United States District Court, District of Columbia
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
P. Mehta United States District Judge.
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.
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.
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.], ¶
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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]. He also represented that repairs to the
broken exhaust motor on the HVAC system were in progress.
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.
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.
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.
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].
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. 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ...