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Olian v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago

February 12, 2009


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


Plaintiff Rosalyn Olian worked as a counselor and, later, as a teacher at Thurgood Marshall Middle School ("Thurgood Marshall") in Chicago, Illinois, from 1993 until 2002. Thurgood Marshall is run by Defendant, the Board of Education of the City of Chicago (the "Board"). Plaintiff suffers from a disability caused by aggressive radiation therapy she endured in the 1960s to treat lymphoma, and as a result, her breathing and speaking systems are substantially impaired. This disability makes it difficult for Plaintiff to teach five classes a day, as the course load put a major strain on her voice. Partly as a result of the physical strain teaching placed upon her voice, her classes became unruly and she was subjected to several relatively minor physical assaults in her classroom. Plaintiff resigned on June 28, 2002, and shortly thereafter filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that the Board violated her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). Plaintiff ultimately sued the Board and, after a week-long trial in June 2008, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff on the claim that the Board failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation and awarded compensatory damages in the amount of $244,000.

Both parties now seek alterations to the final judgment. Defendant seeks judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, remittitur of the jury award or a new trial on damages. Plaintiff seeks equitable relief on two additional ADA counts that were not tried to the jury and entry of a permanent injunction. For the reasons that follow, all the motions are denied.


Plaintiff Rosalyn Olian began working in the Chicago Public Schools in 1992. (Tr. 412:18-20.) Olian received a B.A. in English literature from the University of Chicago, earned her teacher's certification at Northwestern University, and earned a master's degree in counseling from Boston University. (Tr. 410:23-411:6.) In 1993, Olian became the counselor at Thurgood Marshall, a middle school in a working-class neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago. (Tr. 414:8-12.) In her role as counselor, Olian helped students in one-on-one counseling sessions, administered standardized tests, and performed other tasks required by the position. (Tr. 414:19-415:10.)

Plaintiff remained in her counseling position at Thurgood Marshall until 1998, when Principal Jose Barillas notified her that she would need to start teaching a class called "Guidance." (Tr. 421:13-22.) The class, which was intended to teach the students life skills such as job skills and the importance of avoiding gangs and drugs, had not previously been taught at the school, and Olian was responsible for developing the curriculum in addition to teaching the class. (Tr. 424:8-427:5.) Plaintiff objected to teaching, as she had applied to be a counselor and was content in that role. (Tr. 423:8-13.) The school needed a teacher for the Guidance course, however, and Plaintiff began teaching four classes a day for the last three months of the 1997-98 school year. (Tr. 423:23-424:1.)

Before the 1998-99 school year began, Plaintiff learned that she would be required to teach five classes per day, instead of four. (Tr. 424:2-4.) Plaintiff's disability*fn2 prevented her from being able to speak comfortably for extended periods of time, the result of radiation therapy she received in the 1960s to treat lymphoma. (Tr. 420:2-15.) She objected to teaching the fifth class, and informed Barillas that her doctor had warned that a fifth class would place too much strain on her voice. (Tr. 435:10-12.) Plaintiff was then assigned to teach four classes per day for the 1998-99 school year, and the fifth period was changed to a preparation period. (Tr. 544:21-23.) In addition, the Board secured, through the assistance of ADA Administrator Michael Rowder, a microphone and speaker system for Plaintiff to use in class. (Tr. 250:22-251:22.) The speaker system broke within weeks of the start of the 1998 school year, however, and despite Plaintiff's repeated requests, the sound system was never fixed or replaced that year or any subsequent year. (Tr. 436:21-23.)

For the 1999-2000 year, Plaintiff's teaching responsibilities increased to five classes from Monday through Thursday, and usually four classes on Fridays. (Tr. 590:15-18; 256:6-8.) Plaintiff was unhappy about this assignment, and, particularly since she still did not have a working microphone, she thought the arrangement put too much of a strain on her voice. In January 2000, Plaintiff proposed to Ms. Rowder that she be allowed to combine two of her classes into one so that she would only have to teach four periods per day. (Tr. 276:22-277:3.) Rowder spoke to Barillas about the feasibility of combining two Guidance classes, but Barillas concluded the proposal did not meet the logistical needs of the school. (Tr. 545:8-15.) Barillas then proposed that Olian monitor the detention room instead of teaching a fifth class. (JX 16 Memo, Ex. 21 to App. to Pl.'s Rule 52 Mot.) Olian believed that the detention room assignment would provide no respite for her voice because she would still be dealing with unruly students; she therefore refused the assignment. (Tr. 442:11-443:5.)

Instead, Plaintiff requested a parent helper in her classroom, a situation enjoyed by at least two other teachers at Thurgood Marshall. (Tr. 444:13-23.) Initially, Rowder was willing to allocate the necessary funds to accommodate this request, and Barillas was willing to pay half of the cost from his budget. The ADA Steering Committee ultimately decided, however, that a helper was not an appropriate accommodation, and that the microphone and speaker system should instead be repaired or replaced. (Tr. 343:8-11, 347:25- 348:8; JX 22 Minutes of the ADA Steering Committee Meeting, Ex. 18 to App. to Pl.'s Rule 52 Mot.) At trial, the Board presented evidence that those teachers for whom helpers were provided needed assistance with specific logistical tasks; for example, the art teacher had a helper to monitor and help collect materials, especially the cutting supplies. (Tr. 294:18-295:13.) In the Committee's view, a helper was not necessary for Plaintiff, and replacing the speaker and microphone was adequate to satisfy the reasonable accommodation requirement of the ADA. (JX 22 Minutes of the ADA Steering Committee Meeting, Ex. 18 to App. to Pl.'s Rule 52 Mot.) Plaintiff's request was thus formally denied, but Rowder inexplicably failed to communicate this information to Plaintiff, and the speaker system was never replaced. (Tr. 354:17-25.) Plaintiff repeated her request for a parent helper in November 2001, but Barillas denied that request within a day. (PX 34 11/19/01 Request for Accommodation, Ex. 4 to App. to Pl.'s Rule 52 Mot.; JX 25 11/20/01 Memo, Ex. 5 to id.) Plaintiff filed a grievance with the teachers' union as a result of this denial, but her grievance was ultimately denied. (JX 33 4/9/02 Grievance Denial, Ex. 8 to App. to Pl.'s Rule 52 Mot.)

In the classroom, Plaintiff had difficulty maintaining control in her class, particularly after her course load increased to five classes. Plaintiff was assaulted with various objects thrown at her by students, although never with anything more dangerous than ordinary school supplies (the school had metal detectors at its entrances to prevent the students from introducing dangerous weapons to the school). (Tr. 457:5-258:9, 48:17-19.) The assaults became more frequent as time wore on, however, culminating in a period in the fall of 2001 where the police were called to Plaintiff's classroom four times in a four-month period. (Tr. 455:23-25.) One serious incident occurred when a student hurled a tightly wound ball of paper at her from a close distance, causing a bruise; the police were called in response to that incident and the offending student was arrested. (Tr. 457:5-19, 513:15-20.) Other teachers at Thurgood Marshall testified that they sometimes came into Olian's classroom to help her maintain order. (Tr. 306:16-308:22, 314:19-315:11.)

A number of less serious incidents occurred during this time as well, and Plaintiff frequently responded to such difficult students by sending them to the detention room for the remainder of the period. (Tr. 448:20-22.) The union contract in effect guaranteed all Chicago public school teachers the right to exclude disruptive students from their classrooms. (PX 02 Union Contract at 88, Ex. 3 to App. to Pl.'s Rule 52 Mot.) Barillas came to believe, however, that Olian was not effectively managing the students while they remained in her class, and eventually told her to send students to his office rather than the detention room. (JX 20 4/11/00 Memo, Ex. 15 to App. to Pl.'s Rule 52 Mot.) Those students were sometimes returned to Olian's class in the same period in which they were removed, a situation that Olian claimed caused further problems in maintaining order. (Tr. 616:11-13.) One teacher testified that on some occasions, Barillas even ordered staff not to respond to Olian's calls for assistance with her students. (Tr. 315:16-25.)

The evidence established that the deteriorating situation in Plaintiff's classroom took an emotional and physical toll on her. Josephine Strauss, a friend of Plaintiff who used to accompany her on regular walks, testified that Plaintiff was "a totally different woman" who was no longer her usual upbeat self, but was rather very unhappy, even "destroyed." (Tr. 230:7-8.) Catherine Olian, Plaintiff's daughter, also testified that her mother was a "wreck" as she became increasingly upset, frequently crying during their regular telephone conversations. (Tr. 192:11-21.) Both also testified that Plaintiff sounded hoarse and was prone to frequent coughing fits. (Tr. 192:19, 230:11-12.) Plaintiff herself testified that her condition worsened to the point where she had trouble sleeping through some nights and would fill a wastebasket with tissues before morning. (Tr. 465:1-7.)

During Olian's time at Thurgood Marshall, she received annual evaluations. The evaluation forms allowed for teachers to be ranked in four categories: superior, excellent, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory. (Tr. 329:19-21.) Before 2002, every evaluation Plaintiff received, both as a counselor and as a teacher, rated her performance as "satisfactory." (Tr. 492:3-11.) As a teacher, her forms also included comments that urged her to improve classroom management and discipline and to develop other teaching techniques. Her evaluation forms noted a concern that a large part of her classroom activity was devoted to showing educational films. (JX 02 Evaluations, Ex. 27 to App. to Pl.'s Rule 52 Mot.) Barillas also orally offered what he deemed to be constructive criticism of Plaintiff's classroom performance; Plaintiff denied that the offered criticism was of any practical use to her. (Tr. 497:10-498:4.) In the spring of 2002, Barillas evaluated Plaintiff's performance as "unsatisfactory" and issued an E-3 notice, which resulted in Plaintiff's being placed on a remediation plan and assigned a "consulting teacher" to advise her on methods for improving her teaching skills. (Tr. 565:4-24.) Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff resigned, effective as of the end of the school year. (Tr. 466:2-8.) The Board argued at trial that her resignation was motivated by a desire to avoid the remediation process, but Plaintiff testified that her resignation was actually the result of the continuing physical and emotional strain imposed by her teaching position. (Tr. 467:9-11, 469:4-6.)

On August 5, 2002, Plaintiff filed a charge of disability discrimination with the EEOC.*fn3 (Compl. ¶ 50.) On October 25, 2005, after the EEOC determined that conciliation would not be productive, the United States Department of Justice sent Plaintiff a "Notice of Right to Sue" letter, and Plaintiff initiated this action shortly thereafter. (Id. ¶ 53.) Plaintiff's complaint alleged three separate ADA violations: discrimination; retaliation; and interference, coercion, and/or intimidation. (Id. ¶¶ 56-60.) The court held a jury trial in June 2008. The latter two counts of the complaint do not allow for compensatory damages and were therefore not tried to the jury; the jury only heard evidence concerning Plaintiff's allegation that the Board discriminated against her in violation of her rights under the ADA. To prove that claim, Plaintiff presented three separate theories: first, that the Board failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation; second, that the Board effectively forced her to resign by creating a hostile environment; and third, that she was subjected to disparate treatment on account of her disability.

On June 16, 2008, the jury returned a unanimous verdict. Finding in favor of Plaintiff on the ADA discrimination count under the theory that the Board failed to provide Olian with a reasonable accommodation, the jury awarded her $244,000. (6/16/08 Minute Entry [173].) The jury found in favor of Defendant on Plaintiff's two other theories of ADA discrimination, however, finding that Plaintiff was not subject to disparate treatment on account of her disability and that she was not forced to resign on account of working in a hostile environment. (Id.)

Defendant moves for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, arguing that the evidence adduced at trial did not prove that the Board failed to accommodate Plaintiff's disability. Alternatively, Defendant seeks remittitur of the jury's $244,000 compensatory damages award, or a new trial solely on the issue of damages. Plaintiff moves for entry of judgment on Counts II and III of her complaint for retaliation and interference, coercion, and intimidation, both in violation of the ADA. These counts were not tried before the jury because Plaintiff is entitled to seek only equitable remedies (here, back pay damages and prejudgment interest ...

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