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Owens-Hart v. Howard University

United States District Court, District of Columbia

December 6, 2016



          Amit P. Mehta United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Winifred Owens-Hart brings this action against Defendant Howard University for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq., as well as constructive discharge. Plaintiff asserts that she repeatedly requested-for thirty-seven years-that Defendant accommodate her occupational asthma by cleaning and ventilating its ceramics studio and attached office or by periodically allowing Plaintiff to work and teach from home. Defendant purportedly ignored and denied these requests, ultimately forcing Plaintiff to retire because she could not work or teach in the ceramics studio.

         Presently before the court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, in which Defendant contends that all the statutory claims Plaintiff raises are time barred and Plaintiff's constructive discharge claim is without merit. After thorough consideration of the parties' arguments and the record, the court concludes that genuine issues of material fact preclude an entry of summary judgment on all Plaintiff's statutory claims, except as to those accommodation requests made prior to September 11, 2012, for purposes of Plaintiff's ADA claim; those requests made prior to April 30, 2011, for Plaintiff's Rehabilitation Act claim; and those requests made prior to October 6, 2012, for Plaintiff's District of Columbia Human Rights Act claim. Genuine issues of material fact also prevent summary judgment as to Plaintiff's constructive discharge claim. Accordingly, the court grants in part and denies in part Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.


         Plaintiff Winifred Owens-Hart worked at Defendant Howard University as a Professor of Ceramics for thirty-seven years. Throughout her tenure, Plaintiff taught and worked in Defendant's ceramics studio, which also contained her office. See Compl., ECF No. 1 [hereinafter Compl.], ¶ 8.[1] The process of creating ceramic art involves the use of hazardous chemicals, including silica. Use of such chemicals causes dust to accumulate on the floor unless properly mopped up, which can then become airborne if circulated through an improperly filtered ventilation system. See Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Summ. J., ECF No. 44 [hereinafter Pl.'s Mem.], Ex. 2, ECF No. 44-2 [hereinafter Pl.'s Ex. 2], ¶ 4. Plaintiff alleges Defendant inadequately cleaned and ventilated its ceramics studio for the entirety of her tenure. See Compl. ¶ 9.

         It is uncontested that Defendant's ceramics studio was non-compliant with the standards set by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (“OSHA”) and that, as a result of the studio's hazardous condition, Plaintiff developed occupational asthma. See Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 9, ECF No. 44-9; Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 18, ECF No. 44-18 [hereinafter Pl.'s Ex. 18]. Additionally, Defendant admits it was aware of Plaintiff's disability during the relevant time period. See Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 29, ECF No. 44-29 [hereinafter Pl.'s Ex. 29], ¶¶ 1-4. Plaintiff's occupational asthma prevents her from engaging in athletic activities she used to enjoy and has curtailed her basic everyday activities. In turn, her overall physical condition has declined. Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 45.

         Plaintiff first requested an accommodation for her asthma on March 12, 2009, when she notified then-Chair of the Art Department, Dr. Gwendolyn Everett, of her disability and requested the studio be properly cleaned and maintained.[2] See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 38 [hereinafter Def.'s Mot.], at 4; Def.'s Mot., Ex. 4, ECF No. 38-6; Pl.'s Ex. 29 ¶ 5. Plaintiff was unsatisfied with Defendant's response and, by mid-April 2009, believed Defendant had denied her request for accommodation. See Def.'s Mot. at 5; Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 9. Plaintiff submitted a second request for accommodation to Dr. Everett one year later, in April 2010, including a letter from her treating physician, specifically asking that the studio receive daily wet mopping and that high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters be installed and maintained. See Def.'s Mot., Def.'s Mem. of Points & Authorities, ECF No. 38-1 [hereinafter Def.'s Mem.], at 3; Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 15. Plaintiff submitted additional requests in June, July, and September, 2010, that the studio be cleaned properly and better ventilated, particularly by appropriately maintaining the HVAC system and filters. See Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶¶ 17-19. She maintains that “the request was not fulfilled and the [studio] . . . remained dirty.” See Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 19.[3] Two years later, on June 20 and July 6, 2012, Plaintiff again submitted her request that the studio be appropriately cleaned and supported her request with a letter from her treating pulmonologist, Dr. Jeff Hales, who recommended that Defendant install air purification systems with HEPA filters in both the studio and office. See Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶¶ 20-21; Def.'s Mot., Ex. 6, ECF No. 38-8.

         Plaintiff's requests continued during the fall 2012 semester. On October 4, 2012, Plaintiff notified the Chair of the Art Department, Dr. Tony McEachern, former-Chair Dr. Everett, and others that the studio was still not being properly cleaned; the filters for the HVAC system were dirty and had to be regularly changed; and the floor was covered in a film of silica dust, which could only be remedied by daily mopping. See Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 4, ECF No. 44-4 [hereinafter Pl.'s Ex. 4] (with pictures of the filters and studio floor attached); Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 22. Although Dr. Everett acknowledged that it was necessary to mop the floors in order to properly clear the studio of silica dust, daily mopping still had not begun one month later. See Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 5, ECF No. 44-5; Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 7, ECF No. 44-7. Plaintiff repeated her request that the studio be mopped daily on November 3, 2012, again without successful response. See Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 24.

         Plaintiff remained persistent in her requests for accommodation. On December 7, 2012, Plaintiff submitted a comprehensive list of “observations and suggestions” to properly clean and ventilate the studio. See Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 8, ECF No. 44-8 [hereinafter Pl.'s Ex. 8]. The list included, but was not limited to, annually sealing the floor, daily mopping, installing HEPA filters in the HVAC system and replacing them on a monthly basis, and implementing an air exchange system and mechanical air cleaning system in the glaze chemical room.[4] See id. On December 20, 2012, Christopher Calhoun, an administrative director at Howard University, wrote that he would not authorize monthly replacement of the HEPA filters, but he would replace filters that had not been changed in several years. See Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 27, ECF No. 44-27 [hereinafter Pl.'s Ex. 27].[5] He also represented that repairs to the broken exhaust motor on the HVAC system were in progress. See id.

         Plaintiff submitted an updated version of her list of “observations and suggestions” on January 21, 2013, noting in red the few items that had been addressed (e.g., sink repair, new drop ceiling in the main studio), in comparison to the extensive list of requested cleanings and repairs that remained outstanding. See Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 12, ECF No. 44-12 [hereinafter Pl.'s Ex. 12]. Of the twenty-four items Plaintiff highlighted as requiring attention, Plaintiff claims only four were eventually addressed. See Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 25. Among those items never addressed were the proper washing of the studio walls, ceilings, storage cabinets, fixtures, and office to remove silica dust residue; the sealing of the studio and office floors; and storage of the chemicals in airtight containers. See Pl.'s Ex. 12.

         Plaintiff began to request leave to work from home and teach remotely as a result of the studio's condition. She first requested to work from home during a meeting with her immediate supervisor, Dr. McEachern, on January 22, 2013. See Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 29. She supported her request with a letter from her pulmonologist, Dr. Hales, who wrote that it was “medically necessary that she be removed from her current work environment” because “[c]ontinued exposure to the[] noxious chemicals and dusts [in the ceramics studio] w[ould] cause continued deterioration of her lung health.” Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 11, ECF No. 44-11; Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 29. At a second meeting with Dr. McEachern on January 29, 2013, Plaintiff made the same request, provided additional letters from her doctors, and also submitted a proposal for teaching her ceramics course online, using her home studio. See Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 30. By mid-February, Plaintiff had received no response to her January requests to work from home. She also had submitted additional requests, on February 7 and February 14, 2013, that the studio be properly cleaned to accommodate her asthma. See Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 14, ECF No. 44-14; Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶¶ 32-33. Plaintiff submitted additional, similar requests for cleaning on March 14 and April 14, 2013. See Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶¶ 35-36. On May 3, 2013, Plaintiff submitted, through her attorney, another request to have the studio cleaned or to be permitted to work remotely in light of the studio's condition. See Id. ¶ 38; Pl.'s Mem. at 7; Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 17, ECF No. 44-17 [hereinafter Pl.'s Ex. 17]. She received no reply. Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 38; Pl.'s Mem. at 11.

         In response to a formal complaint made by Plaintiff, OSHA investigated Defendant's ceramics studio on December 5, 2012, and released its final report on the studio's condition on May 30, 2013. Pl.'s Ex. 18. The agency concluded, among other things, that employees working in the ceramics studio were exposed to hazardous chemicals, including “silica and products that contain lead, chromium, and other hazardous ingredients”; employees were not provided the “proper personal protective equipment” because they were using masks intended “for common household dirt”; and housekeeping in the studio was inadequate because “[d]ebris from products being used in the studio was observed throughout floor, work, chairs, and shelf surfaces.” Id. at 1-2. OSHA issued Defendant several citations as a result of its findings and imposed $33, 000 in penalties. Id. at 1-2, 8-20.

         Plaintiff filed her Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on July 8, 2013, alleging that she “suffer[s] discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act [because] Howard University continues to deny [her] the reasonable accommodation of a safe work environment.” Def.'s Mot., Ex. 2, ECF No. 38-4 [hereinafter Charge].

         Plaintiff subsequently renewed her requests for accommodation with Defendant in anticipation of and during the fall 2013 semester. Plaintiff had unrelated surgery in July 2013, which prevented her from being in the studio for several months. Cf. Pl.'s Ex. 29 ¶¶ 14-17. Although Plaintiff's surgeon cleared her to return to work on October 1, 2013, see Def.'s Mem., Ex. 7, ECF No. 38-9, Plaintiff's pulmonologist recommended she not return before December 31, 2013, because the studio's condition could trigger Plaintiff's asthma and cause her sutures to rupture, see Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 19, ECF No. 44-19; Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶¶ 40, 42. In August 2013, Plaintiff faxed her surgeon's recommendation to Defendant and requested leave to teach a “hybrid” course with a colleague, in which part of the course would be taught online and part would be taught in Defendant's studio.[6] See Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 40; Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 1, ECF No. 44-1, at 8-9; Def.'s Mem., Ex. 8, ECF No. 38-10 [hereinafter Def.'s Ex. 8]. Plaintiff began teaching the hybrid course in the fall 2013 semester, even though she received no specific response to her August 22, 2013, letter or a formal review of her January 2013 online course proposal. See Def.'s Ex. 8; Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 43; Pl.'s Ex. 29 ¶ 5; Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 22, ECF No. 44-22 [hereinafter Pl.'s Ex. 22].

         Meanwhile, Plaintiff continued to communicate with Dr. McEachern about her need for accommodation. On October 16, 2013, Dr. McEachern wrote Plaintiff in response to her September notice that she would be unable to teach in the ceramics studio and advised that Plaintiff seek disability or medical leave. See Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 21, ECF No. 44-21 [hereinafter Pl.'s Ex. 21]. Dr. McEachern's letter did not address Plaintiff's requests to have the studio cleaned. See id.; Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 42 (“I was given no assurance that my workplace would be adequately cleaned and ventilated so that I could safely work in the studio or my office”). Plaintiff responded to Dr. McEachern's letter on October 28, 2013, explaining that she felt medical or disability leave, as described in the Faculty Handbook, did not appropriately address her situation and seeking advice on how to proceed. See Pl.'s Ex. 22.

         Plaintiff received a formal denial of her request to teach a hybrid course-based on her January 2013 online-course proposal-on November 18, 2013. See Pl.'s Mem., Ex. 23, ECF No. 44-23 [hereinafter Pl.'s Ex. 23]. Dr. McEachern's November 18, 2013, letter admonished Plaintiff for proceeding with teaching the hybrid course “without going through a proper review and approval process, ” but did not address Plaintiff's requests to have the studio cleaned and ventilated. See id.; Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 40.

         On December 4, 2013, Plaintiff resigned from her position “due to [Defendant's] long-standing[] history of repeated unwillingness to maintain a clean and safe teaching and office facility and to acknowledge [Plaintiff's] multiple requests to make reasonable accommodations due to [her] occupational asthma, ” particularly given that her “asthma was verified to be causally connected to [her] employment at Howard University's Art Department Ceramics Studio.” Pl.'s Ex. 2 ¶ 44; accord Pl.'s Mem. at 2; Compl. ¶ 24; Def.'s Mot., Ex. 11, ECF No. 38-13.

         Plaintiff amended her EEOC Charge of Discrimination in January 2014 to include allegations that, since the time of her original Charge, Defendant had continued to discriminate against her by failing to adequately clean her workspace and “refusing to allow [her] to work from home where [her] disability can be controlled.” Def.'s Mot., Ex. 3, ECF No. 38-5 [hereinafter Am. Charge]. As a result, Plaintiff alleged, she “was forced to retire due to these intolerable conditions.” Id.

         Plaintiff received a Right to Sue Letter from the EEOC on January 30, 2014, and filed suit in this court on April 30, 2014. See id.; Compl. Plaintiff's Complaint alleges, in relevant part, that Defendant's failure to accommodate her occupational asthma, either by maintaining the safety of the ceramics studio and office or allowing her to work remotely and teach online, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the ...

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