Mellin v. Flood Brook Union School Dist.

Decision Date21 December 2001
Docket NumberNo. 00-143.,00-143.
Citation790 A.2d 408
PartiesAnn MELLIN v. FLOOD BROOK UNION SCHOOL DISTRICT, Department of Education, et al.
CourtVermont Supreme Court

Eileen M. Blackwood of Blackwood Associates, P.C., Burlington, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Christopher D. Roy of Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC, Burlington, for Defendants-Appellees Flood Brook Union School District, Coleman, Harper, Henson, Smith, Frauman, Farrar and Wylie.

William Sorrell, Attorney General, and Joseph L. Winn, Assistant Attorney General, Montpelier, for Defendants-Appellees Pallas and Department of Education.

Present: DOOLEY, MORSE, JOHNSON and SKOGLUND, JJ., and ALLEN, C.J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned.


Plaintiff Ann Mellin challenges the Bennington Superior Court's grant of summary judgment and judgment on the pleadings to defendants Flood Brook Union School District, Flood Brook Union School Board members in their individual and official capacities, the Vermont Department of Education ("DOE") and the DOE's licensing officer, Patricia Pallas, in her official and individual capacities. Plaintiff contends the trial court erred by dismissing her claims against the school defendants1 for (1) disability discrimination in violation of Vermont's Fair Employment Practices Act ("VFEPA"), 21 V.S.A. § 495(a)(1); (2) retaliation for requesting accommodations for her disability and filing complaints under the Vermont Occupational Health and Safety Act, 21 V.S.A. § 231 and Vermont Workers' Compensation Act, 21 V.S.A. § 710; and (3) damages and equitable relief through the doctrines of laches, waiver and estoppel. She also contests the court's conclusion that the individual school board members were entitled to qualified immunity on all of her claims. As to the State defendants, plaintiff seeks reversal of the court's orders dismissing her claims for estoppel, violations of procedural and substantive due process under the Vermont and United States Constitutions and negligence. Finally, plaintiff appeals the court's denial of her request to amend her complaint to allege gross negligence against defendant Pallas. We reverse the trial court's order on plaintiff's retaliation claim and its conclusion that the school board members individually are entitled to qualified immunity, but affirm the remainder of the court's decisions.

This case arises out of two key events: plaintiff's March 1994 termination from her teaching position at Flood Brook Elementary School and the revocation of her license to teach elementary level students which DOE and defendant Pallas had erroneously issued and reissued to plaintiff over the course of several years. We set out the facts and history relevant to each claim separately because they are somewhat complex and so they may be understood in context.


Plaintiff's complaint alleged that the school defendants discriminated against her on the basis of her disability, which consists of severe migraines and allergies triggered by various environmental conditions, by terminating her employment, not renewing her teaching contract, and refusing to accommodate her, actions all contrary to VFEPA. The trial court granted summary judgment to the school defendants on this claim, concluding that plaintiff failed to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding whether she was substantially impaired in a major life activity and could perform the essential functions of her teaching position. See 21 V.S.A. § 495d(5)(A) (a person with a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities is disabled); id. § 495d(6) (individuals able to perform the essential functions of their jobs with accommodation are "qualified individual[s] with a disability"). We affirm because the parties are precluded by a prior arbitration award from relitigating whether a particular job requirement was an essential function of plaintiff's teaching position at Flood Brook. See In re Handy, 171 Vt. 336, 343, 764 A.2d 1226, 1234 (2000) (Court will not reverse an erroneous trial court decision if record discloses any legal ground justifying result, even if ground was not raised below or was not briefed by parties on appeal); Richards v. Union High Sch. Dist. No. 32, 137 Vt. 132, 134, 400 A.2d 987, 989 (1979) (same).

The facts giving rise to plaintiff's discrimination claim as found by the arbitrator are the following. The Flood Brook Union School District Board of School Directors hired plaintiff to teach at the Flood Brook Elementary School in 1981. Prior to and during her employment at the school, plaintiff suffered migraine headaches, vomiting, and other allergic reactions to various substances like mold, mildew, dust, different types of fuel, road paving materials, cleaning solvents, wood stove odors, perfumes, carpets, cats and dogs. Her reactions occurred both inside and outside the school building, causing her to curtail her social activities and to avoid some public areas to limit her exposure to substances that triggered her allergies. To further minimize her exposure, plaintiff taught in a classroom equipped with an air exchanger from 1989 through 1993.

In the summer of 1993, the school board renovated part of the school building, including constructing a new media center and technology room, and did minor work such as painting on the building's remainder. When plaintiff returned to teach in mid-September she reached to the new carpeting, paint solvents and fumes still present in the school. Her doctor recommended that she remain out of school for three to five weeks and return with controlled exposure to environmental triggers. She returned to work on October 25, 1993 in the media center at the principal's request. She became ill from the media center's new carpeting, however, and has not taught at Flood Brook since October 28, 1993.

By November 4, 1993, plaintiff was running out of sick leave and requested that the school board grant her additional sick days on the grounds that a 1985 toxic urethane solvent spill outside her classroom caused her sensitivities to chemicals. On November 9, 1993, the school principal informed plaintiff that the board had denied her sick leave request and invited her to request an unpaid leave of absence. Plaintiff refused to request an unpaid leave and instead indicated that she would file a grievance pursuant to the terms of her contract. She also stated that she would initiate a claim for workers' compensation.

While the sick leave grievance and workers' compensation claim were pending, and without prior notice to plaintiff, the board voted to deny renewal of plaintiff's contract. Two days later on March 16, 1994, and again without advance notice to plaintiff, the board voted to immediately terminate her contract. On March 22, the board informed plaintiff by letter that it had terminated her employment for "failure to attend to [her] duties as a teacher and [her] unwillingness to accept the unpaid leave of absence offered by the school district." Plaintiff thereafter grieved her termination. The termination and sick leave decisions were eventually the subject of binding arbitration as provided for in plaintiff's contract.

Prior to the arbitration merits hearing, the arbitrator issued a procedural order which addressed the parties' question concerning whether the arbitrator would permit evidence and entertain arguments "that have the look or sound of" disability discrimination claims. Plaintiff argued that such matters were germane to the "just and sufficient cause" standard for nonrenewal and termination in Section 5.3 of her contract, although she conceded that the arbitrator lacked authority to decide whether the board had discriminated against plaintiff due to her disability. The arbitrator's procedural order stated that he would allow "evidence relating to the illness or medical condition that caused the [plaintiff] to use sick leave, the cause or causes of that condition, and the School District's responses to her condition." The procedural order also addressed the parties' question concerning burden of proof, concluding that plaintiff bore the burden on "issues relating to the nature and cause of the illness or medical condition that caused [her] to use sick leave and whether that condition should entitle her to special treatment or consideration." (Emphasis added.) The arbitrator and parties agreed that plaintiff must litigate any disability discrimination claim in a different forum. In accordance with the procedural order, the parties litigated plaintiff's medical history, medical condition and the history of accommodations the school district had offered plaintiff until her March 1994 termination. The arbitrator denied plaintiffs grievance on the sick leave issue because she failed to establish that her contract entitled her to additional sick leave.

The arbitrator reached a favorable conclusion on plaintiff's termination and nonrenewal claims, however. He determined that the school district's nonrenewal and termination decisions violated all of the procedures specified in plaintiff's contract. The arbitrator ordered the school to reinstate plaintiff to a position equivalent to, or the same as, the position she held during the 1993-1994 school year, which was a sixth grade position. Consistent with the procedural order, the parties also litigated whether plaintiff's condition required any special treatment upon reinstatement.

Among plaintiffs requested remedies were accommodations for her medical condition, including (1) an air exchanger in her classroom, (2) limiting her exposure to wood chip odors and cleaning solvents, (3) being excused from walking students to buses and permitting her to take private transportation for field trips to avoid bus fumes, and (4) permission to avoid certain areas in the school building like the media center, technology room and other classrooms where her co-teachers were located. The arbitrator concluded...

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