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Santos-Means v. Sheriff's Office of Cook County

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

October 19, 2016

Dionne Santos-Means, Plaintiff,
Sheriff's Office of Cook County, Illinois, Defendant.



         Dionne Santos-Means was a Drill Sergeant assigned to the Cook County Sheriff's Office's Boot Camp. She asked for various workplace accommodations for her respiratory disease, but in the end, those requests did not work out, and she brings claims for discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12112, 12203(a). The Sheriff's Office moves for summary judgment on both claims. For the following reasons, the Sheriff's Office motion for summary judgment is granted.

         I. Legal Standards

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute as to any material fact exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Justifiable inferences are drawn in the nonmovant's favor, id. at 255, and the party seeking summary judgment has the burden of establishing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

         II. Background

         Dionne Santos-Means started working for the Cook County Sheriff's Office in 1993, and she became a Drill Sergeant at the Boot Camp in 2004. [77] ¶¶ 1, 7.[1] The Boot Camp is an alternative sentencing program for young-adult, male, non-violent offenders and requires inmates to attend classes and participate in a rigorous exercise program. [77] ¶ 2. Drill Sergeants supervise the daily activities of Drill Instructors, exercise and march with inmates and Drill Instructors, assist in emergency situations, and assume Drill Instructor duties in case of a staff shortage. [77] ¶ 9. Like Drill Instructors, Drill Sergeants were required to pass a bi-annual physical fitness test consisting of a 1.5 mile run on an outdoor track, push-ups, and sit-ups. [77] ¶¶ 11, 25. There is evidence, however, that two Drill Sergeants retained their positions without passing the fitness test. [77] ¶ 11; [89] ¶ 8.

         In 2008, Santos-Means was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a disease with no known cause that affects a patient's lungs and results in significant respiratory issues. [77] ¶¶ 13-14. Santos-Means was exposed to cigarette smoke when other employees smoked near the entryway of the Boot Camp. [77] ¶ 15. She told them that smoke affected her medical condition and that they should smoke 15 feet away from the building. [77] ¶¶ 16-17. She also asked one of the Boot Camp captains to announce during daily roll call that smoking near the entryway was banned; the announcement was made at the next roll call. [77] ¶ 17. Shortly thereafter, Santos-Means informed the director of the Boot Camp that she had a lung disease and that the smoke was affecting her. The director advised her that he would look into the matter. [77] ¶ 18. He had lines drawn around the outside of the Boot Camp entranceway to indicate restricted areas for smoking, and he also posted laminated no smoking signs nearby. [77] ¶ 20. Within weeks of Santos-Means's complaints, the director issued a memorandum to all Boot Camp staff designating the restricted area where smoking was permitted, and the memorandum was read at five consecutive roll calls. [77] ¶ 21. Santos-Means, however, testified that employees would still smoke near the entryway, although they would move aside when they saw her coming; she did not discuss this issue with the Boot Camp director. [77] ¶¶ 18, 22; [89] ¶ 4.

         In 2010, Santos-Means delivered a doctor's letter to the Boot Camp director, which stated that Santos-Means should be permitted to perform the fitness test indoors because of her medical condition. [77] ¶ 26. The director did not reject her request and advised her that he would look into the matter. [77] ¶¶ 26-27, 29. He did not have authority to grant a request for accommodation; only the Personnel Office of the Sheriff's Office had that authority. [77] ¶ 26; [89] ¶ 13. On November 8, 2010, the personnel director advised Santos-Means to report to the medical unit with a “comprehensive diagnostic medical statement from your physician, identifying your restrictions” no later than November 22, 2010. [77] ¶ 29. Santos-Means admits that this was not a rejection of her request to take the fitness test indoors. [77] ¶ 29. She did not report to the medical unit, and instead on November 17, 2010, she advised the personnel director that her medical condition had worsened and that she needed to be absent for an extended period. [77] ¶ 30. Santos-Means took FMLA and ordinary disability leave from the Sheriff's Office. [77] ¶ 31.

         The following summer, another doctor sent the Sheriff's Office a letter advising that Santos-Means could return to work on August 8, 2011, with the following restrictions: avoid (1) cigarette smoke, dust, fumes, chemical sprays; (2) exposure/running on a recycled tire track; (3) contact with inmates with tuberculosis or other airborne diseases; and (4) extreme temperatures. [77] ¶ 32. The doctor's letter warned that Santos-Means had a lifelong respiratory illness and that failure to adhere to these restrictions would exacerbate her asthma and sarcoidosis and could lead to “hospitalization and/or death.” [77] ¶¶ 33-34. Another restriction stated that Santos-Means should be permitted to perform the fitness test indoors (and not on the outdoor recycled tire track), but she was actually seeking to be exempted from the fitness test altogether. [77] ¶ 36.

         The personnel director was responsible for handling accommodation requests and ultimately responsible for determining whether a request for accommodation could be granted. [77] ¶ 39; [89] ¶ 13. The personnel director advised Santos-Means that, due to her restrictions, she was unable to perform the essential functions of a Drill Sergeant or Correctional Sergeant. [77] ¶ 40. According to the personnel director, the position of Drill Sergeant was incompatible with the restriction from contact with inmates with airborne diseases. [77] ¶ 41; [78] at 105-10. Because inmates with known diseases are removed from the general inmate population ([77] ¶ 41; [89] ¶ 22), Santos-Means argues that inmate contact would not have been a problem. According to Santos-Means, she was told that the fitness test was an essential function of the Drill Sergeant position and that she would not be exempted from the requirement, even though she knew of others who were exempted from it. [89] ¶¶ 7-8.[2]

         The personnel director then identified ADA-designated Correctional Officer positions meeting Santos-Means's restrictions, namely, positions locked in an enclosed room within the Department of Corrections compound, which had no direct contact with detainees and limited contact with other employees. [77] ¶ 42. These interlock positions were for Correctional Officers, not Correctional (or Drill) Sergeants, and would have required Santos-Means to accept a reduction in rank. [77] ¶ 43; [89] ¶ 24. Santos-Means was offered a Correctional Officer interlock position and a civilian position, but she turned down both options. [77] ¶¶ 43-46.[3]Santos-Means contends that sergeant-level positions were available and not offered to her. The evidence she points to shows transfers and promotions of various Sheriff's Office employees, which may have opened up sergeant-level positions in other areas. But all of these possible openings occurred in the weeks and months after she was offered the Correctional Officer and civilian positions, and she does not show what specific positions were clearly available or whether she could perform the essential functions of those positions with her restrictions. See [89] ¶¶ 25-27.

         A year later, in August 2012, Santos-Means again reported to the medical unit with the same work restrictions, except that instead of avoiding contact with inmates with airborne diseases, the restriction asked that she be permitted to wear a protective mask in case of contact with inmates with tuberculosis or other airborne diseases. [77] ¶ 47. Her union sent the personnel director a letter on Santos-Means's behalf, requesting that she be permitted to return to work as a Correctional Sergeant and that she be assigned a position that would accommodate her restrictions. The letter specifically stated that the air quality at the jail and Boot Camp would exacerbate her condition and requested that she be assigned to other areas of the Sheriff's Office such as “Pre-Release or the Office of Policy and Audits or other administrative operational divisions of the Department.” [77] ¶ 48; [72-22]. The personnel director identified a Correctional Sergeant position at the Cook County Jail Pre-Release Center and notified Santos-Means, who accepted the position. [77] ¶ 49. Santos-Means worked at the Pre-Release Center for three days before she went to the hospital and was diagnosed with pneumonia. [77] ¶ 50; [89] ¶ 11. She did not return to work and did not submit for FMLA or ordinary disability leave. [77] ¶ 52. Santos-Means says that the conditions at the Pre-Release Center caused her to contract pneumonia and exacerbated her conditions of sarcoidosis and asthma. [77] ¶ 56; [89] ¶ 11. According to Santos-Means, the Pre-Release Center contained asbestos, visible mold, and water damage in the ceilings. [89] ¶¶ 11, 33. At the time of Santos-Means's assignment, the personnel director was not aware of any existing environmental conditions at the Pre-Release Center; when deposed, the personnel director agreed that a facility with mold and asbestos would not be an appropriate environment for someone with a respiratory condition. [89] ¶¶ 28-29.[4]

         Santos-Means eventually returned to work in 2013 after she was cleared by her doctor. She discussed her return to work with the personnel director, and it was determined that her then-restrictions could be accommodated by working at the Sheriff's Office Visitation Center. [77] ¶ 53. None of Santos-Means's claims in ...

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