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Coffey-Sears v. Lyons Township High School District 204

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

March 31, 2017



          Andrea R. Wood United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Maribeth Coffey-Sears brought this lawsuit against her employer, Lyons Township High School District 204 (“District”), alleging that the District violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) 42 U.S.C. §§ 120101 et seq., by discriminating against her and subjecting her to a hostile work environment because of her disabilities: diabetes and fibromyalgia. The District has moved for summary judgment on all of Coffey-Sears's claims. The Court grants that motion for the reasons that follow.


         Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are undisputed or have been deemed admitted. Plaintiff Coffey-Sears is an art teacher for Lyons Township High School District 204, a public high school in the western suburbs of Chicago. (Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s Stmt. Undisputed Facts (“PRDSUF”) ¶¶ 1, 2, Dkt. No. 29.) The District operates two campuses, the North Campus located in LaGrange and the South Campus located in Western Springs. (Id. ¶ 1.) Coffey-Sears started at the District in 1991 and eventually earned tenure. (Id. ¶ 2.) At issue in this lawsuit is the school's accommodation of and response to Coffey-Sears's disabilities.

         Born with diabetes, Coffey-Sears did not present any metabolic or diabetic symptoms from this disease until her fourth pregnancy in 2005. (App. of Exs. Supp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. (“AESDMS”) Ex. 2, Dkt. No. 27-2 at 4 of 110.) Her diabetic symptoms include hypoglycemic episodes, which Coffey-Sears can avoid by eating at specific times. Coffey-Sears also suffers from fibromyalgia, which causes her to experience chronic pain and balances issues. (Id.) As a result of these symptoms, Coffey-Sears has trouble walking and standing for more than an hour. She uses a wheelchair for activities that require travelling long distances on foot. (Id.)

         I. Facts Regarding Coffey-Sears's Accommodation Requests

         A. Early Lunch

         The conduct at issue in this complaint began in 2013. The earliest incident alleged in the lawsuit occurred on May 6, 2013, when the Chair of the Fine Arts Division, Nicholas Gehl, emailed the draft master schedule to the school's art teachers. (PRDSUF ¶ 7.) The original 2013-2014 schedule had Coffey-Sears taking lunch at eighth period. (AESDMS Ex. 10, Dkt. No. 27-4 at 5 of 77.) Coffey-Sears immediately emailed Gehl back and told him that the eighth period lunch would not work because her medication did not allow her to go for long periods of time between meals. (Id.) Gehl responded the next day and told Coffey-Sears the school could accommodate an earlier lunch for her but would require a note from her doctor prescribing this accommodation. (Id. at 4 of 77.) Coffey-Sears complained that this was unnecessary since she had already provided a note from her doctor regarding this request several years ago. (PRDSUF ¶ 10.) As such, Coffey-Sears told Gehl that she was not obligated to provide the district with this material again. (AESDMS Ex. 10, Dkt. No. 27-4 at 4 of 77.) The issue was escalated to Edward Piotrowski, the District's Director of Human Resources, who had an in-person meeting with Coffey-Sears. (PRDSUF ¶ 12.)

         On May 14, 2013, the same day Piotrowski met with Coffey-Sears, he received a letter from her doctor stating that she required “[l]unch by noon or earlier.” (Id. ¶ 13.) A couple of days later, Piotrowski received a letter from a different physician asking that Coffey-Sears be permitted to eat lunch within four or five hours after breakfast due to her diabetes. (Id. ¶ 14.) Piotrowski asked Coffey-Sears for further information about these accommodation requests. Shortly thereafter, one of Coffey-Sears's doctors sent a letter explaining the requested accommodations. (Id. ¶ 15.)

         With all medical documentation accounted for, the District made the requested change to Coffey-Sears's schedule. On May 29, 2013, Gehl sent Coffey-Sears an email confirming the adjustment. (Id. ¶ 16.) Coffey-Sears responded, stating that the schedule looked good, except for the fact that she only had a single-period for lunch first-semester. Coffey-Sears expressed concern about getting from her classroom to the lunchroom and negotiating lines at the lunch counter in one period. But she stated that they could “wait and see and make adjustments at that time, or discuss being proactive and changing that now.” (Id.) On May 31, 2013, Piotrowski met with Coffey-Sears to discuss a number of her accommodation requests, including the extended lunch period. Piotrowski told Coffey-Sears that her doctors' notes did not reference the need for an extended lunch, and she would need to provide further documentation to that effect if she required that accommodation. (Id. ¶ 17.)

         After the schedule was changed to accommodate an earlier lunch for Coffey-Sears, other art teachers started making comments blaming her for issues resulting from the schedule change. One teacher, Carlene Kinzie, told Coffey-Sears, “Our schedules are changed, we don't know what rooms we are going to be in, what order, if we're teaching this class or that class. Why do they have to be changed for you?” (Id. ¶ 69.) Lorena Logis asked her, “Well, why is this happening?” Coffey-Sears believed Logis was upset with her because Logis's voice got louder. Another teacher, Mary Rohlicek, expressed frustration with the changes and concern about materials being delivered on time. Later, at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, Matt Brod made statements to Coffey-Sears in relation to her changed lunch period such as, “Everything centers around you. Why should it be that way?” (Id.) Notably, Kinzie continued to make comments throughout the 2013-2014 school year, and beyond, about how Coffey-Sears's accommodation requests would affect other teachers and the department. (Id. ¶ 71.)

         B. Restroom Access

         In addition to an earlier lunch, Coffey-Sears's physician also requested she be able “to use the restroom intermittently and at short notice throughout the day.” (Id. ¶ 13.) Piotrowski was amenable to meeting this request, but noted “the need for continuous supervision of students” and informed Coffey-Sears “that leaving the class at any time, and leaving students unsupervised, is not something that we can allow.” (AESDMS Ex. 16, Dkt. No. 27-4.) Coffey-Sears agreed to provide coverage with the front desk should she need to use the restroom in the middle of class. (PRDSUF ¶ 18.) During the 2013-2014 school year, Coffey-Sears had to leave her classroom to use the restroom about once a month. On each of these occasions, she was able to have another staff member supervise her classroom while she used the facilities. (Id. ¶ 19.) Because Coffey-Sears never told Piotrowski that this arrangement was not working out, he believed that she was satisfied with the District's response. (Id. ¶ 20.)

         As it turns out, however, Coffey-Sears was not satisfied with this arrangement. Specifically, the location of the women's restroom proved challenging for Coffey-Sears. Her classroom was in the basement and whenever she needed to use the restroom, she had to go to the first floor women's room. (AESDMS Ex. 1, Dkt. No. 27-1 at p. 102.) In order to avoid navigating the stairs and distance required to get to the women's restroom, Coffey-Sears asked that the District allow her to use a restroom located in the foyer of the building. This restroom had been shut down in 2010 due to maintenance costs and the fact that it was not wheelchair accessible. (PRDSUF ¶ 21.) Alternatively, Coffey-Sears requested to use the men's restroom near her assigned classroom. (Id. ¶ 22.) Ultimately, Coffey-Sears did not end up using either of these restrooms.

         C. Buildings and Grounds Team

         Sometime over the summer of 2013, Coffey-Sears sent a note to the District's Buildings and Grounds team asking that they make some adjustments to her classroom. (AESDMS Ex. 17, Dkt. No. 27-4.) The changes were primarily to allow her to use her wheelchair in the classroom and to limit the amount of walking needed to reach critical areas of the classroom. (PRDSUF ¶ 28.) Piotrowski was contacted about this request and emailed Coffey-Sears to confirm that Buildings and Grounds would accommodate any moves. (Id. ¶ 30.) On August 17, 2013, the Saturday before the first day of school, Coffey-Sears went to her classroom and found that it had not been changed per her request. (Id. ¶ 31.) When she discovered this, Coffey-Sears went to an unidentified person, whom she believes was the lead building foreman, and asked for help rearranging her room. The man told Coffey-Sears that the Buildings and Grounds staff were busy with other jobs and would not be able to assist her at that time. Since school was going to start that Monday, August, 19, 2013, Coffey-Sears got her husband and son to help her rearrange the room. (Id.)

         D. Handicap Parking

         The following week, on August 20, 2013, Coffey-Sears sent an email to Piotrowski regarding handicap parking at the school. (Id. ¶ 23.) According to that email, Coffey-Sears spoke to an unnamed secretary about her handicap parking sticker, which she was in the process of obtaining. The secretary informed Coffey-Sears that the school had more people in need of handicap parking spots than spots available. The secretary did, however, assign Coffey-Sears a parking space. She also warned Coffey-Sears that the assigned spot was “too far from the building, ” and said if Coffey-Sears wanted a closer option she would have to “simply arrive earlier.” (Id.) Coffey-Sears stated that she wanted to bring this to Piotrowski's attention in hopes that “perhaps data could be collected to re-evaluate the increased need[]” for handicap parking. (AESDMS Ex. 18, Dkt. No. 27-4.) Coffey-Sears specifically told Piotrowski not to “interpret this email as a necessity to meet, ” but just as an informative message. (Id.) During the rest of the 2013-2014 school year, Coffey-Sears never advised Piotrowski that the she was having difficulty finding parking close enough to the building. (PRDSUF ¶ 25.)

         E. Classroom Observation

         Several months later, then-Interim Fine Arts Division Chair Sam Robinson conducted a classroom observation of Coffey-Sears. (Id. ¶ 34.) On October 18, 2013, Robinson sent Coffey-Sears his feedback from the unannounced observation. (AESDMS Ex. 21, Dkt. No. 27-4 at 37 of 77.) The report includes a brief summary of Robinson's observations, followed by positive observations and suggestions for improvement. (Id. at 38-39 of 77.) In the suggestions for improvement section, Robinson states:

You remained at your computer for approximately 20 minutes. As a result, you were unable to observe several groups of students who were in many different areas of the room. Please monitor students by varying your position in the classroom as much as possible.

(Id. at 39 of 77.) Coffey-Sears objected to this criticism, alleging that her mobility issues prevented her from moving about the classroom. (PRDSUF ¶ 37.) In response to this objection, the District revised the assessment by replacing the sentence “Please monitor students by varying your position in the classroom as much as possible” with “Please think of effective strategies to monitor students.” (Id.)

         F. Sick Bank

         Health issues seem to have plagued Coffey-Sears throughout the first-half of the 2013-2014 school year. Indeed, by December 31, 2014, Coffey-Sears had exhausted all of her available sick days, as well as 3.9 days beyond her available balance. (Id. ¶ 41.) Accordingly, on January 27, 2015, the District notified Coffey-Sears that it would deduct 3.9 days from her salary over four payroll periods. (Id.) Coffey-Sears replied to this email, stating that she assumed the 3.9 extra days would be covered by the Sick Bank or some other accommodation. (Id.) The Sick Bank is a contractually-provided benefit, which allows participating teachers to draw from the Bank once they have depleted their own sick days and been on unpaid status for five school days due to a “catastrophic illness.” (Id. ¶ 39.) Piotrowski explained to Coffey-Sears, via email, that she was not eligible to use the Sick Bank because she had neither met the qualifications nor submitted the proper paperwork. (Id. ¶ 42.) Although not eligible to use the Sick Bank, Coffey-Sears nonetheless asked Piotrowski for additional paid sick days as a reasonable accommodation for her medical condition. (Id. ¶ 43.) The District did not provide Coffey-Sears with any additional paid sick days.

         G. Matt Brod Dispute

         During the 2014-2015 school year, Coffey-Sears shared a classroom with Matt Brod. Sharing this space proved difficult, and tensions strained the two teachers' working relationship. Indeed, in February of 2015 Brod confronted Coffey-Sears and told her, “You know you're the problem, you're always the problem with everyone in the department. They should see that you are the problem with everyone.” (Id. ¶ 72.) Brod also asked Coffey-Sears, “How many times does a schedule have to be re-done for the same person for them not to see who is the problem. It is always you.” (Id.)

         Eventually this tension came to a head. On April 7, 2015, Brod sent Coffey-Sears an email message asking her to keep students from her class from congregating near his desk while waiting for the bell to ring. Coffey-Sears told Brod that she would “inform the students about [his] feelings.” (Id. ΒΆ 64.) In keeping this promise, Coffey-Sears made a handwritten ...

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