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Henricks v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago

September 4, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer


Pamela Henricks ("Henricks" or "Plaintiff") brought this suit against Defendant, the Chicago Board of Education ("the Board" or "Defendant"), charging that the Board violated the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") (42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.)and the Illinois Human Rights Act ("IHRA") (775 ILCS 5/2-101, et seq.) by failing to accommodate her disability, conversion disorder, and by terminating her because of that disability. Henricks has since died; this case is being pursued by Gerald Henricks as the administrator of her estate. Both sides seek summary judgment. The Board argues that Pamela Henricks was not a qualified individual under the ADA because she has not shown that she was able to perform the essential functions of her job and because she posed a "direct threat" to herself and others in performing her duties. Plaintiff contends that the Board failed to meet its obligation to engage in an interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation for her mobility limitations and that, if provided with a reasonable accommodation, she did not pose a significant risk of harm. For the reasons explained here, the court concludes that disputes of material fact preclude summary judgment in favor of either party.


Henricks began working as a lunchroom attendant for the Chicago Board of Education in 1974. (Pl.'s Statement of Material Facts (hereinafter "Pl.'s 56.1") ¶ 8.) In August 1996, she was promoted to the position of Food Service Compliance Coordinator. (Def.'s 56.1(a)(3) Statement of Material Facts (hereinafter "Def.'s 56.1") ¶ 2.) In that position, Henricks was required to travel to more than 100 schools within the Chicago Public School system, access the cafeterias within those schools, inspect and monitor each school's food service procedures for compliance with federal regulations, and complete a written "Compliance On-Site Review Form." (Id. ¶¶ 4-7.) Henricks's Disability

In the mid-1990s, Henricks was diagnosed with conversion disorder, a psychosomatic condition in which psychological disorders manifest themselves in physical symptoms.*fn1 (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 11.) In Henricks's case, the disorder caused spasms in her legs triggered by depression, anxiety, and agoraphobia. (Id. ¶ 17.) These spasms "substantially affected her ability to . . . walk, ambulate and be mobile." (Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Statement of Material Facts (hereinafter "Def.'s Resp.") ¶ 19.)

The parties dispute whether Henricks's disorder affected her ability to drive. (Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Statement of Additional Material Facts (hereinafter "Def.'s Resp. to Add'l Facts") ¶¶ 4-5.) Henricks claims that she never experienced any spasms when she was sitting down and that she never had any problems driving. (Pl.'s Statement of Additional Facts (hereinafter "Pl.'s Add'l Facts") ¶ 3.) She does admit that between December 1992 and May 1993 she drove around a parking lot practicing using a piece of wood on the brakes while driving. (Id. ¶ 4.) She insists, however, that she never used the piece of wood in traffic and that she burned it in her sister's fireplace in May of 1993 when she realized she did not suffer spasms while she was driving. (Id. ¶ 4-5.)

The Board points to evidence that Henricks did in fact use the board to drive. Henricks discussed her use of the board both with a board-appointed clinical psychologist and with her own counselor. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 22-23.) Dr. Robert Heller, the Board's psychologist, reported that "[Henricks] had indicated to me that she's been driving around going from school to school, and when she can't move her legs, she uses a two-by-four to push on the gas pedal of the car to keep it going while her feet don't work." (Heller Dep., Ex. C to Def.'s 56.1, at 57:19-24.) Paul Guistolise, Henricks's licensed clinical counselor from 1995 onward, was less conclusive about her actual use of the two-by-four. He reported that Henricks "told me that she had practiced with [the two-by-four] in a parking lot, like a church parking lot or something like that, but that she had never used it in traffic; and to my knowledge, she never did use it in traffic." (Guistolise Dep., Ex. D to Def.'s 56.1, at 55:8-20.)

Henricks first began using a wheelchair in 1995, although she did not use it on a regular basis outside of her home at that time. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 17; Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 12.) The Board was aware of Henricks's difficulties walking prior to August 2001, and "through its employees and agents, observed Plaintiff utilizing a wheelchair, and handrails or additional support to ascend and descend stairs." (Def.'s Resp. ¶ 23.) Moreover, the Board acknowledges that prior to August 27, 2001, its ADA Administrator, Ms. Michael Rowder, had become aware of Henricks's difficulty using the stairs at various facilities. (Id. ¶ 27.)

Request for Accommodation

Henricks never submitted a written request for an accommodation for her mobility limitations. On May 16, 1999 she did complete a "Request for Reasonable Accommodation" form, but at that time she listed "agoraphobia" and "dissociative disorder NOS [Not Otherwise Specified]" as her disabilities. (Request for Reasonable Accommodation, Ex. 17 to Pl.'s 56.1, at 2.) In this document, Henricks asked for a "Written Job Description," as well as "Written directives from food service management." (Id.) In describing why she needed those accommodations, Henricks emphasized that she is "UNABLE TO RECUPERATE PROPERLY DUE TO JOB STRESSORS." (Id.) Significantly, in her written request Henricks noted that "No equipment [is] necessary. I provide my own walking aid devices (wheelchair, walker[])." (Id.)

On June 29, 1999, Rowder sent Henricks a letter acknowledging that she had received Henricks's request. (Receipt of Request for Reasonable Accommodation, Ex. 20 to Pl.'s 56.1.) Henricks claims that after receiving Rowder's letter, she approached Rowder with a request for accommodations that did relate specifically to her mobility impairment, such as adding ramps to assist her in entering and exiting the schools. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 25.) According to Henricks, Rowder laughed at the request and said, "'Who do you think you are that we're going to spend that kind of money on you?'" (Henricks Dep., Ex. 6 to Pl.'s 56.1, at 123:13-16.)

The Board disputes that Henricks and Rowder ever discussed an accommodation for Henricks's condition prior to 2001. (Def.'s Resp. ¶ 25.) To the best of Rowder's recollection, Henricks did not speak to her about a reasonable accommodation such as ramps prior to August of 2001.*fn2 (Rowder Dep., Ex. 18 to Pl.'s 56.1, at 77:14-18.) The Board also claims that Henricks "never felt that she needed accommodations for her medical condition," suggesting that it would have been unlikely for Henricks to have requested an accommodation from Rowder. (Def.'s Resp. ¶ 25.) Moreover, although there is no evidence that Ms. Rowder explored Henricks's motivations for filing the Request for Accommodation, the Board notes Henricks's testimony that she filed the request on behalf of herself and the other Food Service Compliance Coordinators because some were dissatisfied with their supervisor.*fn3 (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 17.) The Board admits, however, that Rowder never spoke to Henricks regarding her request and did not open a file or commence an investigation into Henricks's request. (Def.'s Resp. ¶¶ 47-48.)

Henricks asserts that before August 2001, her "immediate supervisor [Maged Hanafi] never talked with [her] about why she was in a wheelchair, her medical condition, or whether it affected her ability to get to schools and do her job." (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 39.) The Board points out, however, that Hanafi's supervisor, Inez Susanke, did periodically ask Henricks about her condition and that Henricks "always assured me she could do her job." (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 13; Susanke Dep., Ex. A to Def.'s 56.1, at 175:20-22.)*fn4 According to Susanke, in 1999 or 2000, she "offered [Henricks] the help of an additional person, a quality assurance person to help her with some of her inspections and things." (Susanke Dep., Ex. A to Def.'s 56.1, at 123:5-8.) Though Susanke's testimony does not clearly state how Henricks responded to the offer of an assistant, her testimony implies that Henricks occasionally had an assistant helping her "in her office." (Id. at 123:17-21.)

Job Performance and Removal from Active Duty

Prior to being removed from active service in August 2001, Henricks had some work performance issues, including an attendance problem. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 29.) During the last year of her active employment, Henricks was absent seventy-seven times.*fn5 (Id.) Additionally, the Board claims that Henricks submitted inaccurate or false reports; the reports reflected that she had visited more than five schools per day, which the Board says is physically impossible, and that she had conducted on-site inspections for days when the school was not in session, including weekends and holidays.*fn6 (Id.)

In July 2001, Henricks filed a worker's compensation claim for a work-related injury that occurred while she was attempting to leave a school by crawling down a flight of stairs. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 18; Smith Dep., Ex. 11 to Pl.'s 56.1, at 32:1-8.) In the course of investigating the report for Henricks's injury, Ken Smith, the Board's Manager of Loss Prevention, came to believe that Henricks sometimes used a two-by-four to operate her car.*fn7 (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 18.) In August 2001, Smith convened a meeting with Henricks's supervisor and representatives of the Board's ADA, Employee Health Service, and Labor Relations offices. (Id. ¶ 19.) At the meeting, the attendees expressed concern about the Board's liability and the possible danger created by Henricks's mobility limitations and driving capabilities, as well as possible ...

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