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Adams v. Forest Preserve District of Cook County

June 7, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John A. Nordberg Senior United States District Court Judge

Judge John A. Nordberg


The sole remaining claim in this case is one under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 121101 et seq. Plaintiff Paula Adams alleges that the Forest Preserve District of Cook County asked her to do tasks during the summer of 2001 that were outside her doctor-imposed limitations and then fired her on October 1, 2001. Plaintiff, who suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic back pain, and fibromyalgia, alleges that the District's refusal to accommodate her and its decision to fire her were based on disability discrimination. The District argues that plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of her job and that she was fired because she was absent for two months, failing to show up for work or even to call in to explain why she wasn't at work.

Plaintiff appealed her termination to the Employee Appeals Board ("EAB"), which held a hearing at which plaintiff, her supervisor, and her doctor testified. Each side submitted exhibits and filed post-hearing briefs. In a four-page opinion, the EAB Commissioner denied plaintiff's appeal, finding that the District's decision was justified because there was no reasonable explanation for why plaintiff failed to notify the District about why she was not at work. Relying on the testimony and exhibits from that hearing, the District filed this motion for summary judgment.


In 1996, plaintiff began working for the District's personnel office, which was located on the first floor of the District's two-story workplace. In 1999, she became dissatisfied with this job and requested a transfer to the Special Events office located on the second floor. There was no elevator in the building.

The District granted her request and she began working for Eloise Saperstein. The Special Events office was in charge of about 10 special events a year, such as the Senior Citizens picnic, most of which were held in the late spring and summer. Plaintiff, whose job was to help prepare for these events, was the only full-time employee working with Saperstein.

This case focuses on whether plaintiff could do her job given her disabilities. Plaintiff now describes these disabilities as carpal tunnel syndrome, severe back pains, sciatica, and fibromyalgia. It is not entirely clear when these disabilities originally manifested themselves. Plaintiff states that she first saw a doctor about her carpal tunnel syndrome in 1994. In 2000, plaintiff began experiencing problems with her upper back that caused her to experience a lot of pain in her neck, arms, and back. The fibromyalgia was apparently diagnosed in 2001. These disabilities became worse over time and eventually made it difficult for her to perform parts of her job and also to even come to work.

Plaintiff alleges generally that Saperstein was not very understanding or accommodating with regard to her disabilities. Most of the facts in this case revolve around the various doctor's notes plaintiff submitted to either explain why she was absent or would be absent in the future or to inform the District of medical limitations that her doctors had imposed with regard to what she could do on the job.

The first incident for which we have any evidence occurred in October 2000 (or perhaps August 2000) when Saperstein asked plaintiff to carry some things that were too heavy for her to carry. Plaintiff states that she then "reminded" Saperstein of her doctor's restriction.*fn1 Saperstein insisted that she did not know where the note containing the doctor's restriction was and that plaintiff should get another one. Plaintiff then had Dr. Leary, her primary care physician at the time, fax a note to plaintiff and she then gave the note to Saperstein. The note states:

Pt has carpal tunnel syndrome. Please grant her the reasonable accommodations of [a] typing chair and mouse pad, etc. to minimize symptoms. (Em. Ex. 1.)*fn2 The note contains no reference to any limitation regarding lifting heavy things. Insofar as we know, the requests for the typing chair and mouse pad were granted.

The next incident occurred in January 2001 and is somewhat similar to the first. Plaintiff described this incident in her EAB testimony:

Once again, Miss Saperstein would ask me to carry things that I could not carry that [were] too heavy. I would remind her of my doctor's restriction. Miss Saperstein would say, I don't know where it is. I need a copy from your doctor. I called Dr. Leary. He faxes it to me. I give it to Miss Saperstein. (Tr. 51.) This note from Dr. Leary states:

Pt has long-standing work restrictions [relating] to carpal tunnel syndrome. Please avoid having her lift greater than 10 lbs. (Em. Ex. 2 -- first page.) This is the first note in the record that contains a limitation on lifting heavy things.*fn3

The remaining incidents occur during the summer and fall of 2001, roughly from late May until early October. Up until this point, it is not clear how often plaintiff missed work due to her disabilities. But there is no dispute that from June 15th until she was fired on October 1st, plaintiff missed large chunks of work. According to her work attendance chart kept by the District, plaintiff showed up for only seven and a half days during this period -- July 9th, July 10th, and 1.5 hours on July 11th and then the week of July 23rd through July 27th. (M. Ex. 2.) Although it is undisputed that plaintiff's absences were all caused by her disabilities, those absences are explained on this chart by different letter codes such as AN (absent without pay), DO (days off), V (vacation), SP (sick pay), etc. Eventually, plaintiff ran out of sick days.

The facts concerning this period are again organized around the doctor's notes submitted by plaintiff. On May 23, 2001, plaintiff visited Dr. Cantu who was a chiropractor treating her for back pain. After the visit, Dr. Cantu prepared a note that was faxed from his office (while plaintiff was standing there) to Cecelia Handy who was the District's personnel director at the time. This note stated:

To whom this may concern, the above named patient remains under our care for a lower back condition. She may return to work on 05/29/01 with limitations of no lifting of boxes/materials greater than 10 (ten) pounds, and no prolonged and/or repetitive climbing up/down stairs. These activities may aggravate her condition prolonging proper healing. (Em. Ex. 2 -- third page.) Based on this note, it appears that plaintiff also missed some work during the end of May.

Although Dr. Cantu indicated in the above note that plaintiff hoped to return to work on May 29th, it is not clear whether she actually did so because Dr. Cantu faxed a second note on June 1st, stating that plaintiff would not return to work on June 4th:

To whom this may concern; the above named patient, in my professional opinion, is not ready to return to work on 06/04/01. That determination will be assessed then. Prolonged sitting and climbing up/down stairs will aggravate her condition, as she is in a recent aggravation due to climbing up/down stairs at her bank. Call if any questions. (Em. Ex. 2 -- second page.) This note contains the first reference we have seen to a limitation on "prolonged sitting."

It is not clear whether plaintiff returned to work on June 4th but on June 8th she sent a letter to the District stating that her son would pick up her check, which would suggest that she was still not back to work. This letter also requested that all future checks be mailed to her and requested vacation leave for two weeks from Friday June 22 until Friday July 6th. (M. Ex. 3.) Plaintiff later testified that she was not really taking a vacation but had run out of sick leave.

A week later, on June 15, 2001, plaintiff had Dr. Cantu's office fax another note to the District. This note was longer and typewritten and contained similar job restrictions. It also stated that plaintiff would not be ready to return to work until July 9th -- i.e. over three weeks later. The medical restrictions set forth in this note were as follows:

Her condition warrants the avoidance of prolonged sitting of greater than 45 minutes to an hour and/or prolonged standing/walking of greater than one to two hours. She is also limited to lifting/carrying materials, weighing less than 10 pounds. She is also refrained and highly recommended not to climb up and/or down stairs on a frequent, constant, repetitive occurrence. (Em. Ex. 3.)

On July 9, plaintiff returned to work. She worked that day, the next day, and then only 1.5 hours on the third day. At the EAB hearing, she explained why she left early on the third day:

I got there. There was a whole lot of invoices on my desk to be typed and sent out.

I asked Miss Saperstein if she had anything that does not require me to go up and down the stairs on a repetitive basis, if she does not have anything that requires me to do any lifting. She said no. I was there for an hour and a half. (Tr. 60.) Plaintiff says that she left because it was clear ...

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