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David Jackson v. Illinois Department of Human Services

September 28, 2011

DAVID JACKSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Feinerman

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff David Jackson alleges in this action that the Illinois Department of Human Services ("IDHS") violated the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., by failing to accommodate his disability during his employment and by terminating his employment. IDHS has moved for summary judgment. The motion is granted.

Background

The facts are set forth as favorably to Jackson as the record permits. In 1992, while serving the U.S. Navy, Jackson was in a car accident that eventually gave rise to post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). Since 2002, Jackson has received treatment for PTSD and related symptoms, including insomnia, anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, and dysthymia. Jackson's symptoms have been aggravated by the pressures of work and the stress of helping his ailing mother deal with her leukemia.

IDHS is responsible for providing Illinois residents with access to public aid programs. IDHS employees known as "caseworkers" process applications for food stamps, cash assistance, and medical assistance. IDHS hired Jackson in August 2008 as a Social Service Career Trainee ("SSCT"), which is a trainee for a caseworker position. To be certified for permanent employment as a caseworker, an SSCT must demonstrate that he can successfully perform the duties of a caseworker. As probationary employees, SSCTs are closely supervised and do not have the same case load as caseworkers. If an SSCT is not certified as a caseworker within the probationary period, his employment is terminated.

Jackson's immediate supervisor was Rebecca Finley, who in turn reported to Local Office Administrator Jaime Roman and Assistant Local Office Administrator Lynda Latson. In October or November 2008, complications from Jackson's mother's leukemia required the amputation of both of her legs. In November 2008, Jackson asked Latson if she knew of any state agency that could provide his mother with assistance. Jackson also asked IDHS's human resources department about the possibility of obtaining a leave due to his mother's condition, but was informed that as a probationary employee he was not eligible for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. In December 2008, when Jackson missed work to attend his mother's surgery, Finley became extremely harsh and abrasive towards him. Jackson did not make Latson and Finley aware his mother's specific diagnosis until February 2009.

Jackson struggled from the outset of his tenure as an SSCT, making numerous errors while processing food stamp applications. Although IDHS sets no specific numerical objectives for accuracy, it generally expects SSCTs to make fewer errors over time. Latson observed that Jackson frequently socialized on the job, routinely asked co-workers for help on his cases, and habitually stared off into space while at his desk. For his part, Jackson understood that he was expected to make some errors because he was a trainee. Jackson denies that his performance was deficient, asserts that the need for improvement was not communicated to him in a clear and timely manner, and maintains that was his training was insufficient. Jackson asserts that the performance problems he experienced at work were the result of the stress and anxiety caused by his mother's condition and by the pressure Finley placed on him. In addition to being harsh and abrasive toward Jackson, Finley did not provide him with sufficient assistance when he experienced difficulty with his cases. Jackson told Finley shortly after being hired that his PTSD becomes aggravated, resulting in anxiety and panic attacks, when he is approached from behind. Finley respected this sensitivity for a few months, but in December 2008 she began to loom over Jackson as he worked, inducing further anxiety.

Jackson's January 2009 performance review (Doc. 65-5 at 54-58), which Finley prepared, assessed Jackson as needing improvement in seven of eight areas: "job knowledge," "productivity," "quality," "initiative," "use of time," "planning," and "follow-up." Jackson assessed himself as needing improvement in only two of those seven areas and as meeting expectations in the other five. The review stated that Jackson had not demonstrated an ability to identify eligibility requirements for each category of public assistance or to complete food stamp applications; that he was able to complete only eighteen of thirty-three food stamp applications assigned to him; that "his work is a concern and needs improvement"; and that applications he processed were returned to him "numerous times for correction of repeated errors." The review reflected concerns about Jackson's tardiness, punctuality, and productivity, and reported that Jackson "has not made use of the training materials given to him from his agencies [sic] training sessions." Although Jackson now disputes the accuracy of the review, he signed it and acknowledged its contents (1) without checking the box stating "I DO NOT CONCUR" and (2) without writing anything in the space provided for the employee's comments.

Both before and after January 2009 performance review, Jackson handled fewer cases than an average SSCT. He frequently asked co-workers and Finley for help without first consulting his training materials. After the performance review, Finley told Jackson to cease contacting his co-workers for assistance with his cases. Jackson's work continued to suffer. He was given at least one additional one-on-one training session, but afterward he successfully completed on the first attempt only sixteen of the twenty-five cases assigned to him.

On February 13, 2009, Jackson called IDHS to say that he would miss work due to a medical appointment at the VA hospital. This violated IDHS procedures regarding the use of benefit time, and Finley counseled Jackson about the proper procedures. On February 18, when Jackson asked Finley for help on a case without previously consulting his training materials, she counseled him about the proper procedures to follow when facing difficulties with a case. On February 20, Finley met with Jackson to counsel him regarding repeated errors he made on food stamp applications assigned to him. Although Jackson received counseling on February 20, the decision to terminate him had been made two days earlier, on February 18. Roman terminated Jackson on February 25.

In the months preceding his termination, Jackson requested accommodations due to the difficulties posed by his PTSD and his mother's health issues. Specifically, he requested a two-month leave of absence, permission to ask his co-workers for assistance with his cases, and transfer to a location closer to his mother's hospital. On February 2, 2009, Jackson's therapist sent IDHS a letter addressing Jackson's psychological difficulties and his mother's health. The letter attributed Jackson's problems at work to those circumstances and asked that IDHS "afford him similar considerations you'd afford yourself in dealing with this matter," but did not specifically request a leave of absence or any other accommodation. Doc. 77-2 at 7. Although Jackson did not follow IDHS procedures for requesting accommodations, Finley and Latson were made aware of his requests.

Discussion

Jackson claims that IDHS violated the ADA (1) by failing to accommodate his disability and (2) by terminating him due to his disability and to his association with his ...


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