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Vasquez v. Board of Education for School District U-46

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

April 5, 2017

CARLA VASQUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
THE BOARD OF EDUCATION FOR SCHOOL DISTRICT U-46, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          SARA L. ELLIS United States District Judge

         After suffering two work-related injuries that ultimately required her to have surgery, Plaintiff Carla Vasquez found herself terminated from her job as a bus driver's assistant for Defendant Board of Education for School District U-46 (the “District”) because she could not return to work without restrictions and had exhausted a year-long leave of absence to recover from her injuries. Vasquez brings this suit against the District alleging discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Illinois Human Rights Act (“IHRA”), 775 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/1-101 et seq., and retaliatory discharge in violation of the Illinois Workers Compensation Act, 820 Ill. Comp. Stat. 305/4, and Illinois common law. The District has moved to dismiss Vasquez's complaint.[1]Because the Court cannot conclude at this stage that the District's conditional settlement offer cannot as a matter of law be considered retaliatory, the Court allows Vasquez's retaliation claim to proceed to discovery. But Vasquez may only pursue equitable relief on her retaliatory discharge claim because any request for monetary damages is time-barred. The Court also strikes Vasquez's request for punitive damages because the Tort Immunity Act shields the District from such damages.

         BACKGROUND[2]

         Vasquez began working for the District as a bus driver's assistant in August 1997. Her job duties mainly involved assisting children with disabilities in boarding, riding, and exiting school transportation vehicles. Vasquez also worked shifts performing bus fleet maintenance for the District. She received an hourly salary, in addition to health and other benefits. At the time the District terminated her, Vasquez typically worked forty hours per week: thirty hours as a driver's assistant earning $15.75 per hour and ten hours performing maintenance services at $16.07 per hour. Vasquez did not receive any negative evaluations from the District. In connection with her employment, Vasquez belonged to the District U-46 Transportation Union (the “Union”).

         On December 3, 2008, Vasquez sustained injuries to her neck, left shoulder, and arm while securing the wheels of a wheelchair to the floor of a bus. Following District and Union protocols, Vasquez obtained a diagnosis and treatment plan for her injuries and did not work for approximately seven months. She received workers' compensation of $718.04 every two weeks. In July 2009, her doctor authorized her to return to full employment, and she exercised her seniority to select a bus route that did not include any wheelchair-bound students. On December 15, 2009, Vasquez again suffered an injury while working, this time to her neck and left shoulder while attempting to assist a disabled child into her seat. But she continued working while under her doctor's care after this injury. She received cortisone shots to help alleviate the pain through December 2011, when the District's workers' compensation claims agent denied continuation of the shots.

         On January 7, 2012, Vasquez had an MRI on her left arm and shoulder, which revealed she had tears in her rotator cuff that required surgery. On January 30, her surgeon, Dr. Atluri, authorized her to return to work with certain restrictions prior to the surgery. Vasquez then met with Carin Bjourn, the District's Assistant to the Director of Transportation, on February 13 to discuss the restrictions and upcoming surgery. Bjourn indicated that, per District policy, Vasquez would have to stop working and immediately begin workers' compensation leave because the District did not allow employees to work with restrictions. Vasquez then began receiving workers' compensation checks for $965.06 every two weeks. Although she did not know it at the time, this began a one-year leave-of-absence period, at the end of which the District could terminate her if she could not return to work without restrictions.

         Vasquez had surgery on March 14, 2012. On April 10, she informed Bjourn she could return to work with certain restrictions that did not prevent her from performing her job, providing a doctor's note on April 17 indicating she could return to work with restricted use of her affected arm. Bjourn again told Vasquez she could only return to work without any restrictions. This interaction repeated itself monthly between April and November 2012.

         On November 29, 2012, Dr. Atluri recommended that Vasquez have elbow surgery to further address issues with Vasquez's arm. The District's workers' compensation carrier refused to authorize the surgery and required Vasquez to obtain an independent medical examination (“IME”). After rescheduling five times, Dr. Anderson conducted the IME on January 17, 2013. Upon receiving the IME report, which evaluated her neck and shoulder instead of her elbow, the workers' compensation carrier stopped authorizing treatment for Vasquez's shoulder on January 28, 2013. After the carrier realized that the IME should have addressed her elbow, Vasquez received back payments in a lump sum of $5, 307.83 for the period covering January 25 to April 19, 2013. Vasquez then had another IME evaluation by Dr. Benson on May 29, who supported the refusal to cover the surgery for her elbow.[3] Her disability payments then stopped as of June 6, 2013 and she was also denied social security disability benefits because her medical records indicated she could work with certain restrictions.

         On February 12, 2013, Dr. Atluri again saw Vasquez and provided a note indicating she could return to work with the same restriction on the use of her affected arm. Vasquez delivered this note to the District's human resources department the following day. But that same day, she received a letter informing her that she had exhausted her twelve-month leave of absence, meaning that the District was terminating her because she could not return to work. According to the termination notice Vasquez received, the District would only consider reemployment upon receipt of a physician's release to full duty and an updated employment application.

         After the District terminated her, Vasquez sought reinstatement through the Union, but the Union refused to file a grievance on her behalf. Vasquez then filed the grievance without the Union's assistance, but the District denied it at every step. She received a settlement offer from the District on October 3, 2013, providing Vasquez with the ability to return to work upon release to full duty while allowing the District the right to refuse to provide reasonable accommodations in her attempt to do so. While negotiations continued, Vasquez filed a discrimination charge under the ADA with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on December 6, 2013.[4] Vasquez ultimately rejected the District's settlement offer because it did not allow for reasonable accommodations and required her to dismiss and release the District from all claims, including her EEOC charge and claims under the ADA. On April 8, 2014, Vasquez learned that the District would give her her job back if she dropped her EEOC discrimination charges. Vasquez continued to pursue the charges, however, receiving a right to sue letter from the Department of Justice on April 22, 2016.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the sufficiency of the complaint, not its merits. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6); Gibson v. City of Chicago, 910 F.2d 1510, 1520 (7th Cir. 1990). In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court accepts as true all well-pleaded facts in the plaintiff's complaint and draws all reasonable inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor. AnchorBank, FSB v. Hofer, 649 F.3d 610, 614 (7th Cir. 2011). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the complaint must not only provide the defendant with fair notice of a claim's basis but must also be facially plausible. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009); see also Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         ANALYSIS

         I. Retaliation ...


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