United States District Court, District of Columbia
D.BATES United States District Judge.
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.
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.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
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].
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].
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.
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].
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
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
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"
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.
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.
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).