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Emerick v. Wood River-Hartford School District

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

June 27, 2017

JANE EMERICK, Plaintiff,


          Michael J. Reagan United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant, Wood River-Hartford School District No. 15's (“Wood River”), Motion to Dismiss/Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 15).[1] The underlying dispute is based upon Plaintiff Jane Emerick's claim that Wood River (her employer) failed to provide reasonable accommodations and discriminated against her for her disabilities (Doc. 1). Emerick identifies numerous specific occasions of discrimination or a lack of accommodations in her Complaint spanning from 2013 to present. Defendant seeks dismissal or summary judgment on multiple theories (Doc. 15). Emerick responded (Doc. 19) to the Motion and Defendant replied (Doc. 23), so the matter is now ripe for consideration. This Court enjoys jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 because Emerick's claims invoke federal question jurisdiction.

         II. Facts

         To understand the arguments being made before the Court on the Defendant's Motion for dismissal or summary judgment (Doc. 15) it is important to understand the steps Emerick took prior to initiating a law suit, as well as the timing of the events discussed in her Complaint. The facts below are organized into two chronologies, one to reflect steps Emerick took with the EEOC pre-Complaint and a second to reflect events identified in her Complaint. These two distinct chronologies are important to this Court's findings regarding res judicata and time-bar arguments because procedural and time-bar constraints limit the potential scope of arguments properly before this Court. Ultimately, the Court will grant the Defendant's motion to time-bar or dismiss for insufficiently pleading a sub-set of claims, while allowing others to proceed.

         Emerick, a long-time Wood River employee, filed her first charge with the EEOC on August 15, 2013 (Doc. 15-1 at 6-13). In the charge, she complained that Defendant was failing to make accommodations for her diagnosed condition-multiple sclerosis (“MS”)-which limits her ability to walk, stand, open doors, ascend and descend stairs, and lift items (Id.). The first EEOC charge was amended once on February 3, 2014 (Id.). The charge complains of a continuing course of conduct from April 30, 2013, through July 19, 2013 (Id.). During that timeframe, Emerick alleges that she was repeatedly denied instructional assistant duties because those duties took place in non-accessible portions of the school (Id.). Instead, she was relegated to less challenging duties, like monitoring in-school suspension (Id.). The amendment identifies specific portions of the building that were not accessible, but does not expand the date range of the alleged discrimination (Id.). For context, the charge states:

I have requested, on many occasions, the assignment of instructional assistant duties but have repeatedly been limited to less challenging duties such as monitoring in school suspension sessions that involve very little student educational instruction. Non-certified teacher's assistants are being assigned student instruction assistant duties because [Wood River] chooses to conduct these classes on the second floor. The second floor is not handicap accessible. I have requested that I be allowed to perform instructional assistant duties in classrooms on the ground floor. However I have been told as recently as July 19, 2013 that my accommodation request would affect other teacher classroom assignments. All of my other requested accommodation solutions have been rejected for supposedly being too costly, too time consuming or no available funds.

(Id.). The amendment adds:

The schools are not fully handicap accessible. I have been denied reasonable accommodations of safe access to all school floors including the Lewis & Clark Junior High School, (LCE) gymnasium and cafeteria. I have requested and been denied requests for reasonable accommodations of automatic outside and automatic inside doors at the school entrance. I have been denied the reasonable accommodation of a handicap accessibility for the 1st floor girl's bathroom. I have been denied the reasonable accommodation of a handicap parking space near the front of the Handicap entrance. District meetings are held in the LCE gymnasium which is not accessible to me due to my disability. These meetings could be held at the Hartford Elementary school which is accessible to me. The door to the Lewis & Clark Junior High school Admin. Office, where teacher mailboxes are located, is not accessible to me due to my disability and this door should open automatically. The lift does not go to the second floor and it is not up to code.

(Id. at 8-9). The EEOC ultimately “[was] unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of the statutes, ” though it did not certify that no violations existed (Id. at 11). On September 9, 2015, Emerick received a right-to-sue letter in relation to her first EEOC charge, but she did not initiate suit (Id.).

         Rather than initiate suit, on November 3, 2015, Emerick filed a second charge with the EEOC (Doc. 15-1 at 17-18). The second charge alleged a continuing course of discrimination from August 3, 2009, through September 2, 2015 (Id.). Specifically, she complained that Defendant failed to make multiple areas of her workplace handicap accessible to her-listing events and areas of the school that she was not able to access (Id.). Emerick also alleged that administrators have isolated her and failed to make accommodations, creating a hostile work environment (Id.). The second charge states:

In August of 2014, I was transferred to Hartford Elementary School. […] [Wood River] has failed to make my work location handicap accessible, continues to deny my requests for reasonable accommodations, and has created a hostile work environment based on my disability. I cannot enter or exit the school building without having my mother open the door for me. Contrary to what [Wood River] has repeatedly stated, there is no one at the school who opens and closes the door for me. There is a bathroom in my classroom, but I've been told that I cannot use the bathroom because it lacks the required handicap accessible “grab bars.” [Wood River] has denied my request that “Grab bars” be installed in the bathroom in my classroom. I have to walk down a long hallway, utilizing my walker, in order to use a bathroom that is handicap accessible. I cannot access the multi-purpose room that is located on the lower level of the school. I am being excluded from important education meetings that are conducted in the multi-purpose room every Monday. Student concerts and school activities are held in the multi-purpose room which I cannot gain access to because [Wood River] refuses to install a stair tracker or other device to safely allow me access to the lower level of the school. I am forced to sit alone in my classroom during these Monday meetings and while other school activities are held in the multi-purpose room. I am not able to attend mandatory meetings at Lewis and Clark Elementary and Junior High School because the meetings are held in areas that are not handicap accessible. A critical part of my job is to conduct student testing at Lewis and Clark Elementary and Junior High School and Hartford Elementary School. However, I have been excluded from testing students, and therefore, prevented from participating in important decisions being made based upon the results of these tests for my students. My requests for reasonable accommodations that would allow me to fully access all areas of Hartford Elementary and Lewis and Clark Elementary and Junior High Schools continue to be denied.

(Id. at 17-18). On April 15, 2016, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division issued a right-to-sue letter pertaining to the 2015 charge of discrimination because more than 180 days had lapsed since Emerick filed the charge without the EEOC taking action (Doc. 15-1 at 23).

         On July 13, 2016, Emerick filed her Complaint with this Court under the ADA (Doc. 1). In the Complaint, Emerick specifically references her second charge with the EEOC. She also provides a chronological recitation of incidents with her employer that she alleges caused her harm. The chronology begins with an allegation that in July 2013 she was required to take a fitness-for-duty exam, though other employees were not required to do so (Id. at 2, ¶7). During the entire 2013-14 academic year, she alleges that she lacked access to a handicapped bathroom, that she was excluded from staff meetings and student events, and that her employer failed to make reasonable accommodations to improve the accessibility of school facilities (Id. at 3, ¶8).

         Further, in August 2014, she learned that Defendant owned a stair tracker but lent it to another school facility rather than installing it at her worksite (Id., ¶9). On August 20, 2014, she alleges that the principal told her she could not use the bathroom in her classroom because there were not grab bars (Id., ¶10). From August 26, 2014, through September 2, 2014, training was held at a non-accessible facility (Id., ¶11). On November 24 and December 15, 16, and 18, 2014, student events were held in a non-accessible part of the building (Id., ¶12-14). Non-accessible events occurred again on January 30, February 15, May 6 and 26, 2015 (Id., ¶15-17). On August 17 and 18, 2015, beginning-of-the-year meetings were not accessible (Id. at 18). And, finally, on September 14 and 15, 2015, student testing was held in a non-accessible area (Id., ¶19).

         Emerick alleges that after she filed her second EEOC charge on November 3, 2015, the principal moved weekly meetings to the accessible cafeteria, effective November 23, 2015 (Id., ¶22). However, during the week of January 11, 2016, student testing activities were again held in a non-accessible area (Id., ¶23). As a whole, Emerick alleges that Defendant was always aware of her disability and refused to engage in a process to develop reasonable accommodations (Id. at 6). Emerick contends that she is a qualified individual capable of performing all functions of her job (Id.). She is still employed by the Defendant (Id.).

         Emerick seeks injunctive relief against future discriminatory acts, and she also seeks a mandate for her employer to implement accommodations such as a chair lift, grab bars, and automatic doors. (Id. at 6-7). Emerick also seeks attorney's fees and punitive damages (Id.).

         In response to Emerick's Complaint, Defendant filed a joint Motion to Dismiss/Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 15). The four major arguments are: (1) Emerick's Complaint should be dismissed under the doctrine of res judicata because she failed to act on her first EEOC charge and only initiated suit after the second charge; (2) allegations repeated in Emerick's second EEOC charge and presented in the Complaint should be time-barred because Emerick failed to initiate suit within 90 days of receiving her first right-to-sue letter; (3) allegations in Emerick's second EEOC charge and presented in the Complaint that occurred more than 300 days before her initiation of that charge with the EEOC should be time-barred; and, (4) Emerick's Complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim because her allegations are not adequate (Id.).

         Emerick responded that res judicata does not apply to prior EEOC determinations, so her suit should not be barred on that ground (Doc. 19 at 2-3). As to the time-bar arguments, Emerick argues that because she filed within 90 days of the second right-to-sue letter, her Complaint is timely, and, because she alleges a hostile work environment, her Complaint rightfully encompasses conduct from more than 300 days before her second EEOC charge (Id. at 4-5). Finally, she alleges that Defendant conflates or misrepresents the elements of a failure to accommodate claim and a disparate treatment claim, though, in any event, she has alleged a valid claim under both theories (Id. at 5-8). Additionally, Emerick elaborates on her theory of a hostile work environment (Id. at 8-9). She concedes that her request for punitive damages is inappropriate (Id. at 9-10).

         Defendant replied that Emerick did not present a hostile work environment claim in her Complaint, but that, even if she did, she failed to identify sufficient facts and arguments to warrant such a claim (Doc. 23 at 2-3). Defendant specifically highlights Emerick's characterization in her response brief of certain acts as “discrete discriminatory acts, ” arguing that those acts are not adverse employment actions (Id.). Thus, Defendant concludes that Emerick cannot pursue a hostile work environment claim (Id. at 4).

         III. Standard of Review

         This Court accepts all factual allegations as true when reviewing a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). To avoid dismissal for failure to state a claim, a complaint must contain a short and plain statement of the claim sufficient to show entitlement to relief and to notify the defendant of the allegations made against him. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-57 (2007). To meet this standard, a complaint must describe the claims in sufficient factual detail to suggest a right to relief beyond a speculative level. Id.; Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); EEOC v. Concentra Health Servs., 496 F.3d 773, 776 (7th Cir. 2007). A complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, Scott v. Chuhak & Tescon, P.C., 725 F.3d 772, 782 (7th Cir. 2013), but it must go beyond “mere labels and conclusions” and contain “enough to raise the right to relief above the speculative level.” G&S Holdings, LLC v. Cont'l Cas. Co., 697 F.3d 534, 537-38 (7th Cir. 2012).

         The Seventh Circuit has outlined the boundaries of 12(b)(6) with two major principles. First, although facts in the pleadings must be accepted as true and construed in the plaintiff's favor, allegations in the form of legal conclusions are insufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc., 694 F.3d 873, 885 (7th Cir. 2012). And, second, “the plausibility standard calls for a ‘context-specific' inquiry that requires the court ‘to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.'” Id. Threadbare recitals of elements and conclusory statements are not sufficient to state a claim. Id. Put another way, to survive a motion to dismiss “the plaintiff must give enough details about the subject-matter of the ...

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