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Nowak v. St. Rita High School

September 20, 2001


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Justice Harrison


Docket No. 90418-Agenda 26-May 2001.

Plaintiff, Ronald Nowak, *fn1 filed this action against the defendant, St. Rita High School, seeking recovery on the bases of promissory estoppel and breach of contract for defendant's alleged violation of established salary policies and for improper termination of plaintiff's employment contract as a tenured teacher. Plaintiff's complaint, as amended, consisted of four counts. Counts I and IV alleged that defendant had breached the salary and tenure provisions of plaintiff's written employment contract. Counts II and III, sounding in contract and promissory estoppel, respectively, asserted claims for breach of an alleged policy whereby defendant paid a portion of the salary of a teacher on medical leave, i.e., the difference between the teacher's full salary and that paid to a substitute. The circuit court of Cook County dismissed counts I and IV with prejudice and entered summary judgment for defendant on counts II and III. Plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the entry of summary judgment on counts II and III, as well as the dismissal of count I with prejudice. However, the court reversed the dismissal of count IV and remanded the cause for further proceedings thereon. No. 1-99-2591 (order under Supreme Court Rule 23). We allowed the defendant's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill. 2d R. 315(a)), and we now affirm the judgment of the appellate court. We set forth hereafter the facts pertinent to our disposition.

Plaintiff began teaching full time at St. Rita in 1965. Beginning in December 1990, plaintiff experienced severe health problems. Plaintiff was absent from St. Rita between December 29, 1990, and approximately April 1, 1991, because he was hospitalized for quadruple coronary bypass surgery and a subsequent infection. Plaintiff missed the final eight days of the academic year in May 1991 because of an infection in his right leg. As a result of these hospitalizations, plaintiff missed 65½ regular school days and three examination days at the end of the school year.

On September 9, 1992, five days after the start of the 1992-93 academic year, plaintiff was taken to the hospital after he experienced back problems that prevented him from standing erect. He subsequently underwent surgery to stabilize his spine. On September 29, 1992, plaintiff was transferred to a rehabilitation center until his discharge on December 3, 1992.

During plaintiff's absence, defendant hired a substitute teacher, maintained plaintiff's medical insurance, and continued to pay him a partial salary, representing the difference between plaintiff's salary and the salary paid to the substitute teacher.

In March of 1993, plaintiff attempted to return to work at St. Rita. Plaintiff and his therapists met with Joseph Bamberger, assistant principal at St. Rita, to discuss the accommodations necessary to facilitate plaintiff's return to the classroom. As a result of that meeting, defendant made the following accommodations: (1) plaintiff was assigned a classroom in close proximity to the faculty lounge and rest rooms; (2) plaintiff was assigned a room with elevated seating so he could observe and better control his class while he remained seated; (3) plaintiff was assigned a parking space in close proximity to his classroom; and (4) plaintiff was allowed to teach half days, and defendant agreed to provide a substitute teacher for the classes he did not teach. For four days, between March 15 and March 18, 1993, plaintiff was able to fulfill his responsibility of teaching half days. However, on March 24, 1993, plaintiff experienced severe swelling in his joints, including ankles, knees, elbows and hands. This swelling rendered plaintiff unable to stand, walk, or grasp.

On March 24, 1993, plaintiff was readmitted to the hospital, where he remained until June 21, 1993. During this hospital stay, plaintiff underwent operations on both of his hands and had an above-the-knee amputation of his left leg. While hospitalized, an application was submitted by or on behalf of plaintiff to the Social Security Administration (SSA) for social security disability benefits, and plaintiff thereafter spoke with an SSA representative to discuss the application for benefits. Subsequently, plaintiff was transferred to another treatment facility for additional physical therapy. On July 28, 1993, plaintiff was moved to a nursing home until his discharge to his home on October 1, 1993, where he received an additional five months of in-home therapy. In November of 1993, the SSA determined that plaintiff was disabled and he began receiving disability benefits retroactive to September 15, 1992, the date of his initial disability. Between March of 1993 and the late spring or early summer of 1994, Bamberger met with plaintiff on several occasions, attempting to ascertain when plaintiff would be able to resume his teaching duties. At the beginning of the 1993-94 academic year, defendant discontinued payment of plaintiff's salary differential. At that time, plaintiff did not advise defendant that he intended to return to the classroom, nor did he formally request a leave of absence.

On October 7, 1994, defendant informed plaintiff that his employment was terminated due to his extended illness and ongoing inability to fulfill his teaching responsibilities. Defendant continued to provide plaintiff with medical benefits until March 1995.

Following his termination, plaintiff filed a timely charge of employment discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter on June 26, 1995. Plaintiff filed a federal action on August 9, 1995. In that action, plaintiff sought recovery for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) (42 U.S.C. §12101 et seq. (1994 & Supp. 1997)) and also asserted a supplemental, or pendent, state claim for breach of his employment contract. As the district court determined, in order for plaintiff to prevail on his ADA claim, he was required to prove that he was a "qualified individual with a disability," i.e., at the time of St. Rita's decision to discharge him, he possessed the necessary skills to perform his job and he was willing and able to demonstrate those skills by coming to work on a regular basis. The district court found plaintiff's "failure to appear at work for nearly eighteen months before his discharge and his receipt of Social Security disability payments *** indicate conclusively *** that he is not a `qualified individual' under the ADA." Consequently, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of defendant as to the ADA claim and, exercising its statutory discretion (see 28 U.S.C. §1367(c)(3) (1994)), "decline[d] to assert jurisdiction" over the pendent state claim, dismissing it "for lack of jurisdiction." Plaintiff appealed.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment on the ADA claim, the "sole issue" before the court. Nowak v. St. Rita High School, 142 F.3d 999, 1002 (7th Cir. 1998). Noting the district court's ruling that plaintiff had "failed to provide any evidence, medical or otherwise, that on October 7, 1994, he was able to perform the essential functions of his position as a teacher at St. Rita" (Nowak, 142 F.3d at 1003), the court of appeals reviewed the facts and reached the same conclusion:

"The undisputed facts show that Nowak was unable to perform an essential function-regular attendance-required of a teacher at St. Rita. Prior to his termination, Nowak was absent from his teaching position for more than eighteen months. During his absence from St. Rita, Nowak received SSI Benefits for more than sixteen months and apparently still receives them today. In order to receive this benefit, Nowak certified to the SSA that he was unable to perform the duties of his job. Nowak continues to receive SSI Benefits and has not notified the SSA that he is able to return to work. At no time, during the more than eighteen months Nowak was absent from his teaching position, did he contact St. Rita administrators to inform them that it was his intention to return to his teaching duties." Nowak, 142 F.3d at 1003-04.

Answering plaintiff's averment that he told Bamberger on the day of his termination he was ready to return to work, and that his medical records substantiated his assertion that he could function as a teacher, the court responded that plaintiff "must prove that at the time of St. Rita's decision to discharge him, he possessed the necessary skills to perform his job and that he was willing and able to demonstrate these skills by coming to work on a regular basis. *** He fails *** to point to anything in [the] medical records indicating he was capable or willing to come to work on a regular basis prior to the termination decision." (Emphases added.) Nowak, 142 F.3d at 1003. The court of appeals concluded its analysis by citing cases in support of its disposition, holding, respectively, that the ADA does not protect an employee from being fired because of illness (Christian v. St. Anthony Medical Center, Inc., 117 F.3d 1051, ...

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