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Garnetta L. Hunt v. District of Columbia

May 2, 2013


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-1857-09) (Hon. Judith Bartnoff, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell, Senior Judge:

Argued March 27, 2013

Before BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY and EASTERLY, Associate Judges, and FARRELL, Senior Judge.

Garnetta L. Hunt (Hunt), formerly a correctional officer with the rank of Sergeant with the District of Columbia Department of Corrections (DOC), filed suit alleging that she had not been provided with a reasonable accommodation for a disability -- mainly psychological -- that she sustained after being attacked by a jail inmate. Hunt claimed discrimination based on her disability, in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (DCHRA), D.C. Code § 2-1401 et seq. (2001), intentional interference with contractual relations, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Superior Court (Bartnoff, J.) granted summary judgment to the District of Columbia and two named DOC officials on all of the claims. On appeal, Hunt argues primarily that triable issues of fact precluded summary judgment on whether DOC had reasonably accommodated her disability either by changes to her job at the Jail*fn1 or by providing her with a new job away from the Jail where she would have no contact with inmates. Like Judge Bartnoff, we conclude that Hunt failed as a matter of law to show (a) that even with accommodations for her disability, she was able to perform the essential duties of her position at the Jail; (b) that other jobs with DOC existed at the time for which she was qualified and to which she could therefore be transferred; and (c) that DOC breached a duty under the governing statute to engage in an "interactive process" to identify possible alternative jobs. Because Hunt‟s additional causes of action failed also as a matter of law, we affirm the grant of summary judgment.


The following facts, drawn from depositions and other proffered materials, are not disputed. On March 23, 2004, while on duty at the Jail, Hunt suffered head, neck, and shoulder injuries from an attack by an inmate. She was hospitalized for these injuries and also diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for which she received treatment from a psychiatrist and other mental health professionals. After a prolonged absence during which she was treated and received worker‟s compensation, she returned to work on April 18, 2006. At that time, her treating psychiatrist stated in a letter that she could work, on a trial basis, but only if the position she were assigned to had limited contact with inmates. DOC therefore assigned her to a post at the staff entrance to the Jail, where she would not regularly come into contact with inmates; and, to further insulate her from such contact, it no longer required her to attend roll call.

Nevertheless, Hunt experienced three succeeding panic attacks. The first two occurred after she had incidental contact with inmates while going from one place to another within the facility. The third, on September 26, 2006, occurred when she heard inmates in a nearby hallway pounding on a secure door to which she controlled access. As a result, Hunt was placed on administrative leave until November 29, 2006, when (after her pay was terminated because she had failed to furnish a "medical evaluation") she obtained a note from a treating therapist that she could resume work if assigned to a post where she had no direct contact with inmates. As this had not proved feasible, she remained on leave without pay.

More than a year later, a DOC official (Captain Watford) again talked to Hunt about possible positions at the jail involving limited contact with inmates. One was in the motor pool, the other in the records office, but both locations, although "outside the perimeter of the jail setting," entailed some "limited contact with inmates." *fn2 Hunt‟s reassignment to one of those jobs, according to Watford, would depend "on what her doctor provided to the agency to [enable it] to make a decision." On July 16, 2008, however, her treating psychiatrist wrote to DOC that Hunt "ha[d] not been able to work in a working environment around inmates, and it is very unlikely that she will ever be able to work in the same capacity. . . . Patients suffering from [PTSD,] when exposed to [the] same or similar environment, almost always relapse." Although the doctor noted that Hunt‟s "prognosis is fair for a possible employment in another field with proper training," Judge Bartnoff correctly pointed out that Hunt "[did] not claim [in the trial court] -- and there is nothing in the record to suggest -- that she ever pursued the possibility of some other type of employment with DOC after that letter was submitted." At the time of the trial court proceedings, Hunt had not been terminated formally, but she had not been reassigned or allowed to return to her most recent post and was unpaid.


To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must demonstrate that there is no genuine issue with regard to any material fact and, therefore, that it is entitled to judgment in its favor as a matter of law. Grant v. May Dep't Stores Co., 786 A.2d 580, 583 (D.C. 2001) (citing, inter alia, Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (c)). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must read the pleadings and other materials submitted in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, id. (citing Nader v. de Toledano, 408 A.2d 31, 42 (D.C. 1979)), and decide whether, viewed in that light, the evidence "presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Stated otherwise, "a plaintiff‟s mere speculations are insufficient to create a genuine issue of fact" and thus withstand summary judgment. Cain v. Reinoso, 43 A.3d 302, 313 (D.C. 2012). We review the grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard used by the trial court. Grant, 786 A.2d at 583.


The DCHRA makes it an "unlawful discriminatory practice" for an employer, with respect to compensation or the terms of employment, to discharge or otherwise discriminate against an employee "based upon [a] . . . disability . . . ." D.C. Code § 2-1402.11 (a)(1) (2006 Supp.). For purposes of summary judgment, Judge Bartnoff assumed that Hunt suffered from a "disability," i.e., PTSD that prevented her from working as a correctional officer who had contact with inmates.*fn3 We proceed on that basis.

Our decisions under the DCHRA regarding whether an employee was discriminated against because of a "disability" effectively incorporate judicial construction of related anti-discrimination provisions of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12102 et seq. (2006). See, e.g., Strass v. Kaiser Found. Health Plan, 744 A.2d 1000, 1007-09 & n.8 (D.C. 2000). To show unlawful discrimination, an ADA plaintiff with a disability "must prove . . . that [s]he was qualified for the position with or without a reasonable accommodation, and that [s]he suffered an adverse employment action because of [her] disability." Duncan v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth., 345 U.S. App. D.C. 170, 174, 240 F.3d 1110, 1114 (2001) (internal quotation marks omitted).*fn4 As Judge Bartnoff recognized, therefore, the question is whether Hunt, with or without "reasonable accommodation," could "perform the essential functions of her position," Carr v. Reno, 306 U.S. App. D.C. 217, 221, 23 F.3d 525, 529 (1994) -- more precisely, whether she raised triable issues of fact necessary to answering that question.

We look first at the position Hunt occupied, a correctional officer at the Jail. In determining the essential functions of a position, courts "generally give substantial weight to the employer‟s view of job requirements," Ward v. Massachusetts Health Research Inst., 209 F.3d 29, 34 (1st Cir. 2000), deference particularly apt for a job such as Hunt‟s, intimately associated with preserving public safety. We thus reject Hunt‟s threshold argument that, despite the affidavit of Warden Wainwright, supra, note 2, a jury should have been allowed to decide whether "inmate contact [was] an essential job function‟ of a correctional officer at the jail. Reply Br. for Appellant at 8. Wainwright explained that, particularly in light of foreseeable emergencies, every correctional officer position at DOC had at least the potential for contact with inmates. Hunt offered no expert ...

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