D.E. 28-11.)

In 2006, Childers was promoted to a facilitator position at Grand Junction Elementary by the director of schools, Dr. Donald Hopper. (Def.'s Stat. of Material Facts ¶¶ 7-9, D.E. 23-3.) She took medical leave from March 2007 until the end of the 2006-07 school term for bladder surgery to help treat her interstitial cystitis. (Id. ¶¶ 15-16.) Plaintiff again did not request an accommodation because she had a flexible schedule and access to a restroom. (Id. ¶ 17; Childers Dec. ¶ 7, D.E. 28-11.)

Plaintiff returned to work for the 2007-08 school year, and was reassigned by Hopper to a teaching/administrative position at the Hardeman County Learning Center/Alternative School. (Def.'s Stat. of Material Facts ¶ 18-19, 21, D.E. 23-3.) She did not request any accommodations since the Learning Center's open layout allowed her to take breaks while the other staff monitored the children. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 24-26; Childers Dec. ¶ 10, D.E. 28-11.)

On June 14, 2012, Childers was notified by Hopper that, due to system-wide budget cuts, she was being reassigned to a classroom teacher position at Bolivar Middle School for the upcoming school year. (Def.'s Stat. of Material Facts ¶¶ 27, 30-31, D.E. 23-3.) Plaintiff had a teaching endorsement in science and Bolivar Middle School needed a teacher for that subject. (Id. ¶ 56.) The reassignment caused Plaintiff to go from an eleven-month to a ten-month contract, which resulted in a salary reduction. (Id. ¶ 29.)

On July 1, 2012, Hopper retired as director of schools and was replaced by Warner Ross. (Id. ¶ 50.) On July 19, 2012, Ross received letters from Plaintiff's physicians explaining her medical conditions and the limitations they caused. (Id. ¶¶ 51-52.) Ross met with Childers around July 30, 2012. (Id. ¶¶ 53-54.) She did not specifically discuss her need for accommodations before accepting the teaching position, but instead relied on the restrictions laid out in her physicians' letters. (Id.)

Plaintiff suffered a work-related foot injury and was off until released to return to work on March 3, 2013. (Id. ¶ 57.) She did not report to Bolivar Middle School, but instead filed for Social Security disability benefits on August 29, 2012. (Id. ¶¶ 58-60.) Plaintiff never contacted the school's principal to determine what, if any, accommodations were available, but instead retired effective March 3, 2013. (Id. ¶¶ 57, 62-65.)

Childers filed a complaint of adverse action against the BOE on November 5, 2012, claiming that her transfer to the middle school was a demotion on the basis of race and sex. (Id. ¶ 75.) The complaint was forwarded to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), where the allegation was changed to discrimination on the basis of sex, race, and disability. (Id. ¶ 80.) The EEOC investigated the claims and issued a notice-of-suit letter on April 10, 2013. (D.E. 1-1.) Plaintiff filed this action on July 8, 2013, alleging that Defendant discriminated and retaliated against her on the basis of her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 ("ADA-AA" or "ADA").[1] (D.E. 1.)

Legal Standard

Rule 56 provides in pertinent part 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." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The court is to "view facts in the record and reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. v. First Am. Title Ins. Co., 750 F.3d 573, 578 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)). It is not to "weigh evidence, assess credibility of witnesses, or determine the truth of matters in dispute." Id . (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986)). The court must determine "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'" Kroll v. White Lake Ambulance Auth., 763 F.3d 619, 623 (6th Cir. 2014) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52).

The moving party "has the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute as to a material fact." Automated Solutions Corp. v. Paragon Data Sys., Inc., 756 F.3d 504, 520 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). If the motion is properly supported, "the opposing party must go beyond the contents of its pleadings to set forth specific facts that indicate the existence of an issue to be litigated." Slusher v. Carson, 540 F.3d 449, 453 (6th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). The nonmoving party must point to evidence in the record upon which a reasonable finder of fact could find in its favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The genuine issue must also be material; that is, it must involve facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id . A court must grant summary judgment "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a 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.

Analysis

Childers brings several claims under the ADA, alleging that she was demoted in 2012 from an administrative position at the Learning Center to a teaching position at Bolivar Middle School because of her disability, and, that the BOE failed to accommodate her disability following the demotion. (Compl. ¶¶ 24-29, D.E. 1.) Plaintiff also contends that Defendant retaliated against her by withholding an early retirement bonus after she filed her EEOC complaint. (Id. ¶¶ 30-35.) As she does not contest the dismissal of her common law retaliation claim, it is hereby DISMISSED.

Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages for emotional distress arising out of Defendant's discriminatory acts, punitive damages based on Defendant's intentional discrimination, and reinstatement to an administrative position with the BOE. (Id. ¶¶ 29, 34-35.) Defendant contends it is entitled to summary judgment on all these issues. (D.E. 23 at 1.) The Court addresses each in turn.

A. Exhaustion

At the outset, the BOE asserts it is entitled to summary judgment because Plaintiff did not exhaust its internal procedures before bringing her lawsuit. (D.E. 23-1 at 14-16.) Board Policy 5.500 requires employees to immediately report alleged discriminatory acts to a supervisor or the director of schools. (Id. at 14.) Defendant asserts that even if Plaintiff reported the alleged discrimination at the July 2012 meeting with Ross, she failed to appeal his decision to the Hardeman County School Board within thirty days as required by Policy 5.500. (Id. at 14-15.) Plaintiff states the only administrative requirement that must be exhausted before bringing suit is the timely filing of an EEOC complaint, and should the Court find she was required to satisfy Policy 5.500, her July 2012 meeting with Ross and subsequent letter to the school board met those requirements. (D.E. 28 at 13-14.)

"To exhaust administrative remedies under the ADA... a plaintiff must file an EEOC charge within 180 days of the alleged discrimination...." Hoover v. Timken Co., 30 F.App'x 511, 513 (6th Cir. 2002). "Once the EEOC dismisses the charge and issues a right-to-sue letter, the plaintiff has ninety days to file a civil action." Id . A claimant must "explicitly file[] the claim in an EEOC charge or the claim [must] reasonably be expected to grow out of the EEOC charge." Jones v. Sumser Ret. Vill., 209 F.3d 851, 853 (6th Cir. 2000) (quoting Abeita v. TransAmerica Mailings, Inc., 159 F.3d 246, 254 (6th Cir. 1998)). The EEOC charge must be "sufficiently precise to identify the parties, and to describe generally the action or practices complained of." Id . (quoting Abeita, 159 F.3d at 254).

Childers filed her discrimination charge with the EEOC on December 11, 2012, (D.E. 23-5 at 18), 179 days after receiving the June 15, 2012 reassignment notification-the first alleged instance of disability discrimination. Plaintiff received her right-to-sue letter from the EEOC on April 10, 2013, (id. at 24), and filed her complaint 89 days later on July 8, 2013. ( See D.E. 1.) The EEOC charge alleged that Defendant discriminated against her based on several grounds, including disability. ( See D.E. 23-5 at 18.) The charge was sufficiently precise to put Defendant on notice about what practices or actions Plaintiff was complaining. Jones, 209 F.3d at 853. She was not required to exhaust any internal BOE policies before bringing her ADA claims in this Court. Therefore, Defendant's request for summary judgment for failure to exhaust is DENIED.

As to Childers's claim that Defendant retaliated against her by withholding an early retirement bonus following the filing of the EEOC charge, the Court finds that Plaintiff was not required to submit a second discrimination charge alleging retaliation. See Scott v. Eastman Chem. Co., 275 F.App'x 466, 474 (6th Cir. 2008) ("Courts have held that retaliation growing out of the EEOC charge is reasonably foreseeable and therefore a plaintiff is not required to file yet another EEOC ...


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