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Spring-Weber v. City of Chicago

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

April 10, 2017



          MATTHEW F. KENNELLY United States District Judge.

         Lisa Spring-Weber, a fire paramedic employed by the City of Chicago, has chronic Bell's Palsy. She has filed suit against the City and two of its employees- Doctor William Wong and Edgar Silvestrini-alleging that they subjected her to disparate treatment because of her disability in violation of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) (count 1), retaliated against her in violation of the ADA (count 2), denied her benefits because of her disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act (count 3), violated her constitutional rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth and Fifteenth Amendments (count 4), and intentionally inflicted emotional distress on her (count 5). Defendants have moved to dismiss all five counts. The Court previously considered and denied defendants' motion as to counts 1 and 2. See Spring-Weber v. City of Chicago, No. 16 C 8097, dkt. no. 47. For the reasons stated below, the Court partially grants the motion to dismiss count 4 but otherwise denies defendants' motion to dismiss.


         The Court takes the following facts from the allegations in Spring's[1] amended complaint.

         Spring has worked as a fire paramedic for the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) since April 2004. In 2009, she was diagnosed with severe chronic Bell's Palsy in the right side of her face. Spring suffers from a variety of symptoms, including paralysis to the right side of her face, facial distortion and drooping, cosmetic disfigurement causing impaired speech and slurring, facial twitching, and impaired hearing. She occasionally experiences flare-ups during which her symptoms worsen for a brief period. Spring's doctors have provided CFD's medical division with certifications indicating that she is fit for duty as a fire paramedic.

         In May 2015, Spring suffered from a flare-up of her symptoms while on duty driving an ambulance for CFD. She experienced facial distortion and twitching, facial paralysis, drooling, a runny nose, sniffling, and eye watering. These symptoms occurred mainly on the right side of her face, closest to the passenger seat. Joel Weiss, another CFD employee riding as a passenger, accused Spring of falling asleep at the wheel and repeatedly told her to wake up. When the two returned to the fire station, Weiss complained to the field chief about Spring's appearance and claimed that she fell asleep at the wheel. As a result, Spring was pulled off duty and placed on involuntary medical leave, lasting from May to December 2015.

         While on medical leave, Spring's pay rate was reduced. She also lost the ability to work overtime and earn holiday pay, and she became ineligible for promotions. Her pay reduction also lowered her pension contributions during that same time period. Spring also lost out on a transfer to a more desirable location. Around June 2015, Spring provided the City with a certification from her treating physician, who indicated that her condition does not interfere with her ability to safely and effectively perform her job. Despite this, the City deemed her unfit for duty and kept her on involuntary medical leave.

         CFD employees on medical leave are required to remain in their home or other place of recuperation to permit CFD to monitor their progress. Am. Compl., Ex. A (General Order 10-011) at III.D.6. Employees are allowed to leave only for specific activities, such as attending religious services, purchasing food or necessities, going to court, or voting. Id. at III.D.6.a. If the employee wishes to leave Chicago, she must demonstrate a personal emergency and receive prior approval from the command staff of the medical section. Id. at III.D.6.b. Thus Spring was confined to her home under these conditions during her period of involuntary leave.

         Spring also alleges that while she was on medical leave, both Dr. Wong (CFD's medical director) and Silvestrini (the deputy district chief for CFD's medical division) began using department policies to harass her. Under General Order 10-011, the medical section assigns employees a date and time to report to the medical section for evaluation. Id. at III.D.1. Employees must report on the assigned date in the appropriate dress or modified dress uniform. Id. at III.D.2. Failure to report or to be prompt for a scheduled appointment may be cause for discipline. Id. at III.D.4. According to Spring, Dr. Wong and Silvestrini made excessive demands for Spring to report to the medical division, each time in dress uniform. When she arrived at the medical division, Dr. Wong and Silvestrini would give preference to paramedics who had arrived later than Spring, despite the fact that patients are supposed to be seen in the order they arrive. As a result, she often had to wait five hours before meeting with Dr. Wong, even when she arrived an hour early. She could not leave without seeing Dr. Wong because if she did, she would receive a disciplinary warning for being "AWOL." Additionally, Dr. Wong and Silvestrini required Spring to submit to multiple urinalysis screenings for drug and alcohol use. General Order 87-008 provides the criteria for determining when the medical section should require an employee to submit to drug tests. See Am. Compl., Ex. B (General Order 87-008). One situation that requires the administration of urinalysis is when the employee exhibits "[a]ny behavior or conduct on duty, which in the opinion of two supervisors, . . . evidences reasonable grounds to suspect use or excessive use of illegal drugs or alcoholic beverages." Id. at IV.A.5. Spring was required to undergo multiple screenings and had to provide urine samples in the presence of a City employee.

         Defendants also required Spring to submit to psychiatric consultations and testing over a two-day period and ordered her to meet with a psychologist for one year. Thus far, Spring has spent approximately $1, 000 on these appointments. Dr. Wong and Silvestrini also required Spring to sign a comprehensive HIPAA release form in order to permit them to access Spring's psychiatric record. When Spring protested, defendants told her that they would fire her if she did not submit to testing and sign the release form. Defendants have also singled Spring out for strenuous physical tests in order to ensure that she is fit for duty.

         Spring further alleges that Dr. Wong and Silvestrini have denied her medical care to which she is entitled. An employee who suffers an injury while on duty must have all medical services pre-approved by CFD's medical director. General Order 10-011 at III.A.7, VI.A. General Order 10-011 provides that approval shall be granted without delay based upon the treating physician's recommendation and after a determination that the treatment is consistent with generally accepted medical standards. Id. The purpose of this order is to avoid requiring the employee to pay for duty-related medical bills. Id. at VI.A. Spring suffered a duty-related injury in 2014 and requested pre-approval from Dr. Wong for her medical treatment. Dr. Wong denied approval of her treatment and has directed other City employees to shred Spring's other requests for pre-approval.

         Spring alleges that Dr. Wong and Silvestrini have repeated this mistreatment with other employees. She alleges that they have systematically abused their authority in order to mistreat other disabled CFD employees who are similarly situated. Spring also alleges that the City is aware of this abuse because she and other employees have filed grievances with the Chicago Firefighter's Union Local 2 as well as with the Illinois Office of the Inspector General. At one point, Spring contacted her alderman, Edward Burke, and asked him to contact the City on her behalf. Burke contacted Silvestrini about the alleged discrimination, after which, Spring alleges, the abuse intensified.

         In January 2016, Spring filed a charge of discrimination against the City with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR). In response, she alleges, the City retaliated against her in numerous ways, including transferring her to a remote location, issuing baseless disciplinary warnings, and refusing to permit her to schedule her furlough days.

         Spring filed this suit in August 2016. She claims in count 1 that she suffered from disparate treatment by defendants due to her chronic Bell's Palsy in violation of the ADA. In count 2, she claims that the City retaliated against her after she filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and the IDHR, in violation of the ADA. Spring claims in count 3 that defendants denied pre-approval of her medical care due to her disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act. In count 4, she claims that defendants' conduct violated a number of her constitutional rights. First, Spring claims that placing her on involuntary leave constitutes a deprivation of property without due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Next, she claims that defendants violated her Fourth Amendment rights by (1) subjecting her to unreasonable searches in the form of urinalysis tests; (2) confining her to her home during the period of medical leave; and (3) forcing her to wait in the medical waiting room for long periods of time. Spring also claims defendants violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by discriminating against her due to her disability. She claims that defendants violated her Fifth Amendment right to privacy by (1) requiring intrusive psychiatric testing and evaluation; and (2) requiring a HIPAA release of her medical records. Finally, she claims that defendants' retaliated against her for speaking with Alderman Burke in violation of the First Amendment. In total, Spring alleges eight different constitutional violations. She claims that Dr. Wong and Silvestrini are each individually liable for these violations and that the City is liable as well. In count 5, she claims that defendants' conduct amounts to intentional infliction of emotional distress.


         Defendants have moved to dismiss all five counts of Spring's amended complaint. The Court has already denied the motion to dismiss as to counts 1 and 2 and therefore considers only the three remaining counts in this opinion. Defendants argue for dismissal of count 3 on the grounds that they did not deprive Spring of any protected interest in property. In regards to Spring's constitutional claims, defendants argue that (1) their conduct does not evidence constitutional violations; (2) the City cannot be held liable for any of the allegedly unlawful conduct; and (3) Dr. Wong and Silvestrini are entitled to qualified immunity. Finally, defendants argue that the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress should be dismissed because the claim is preempted by the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA), the alleged conduct is not sufficiently extreme or outrageous to support such a claim, the claim is barred under the Illinois Tort Immunity Act, and the statute of limitations restricts the actionable conduct.

         To survive dismissal, a complaint must allege sufficient factual matter to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Gogos v. AMS Mech. Sys., Inc., 737 F.3d 1170, 1172 (7th Cir. 2013). 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." McCauley v. City of Chicago, 671 F.3d 611, 615 (7th Cir. 2011). In considering the defendants' motion to dismiss, the Court accepts as true all of Spring's factual allegations and draws all reasonable inferences in her favor. See Chasensky v. Walker, 740 F.3d 1088, 1093 (7th Cir. 2014).

         I. Rehabilitation Act

         The Rehabilitation Act protects a qualified individual with a disability from discrimination solely because of this disability in any program receiving federal financial assistance. Branham v. Snow, 392 F.3d 896, 902 (7th Cir. 2004). In order to state a claim under the Act, the plaintiff must allege that (1) she suffers from a disability; (2) she was otherwise qualified for the benefit sought; (3) she was discriminated against solely by reason of her disability; and (4) the program or activity receives federal financial assistance. See Stevens v. Skenandore, No. 99-2611, 2000 WL 1609404, *2 (7th Cir. 2000); Branham, 392 F.3d at 902. Spring alleges that she was entitled to pre-approval of medical treatment for an on-duty injury and that defendants denied this approval due to her disability. Am. Compl. ¶ 69(j)-(1). Defendants argue that Spring has failed to properly allege that she was entitled to any specific benefit because she has not alleged the circumstances of her duty-related injury or the treatment for which she sought approval. Defs.' Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss Pl.'s Am. Compl. at 7-8. But General Order 10-011 indicates that pre-approval of expenses for duty-related injuries will be granted without delay so long as the employee's medical provider recommends the course of treatment. General Order 10-011 at V.I.A. Thus according to this policy, the nature and circumstances surrounding the duty-related injury are irrelevant in determining whether an employee is entitled to pre-approval of her medical expenses. Spring has alleged that she was injured on the job in 2014, she requested pre-approval for treatment, and defendants denied this approval because of her disability. Taking these facts as true, Spring has adequately alleged a claim under the Rehabilitation Act. The Court therefore denies defendants' motion to dismiss count 3.

         II. ...

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