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Johnson v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 19, 2017

DEBRA JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN D. BATES United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Debra Johnson, a former employee of the District of Columbia Public Schools at Randle Highlands Elementary (“Randle”), brought an action against her former employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12113 et seq. Johnson alleges that defendant District of Columbia discriminated against her because of her disability, failed to comply with several of her requests for reasonable accommodations, and terminated her employment in retaliation for protected activity. The District moved for summary judgment on all counts.

         In a September 14, 2016 Memorandum Opinion, this Court granted in part and denied in part the District's motion for summary judgment. The Court granted summary judgment as to Johnson's discrimination and retaliation claims and denied summary judgment as to her reasonable accommodations claims. Unhappy with this result, Johnson filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e). For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny Johnson's motion.

         BACKGROUND

         The facts are explained more fully in the Court's September 14 Memorandum Opinion, so a brief summary here will suffice. See Johnson v. District of Columbia, 207 F.Supp.3d 3, 7-10 (D.D.C. 2016). Johnson began teaching at Randle in 2008. In the fall of 2011, Johnson sought medical treatment for back pain and obtained two doctors' treatment notes which stated that she should be restricted from “frequent bending, prolonged standing, heavy lifting, and anything else that would put a strain on her back.” Id. at 7 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Sept. 29, 2011 Treatment Note [ECF No. 20-10]; Oct. 3, 2011 Treatment Note [ECF No. 30-11]. At her request, Johnson received two aides to assist her in the classroom during the 2011-2012 school year. See Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 8; see also Johnson Dep. [ECF No. 25-3] at 46:12-48:13; see generally Dec. 2011 Schedule [ECF No. 30-12].

         Johnson then went on medical leave in mid-February 2012, and a month later she met with a District official and “raised complaints regarding the District's alleged discrimination and failure to accommodate her disability.” Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 8; see also May 25, 2012 Emails [ECF No. 30-14] at 2 (describing the March 16, 2012 meeting). In May, the District approved Johnson's request to treat her continuous absence from February 21 to May 18 as medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and instructed her via letter that she should return to work on May 21, 2012. See Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 8; see also May 9, 2012 Letter [ECF No. 25-5] at 1-2. Upon Johnson's request for additional leave, the District informed her that she had exhausted her leave under the FMLA and D.C. Family & Medical Leave Act (“DCFMLA”), but that it would consider her request under the ADA if it received the necessary paperwork from Johnson's doctor. See Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 8; see also May 23, 2012 Letter [ECF No. 25-6].

         Despite not returning to work for the remainder of the 2011-2012 school year, Johnson did return on August 20, 2012 for the first day of the 2012-2013 school year. At that time she found that her classroom had been moved from the first to the second floor of the building. According to Johnson, upon her return she requested an aide to assist her in setting up the classroom but that request was denied, and ultimately she convinced two custodians to assist her; according to the District, the two custodians who ultimately helped her were instructed to do so by the assistant principal. See Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 8; see also Johnson Dep. at 57:13-58:01; 59:05-06; Decl. of Erik Griffin [ECF No. 27-1]; Decl. of Lionel Jenkins [ECF No. 27-2]. The following day, Johnson did not return to work but she did submit a claim for workers' compensation, which the District denied and informed her that she was expected to return to work on October 5, 2012. See Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 9; see also Oct. 2, 2012 Letter [ECF No. 25-7]. Johnson then requested additional time for leave because of her back pain, to which the District responded they would consider her request as a request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA because she had exhausted all of her FMLA and DCFMLA leave. See Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 9.

         Over the course of a month, the District evaluated Johnson's new ADA request before notifying Johnson on November 14 that her request had been denied and that she was due to return to work by November 16, otherwise she “may be separated from employment.” See Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 9 (quoting Nov. 14, 2012 Letter [ECF No. 25-11]). Johnson responded to the District's letter by putting forth a new basis for extended leave: that she was being treated for “severe depression.” See Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 10 (quoting Nov. 15, 2012 Email [ECF No. 25-12]). The District promptly responded and, on November 16, informed her that it would evaluate her request upon submission of her ADA Request Form, Medical Release Form, and a questionnaire completed by her doctor by November 23, 2012. See Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 10; see also Nov. 16, 2012 Letter [ECF No. 25-13]. The District informed Johnson that failure to return all necessary paperwork by November 23 could be treated as a “voluntary resignation.” Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 10. Johnson submitted some of the paperwork by the deadline, but the District did not receive the questionnaire from her doctor until November 30, 2012. See id.; Pl.'s Statement of Facts in Material Dispute [ECF No. 30-1] ¶ 24. After Johnson failed to meet the November 23 deadline, the District notified Johnson that it considered her to have voluntarily resigned her position, pursuant to D.C. municipal regulation. See Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 10; Nov. 23, 2012 Letter [ECF No. 25-16]. Ultimately, the District reviewed the information that was submitted late by Johnson's doctor and still concluded that Johnson's voluntary resignation remained effective. Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 10.

         In April 2014, Johnson brought an action under the ADA against the District of Columbia. Specifically, Count I alleges discriminatory actions taken against Johnson because of her disability, Count II asserts that the District failed to engage in the interactive process required by the ADA and denied her reasonable accommodations, and Count III alleges that the District terminated her in retaliation for requesting reasonable accommodations. See Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 10; see also Compl. [ECF No. 1] ¶¶ 35-40.

         On February 8, 2016, the District file d a motion for summary judgment on all counts. See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [ECF No. 25].Johnson opposed the motion, arguing that because there were genuine issues of material fact concerning her claims, summary judgment should be denied in its entirety. See Pl.'s Opp'n [ECF No. 29] at 34. The Court granted in part a nd de nie d in pa rt the District's motion for summary judgment on September 14, 2016. See Sept. 14, 2016 Order [ECF No. 33]. Ultimately, Johnson's claim that she was denied reasonable accommodations on the first day of the 2012 school year and during the fall of that same school year was the only claim to survive summary judgment. See Johnson, 207 F.Supp.3d at 19.

         Johnson then file d the motion at hand seeking to alter or amend the judgment on the basis of newly available evidence obtained at an administrative hearing. See Pl.'s Mot. to Alter J. [ECF No. 35-1] at 1. Johnson contends that new evidence establishes that the District discriminated against her prior to and after her termination, and proves that the District failed to engage in the interactive process in good faith.[1] See id. For the reasons explained below, Johnson's motion to alter the judgment will be denied.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) permits a party to file “[a] motion to alter or amend a judgment” within “28 days after the entry of the judgment.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e). Rule 59(e) motions are “discretionary and need not be granted unless the district court finds that there is an intervening change of controlling law, the availability of new evidence, or the need to correct a clear error or prevent manifest injustice.” Firestone v. Firestone, 76 F.3d 1205, 1208 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). “While the court has considerable discretion in ruling on a Rule 59(e) motion, the reconsideration and amendment of a previous order is an extraordinary measure.” Fresh Kist Produce, LLC v. Choi Corp., 251 F.Supp.2d 138, 140 (D.D.C. 2003) (citing Firestone, 76 F.3d at 1208); see also S.E.C. v. Bilzerian, 729 F.Supp.2d 9, 17 (D.D.C. 2010) (“Rule 59(e) . . . [is] a rarely used and disfavored remedy.”). “The strictness with which [Rule 59(e)] motions are viewed is justified by the need to protect both the integrity of the adversarial process . . . and the ability of the parties and others to rely on the finality of judgments.” U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Comm'n v. McGraw-Hill Cos., 403 F.Supp.2d 34, 36 (D.D.C. 2005).

         Here, Johnson does not rely on an intervening change in law or assert that the Court needs to “correct a clear error or prevent manifest injustice.” Firestone, 76 F.3d at 1208. Instead, she argues that there is new evidence that raises a material dispute of fact regarding her (a) discrimination and retaliation claims, (b) failure to accommodate claim, and (c) failure to engage in an interactive dialogue in good faith claim. Specifically, Johnson asserts that ...


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