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Johnson v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 14, 2016



          JOHN D.BATES United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Debra Johnson brings this action under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §12112 et seq., against defendant District of Columbia, where she was previously employed as a public school teacher. Johnson alleges that the District discriminated against her because of her disability, failed to accommodate several of her requests for reasonable accommodations, and terminated her in retaliation for protected activity. The District has moved for summary judgment on all counts. Its motion will be granted in part and denied in part.


         Except as otherwise indicated, the following facts are uncontested. Johnson began teaching for the District of Columbia Public Schools at Randle Highlands Elementary in 2008. The first events relevant to this case occurred during the 2011-2012 school year, at which time Johnson taught pre-kindergarten students, aged three to four. In fall 2011 Johnson sought medical treatment for back pain, as demonstrated by two doctors' treatment notes, dated September 29, 2011, and October 3, 2011. See Sept. 29, 2011 & Oct. 3, 2011, Treatment Notes [ECF Nos. 30-10 & 30-11]. The doctors stated that Johnson should be restricted from "frequent bending, " "prolonged standing, " "heavy lifting, " and anything else that would put a strain on her back. Sept. 29, 2011 & Oct. 3, 2011, Treatment Notes. The record does not conclusively reveal when or if Johnson submitted these specific notes to her school.[1]Johnson testified that she requested an aide to assist her in the classroom during the 2011-2012 school year in light of her back issues. See Johnson Dep. [ECF No. 25-3] at 46:12-47:16. By December, Johnson had at least two aides assigned to her classroom. See Id. at 47:19-48:13; Dec. 2011 Schedule [ECF No. 30-12]. Responsibility for various classroom tasks was allocated between Johnson and the aides according to a schedule designed by Tracy Foster, the principal at Johnson's school. See Dec. 2011 Schedule.

         In mid-February 2012, Johnson went on medical leave. About a month later, she had a meeting with a District official where she raised complaints regarding the District's alleged discrimination and failure to accommodate her disability. See May 25, 2012, Emails [ECF No. 30-14] at 3 (describing the March 16, 2012, meeting). In mid-May 2012, the District approved Johnson's request to treat a continuous block of absences stretching from February 21 to May 18 as medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). See May 9, 2012, Letter [ECF No. 25-5] at 1. The letter also indicated, however, that Johnson was expected to return to duty on May 21, 2012-and that the failure to notify her supervisor of her intent to do so within a specified period could be "considered a voluntary resignation from DCPS." Id. at 2. After receiving the District's letter, Johnson submitted alerter from one of her doctors requesting additional leave. See May 23, 2012, Letter [ECF No. 25-6]. The District informed Johnson that she had exhausted her leave under the FMLA and D.C. Family & Medical Leave Act (DCFMLA), but that it would consider her request for additional leave under the ADA upon receiving the necessary documentation from Johnson's doctor. See Id. Johnson did not return to work for the remainder of the school year. During the summer, the District notified Johnson that it had failed to substantiate the allegations of discrimination and failure to accommodate that she had made in March. June 21, 2012, Letter [ECF No. 30-17].

         Johnson returned to work on August 20, 2012, the first day of the 2012-2013 school year. No one appears to dispute that Johnson had been reassigned to second grade for that school year and that her classroom had been moved from the ground floor to the second floor of the building. But Johnson and the District agree about little else regarding the events of that day. According to Johnson, early that morning, the assistant principal denied her request for an aide to help set up her classroom and explained that she would not be assigned an aide for the coming school year. Johnson Dep. at 57:13-58:01. Johnson was thus forced to move "some things" in her classroom herself. Id. at 59:05-06. Later in the day, upon her own initiative, she asked two custodians to assist her with setting up her classroom, notwithstanding earlier instructions from the principal that custodians should not be helping teachers with that task. Id. at 58:08-59:03. The District dispute s Johnson's account, offering declarations submitted by those custodians. Both individuals claim that they were expressly instructed by the assistant principal to help Johnson arrange her classroom, that the classroom was totally unorganized when they arrived, that they arranged the furniture at Johnson's instruction, and that Johnson did not move any furniture when they were in the room. See Decls. of Erik Griffin & Lionel Jenkins [ECF Nos. 27-1 & 27-2].

         Whichever account is correct, what happened next is undisputed. The following day, Johnson did not come to work. Several days later, she submitted a claim for workers' compensation alleging a workplace injury on the first day of school, see Sept. 25, 2012, Letter [ECF No. 25-22], and a treatment note indicating that she was again being treated for back pain, see Foster Dep. [ECF No. 25-2] at 16:03-16. The note recommended that Johnson not return to work until she could have a disability evaluation. Aug. 23, 2012, Treatment Note [ECF No. 30-18]. Another treatment note, prepared by Dr. William Burner in connection with a September 11, 2012, appointment, opined that "it was not in [Johnson's] best interest to continue work in child care or as a teacher." Sept. 11, 2012, Treatment Note [ECF No. 30-19]. That same note recommended that Johnson avoid sitting, walking, or standing for more than 20 minutes at a time; bending or squatting; and lifting, pushing, or carrying more than ten pounds. Id. Having submitted these treatment notes, Johnson remained absent through the end of August and all of September.

         On October 2, 2012, the District sent Johnson a letter noting that her workers' compensation claim had been denied. See Oct. 2, 2012, Letter [ECF No. 25-7]. Under the District's reading of the previously submitted treatment notes, Johnson could "work with certain restrictions, " which the District was prepared to honor. Id. But leave under the ADA, in the District's view, was unwarranted. Because Johnson had exhausted her FMLA and DCFMLA leave, the District informed Johnson that she was expected to return to work on October 5, 2012- and that her failure to do so could be treated as a voluntary resignation. Id. Johnson responded with an October 4 letter, in which she asserted that she remained unable to report to work because of a disability. Oct. 4, 2012, Letter [ECF No. 25-8]. The District replied the next day, explaining that it would consider her new request for leave as a request for a reasonable accommodation pursuant to the ADA as soon as it received some additional medical information from her doctor. Oct. 5, 2012, Letter [ECF No. 25-9]. The District also informed Johnson that, if she failed to submit the necessary paperwork by October 9, she would be expected at work on October 10. Id. Johnson timely submitted the necessary paperwork. See Oct. 9, 2012, ADA Resp. [ECF No. 30- 23]. She also submitted a pre-complaint questionnaire to the District alleging various forms of discrimination and retaliation. See Oct. 10, 2012, Questionnaire [ECF No. 30-24].

         Over the course of the next month, the District evaluated Johnson's new ADA request and discrimination complaint. Johnson remained absent from work during this time. On November 14, the District informed Johnson by letter that it was denying her request for extended leave under the ADA. See Nov. 14, 2012, Letter [ECF No. 25-11]. Based on its review of arecently submitted medical evaluation (which had been performed by Dr. Pamela Cobb rather than Dr. Burner), the District concluded that Johnson did "not have any workplace restrictions." Id. Johnson was thus ordered to return to work by November 16, 2012, and warned that if she failed to do so she "may be separated from employment" for abandonment of position. Id. The next day Johnson responded by email to the District's return-to-duty letter. See Nov. 15, 2012, Email [ECF No. 25-12]. She questioned the accuracy of the most recently submitted medical evaluation, referring the District back to the September 11 treatment note for information about the workplace restrictions that she required. Id. Johnson also put forward a new basis for extended leave: that she was being treated for "severe depression." Id. As support for that new request, Johnson submitted a new treatment note-this time from her psychiatrist, Dr. Shanda Smith-indicating she had "been ill and unable to work" since October 15 and that she would remain unable to work until December 7, when she would be reassessed. See Nov. 15, 2012, Treatment Note [ECF No. 30-28]. The same day, the District informed Johnson that it had failed to substantiate the allegations in her pre-complaint questionnaire. See Nov. 15, 2012, Letter [ECF No. 30-26].

         The District promptly acted on this latest request for extended leave. In a November 16 letter, the District agreed to evaluate Johnson's request so long as she submitted her ADA Request Form, Medical Release Form, and a questionnaire completed by Dr. Smith. See Nov. 16, 2012, Letter [ECF No. 25-13]. Without those materials, the District could not "make an informed assessment of [Johnson's] request for a reasonable accommodation." Id. The District also set a strict deadline: failure to return all the necessary paperwork or return to work by November 23 could be treated as a voluntary resignation of Johnson's position. See Id. Johnson protested, claiming that it would take at least seven to ten days for her medical provider to turn the paperwork around, see Nov. 19, 2012, Email [ECF No. 30-30], especially given that the deadline was the day after Thanksgiving. Johnson did timely submit the request form and the medical release. See ADA Forms [ECF No. 30-29] at 5-6. But Dr. Smith did not submit her documentation until November 30, 2012. See PL's Statement of Facts in Material Dispute [ECF No. 30-1] ¶ 24. Nor did Johnson return to work. Thus, the District notified Johnson that it considered her to have voluntarily resigned her position, pursuant to a D.C. municipal regulation. See Nov. 23, 2012, Letter [ECF No. 25-16].

         Upon receiving Dr. Smith's letter on November 30, the District reviewed the submitted information and decided that it did not provide a basis to "change course." See Dec. 27, 2012, Letter [ECF No. 30-38]. In subsequent communications, Johnson maintained that Dr. Smith would provide more information if asked, see Jan. 7, 2012, Email [ECF No. 25-20], but Dr. Smith affirmed to the District when contacted that the half-page letter she had submitted on November 30 was meant to constitute her response to the ADA request, see Jan. 11, 2013, Email [ECF No. 25-21]. Ultimately, the District stood by its initial decision. Id. Johnson's "voluntary resignation" remained effective.

         Johnson now alleges that the District of Columbia Public Schools discriminated against her because of her disability, failed to provide reasonable accommodations for her disabilities, failed to engage in the good-faith interactive process required under the ADA, and retaliated against her for engaging in protected activities. See Compl. [ECF No. 1] ¶¶ 36-40.


         In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, a court must assess whether "the movant [has shown] that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A court must grant "summary judgment . .. against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A fact is considered to be material based on the underlying substantive law, and "[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). "The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Id. at 255. However, the non-moving party "may not rest upon mere allegation or denials of his pleading, but must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 256.

         The function of the trial judge is "not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter." Id. at 249. Instead, "[t]he inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for a trial-whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Id. at 250. "Evaluation of the credibility of witnesses must be left to the factfinder." United States v. Project on Gov't Oversight 454 F.3d 306, 313 (D.C. Cir. 2006). Furthermore, "[i]f the evidence presented on a dispositive issue is subject to conflicting interpretations, or reasonable persons might differ as to its significance, summary judgment is improper." Greenberg v. FDA, 803 F.2d 1213, 1216 (D.C. Cir. 1986).


         A. ...

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