Ross v. Board of Educ. of Prince George's County

Decision Date05 April 2002
Docket NumberNo. CIV. JFM-99-1539.,CIV. JFM-99-1539.
Citation195 F.Supp.2d 730
PartiesBetty ROSS, v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland

Brian C. Williams, Law Office, Lanham, MD, Trevor M. Fuller, The Fuller Law Firm, Washington, DC, for Plaintiff.

Sheldon L. Gnatt, Knight Manzi Nussbaum and LaPlaca PA, Upper Marlboro, MD, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

MOTZ, District Judge.

Plaintiff Betty Ross alleges that Defendant Prince George's County Board of Education (the "school board") discriminated against her based on her disability. She brings this suit pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq.; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.; and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act ("FEPA"), Md.Code Ann. Art. 49B. Defendant has moved for summary judgment. In light of Bd. of Trustees of the Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 121 S.Ct. 955, 148 L.Ed.2d 866 (2001), Plaintiff has conceded that Defendant is immune from suit under the ADA and summary judgment will be granted on Plaintiff's ADA claim. Defendant's motion for summary judgment on Plaintiff's Rehabilitation Act and FEPA claims will be granted in part and denied in part.

I.

Ross has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for most of her life. She had a right hip replacement in 1978 and a left hip replacement in 1979. Pl.'s Ex. 8. Due to this disability, she has great difficulty walking and climbing stairs. Ross began her employment as a teacher in the Prince George's County public schools in 1985.

During the 1994-95 academic year, Ross worked at Thurgood Marshall Middle School ("TMMS"). Her classroom was located on the main floor of the school, which minimized the potential problems posed by her disability. She parked in a handicapped parking space near the front door, only a short distance from her classroom. Ross Dep. at 49-50. The cafeteria, teachers' lounge, teachers' mailboxes, copy machine and library were all on the main level which allowed Plaintiff to avoid walking long distances and climbing stairs to and from the basement level of the school. Id. at 83.

For the 1995-96 school year, Ross was assigned to the eighth grade teaching team which was located on the basement level of the school. Id. at 75. Due to this classroom location, Ross had to climb approximately 24 stairs to the main level at least several times a day. Id. at 81-82. Within a few days of beginning the school year, Ross was experiencing pain due to the stair climbing. Id. at 238, 246. She approached TMMS's Principal, Barbara Parker Simmons (Barbara Parker at the time), at the end of August and asked her whether she could be "exempt from going up and down the stairs." Id. at 238. She also presented Parker Simmons with a note from her physician, Dr. Hampton Jackson. Id. at 90. Parker Simmons told Plaintiff that she could not be exempted from stair climbing but could attempt to work out an informal arrangement with her fellow teachers. Id. at 238. Members of her team agreed to escort her students up and down the stairs at the beginning and end of the day, but Ross still had to use the stairs to escort them to one class, the cafeteria and any assemblies. Id. at 239-40.

At about the same time that Ross requested the exemption from climbing stairs, she also asked Parker Simmons if she could be transferred to a vacant guidance counselor position. The school's vice-principal had suggested the position to her as a way of avoiding daily stair climbing. Id. at 248-249. Parker Simmons told Plaintiff that she already had someone in mind for the position. Id. at 251. In addition, Ross and the head custodian discussed Ross entering the building at the basement level through the boiler room. Id. at 248, 262-70. Parker Simmons also considered such an arrangement and discussed it with the custodian. She ultimately rejected the idea because the head custodian believed it would be unsafe. Id. 94, 270.

On October 24, 1995, Ross was examined by Marc Goldman of the Anderson Orthopaedic Clinic for her right hip pain. Pl.'s Ex. 8. Goldman issued Ross a Certificate of Disability which stated that she could return to "light duty" on October 25, 1995 with the following restrictions: "no stair climbing, no ambulating greater than 100 ft." Pl.'s Ex. 9. Ross gave the certificate to Parker Simmons' secretary and shortly thereafter discussed its contents with Parker Simmons. Ross Dep. at 224. Ross recalls Parker Simmons telling her that there was no light duty in the Prince George's County School System. Id. at 101-103, 233-35, 258.

William Simmons, the instructional supervisor who supervised TMMS, was notified in a letter from Ross' doctor of the restrictions placed on Ross. Simmons Dep. 20-21. Given the restrictions, Simmons determined that Ross could not return to work at TMMS. Id. at 21-22. Simmons believed that Ross should not return because she would not be able to escort her students throughout the building. Id. at 32. He did not consider having another teacher escort Ross' students. Id. at 32-33, 35.

Despite Simmons' opinion, Ross continued working at TMMS. On December 12, 1995, Ross' right hip prosthesis partially collapsed. Ross Dep. at 272. She returned to work on December 18, 1995 with a statement from her doctor that she should not be climbing stairs and should remain as sedentary as possible. Pl.'s Ex. 13. Upon her return, Ross asked Parker Simmons if she could be moved to a classroom on the main floor as an accommodation of her disability. Ross Dep. at 277. Parker Simmons suggested that Ross' adult son help her get down the stairs to her classroom. For approximately two months after this, Ross entered the building through a doorway near the gym which had a steep ramp that provided access to the gym parking lot. Id. at 108-111. The gym entrance required Ross to descend a half a flight of stairs which she did on crutches. At this time, her doctor had advised her to use a wheelchair. Id. at 115-126. Members of Ross' team escorted her classes, performed her bus duty and brought her mail to her. Id. at 111-12.

Over her winter break, Ross complained about her situation to school board member Marcy Canavan. On January 17, 1996, Parker Simmons approached Ross and told her she had received a call from the deputy superintendent of Schools at Canavan's request. Id. at 122, 285-86. On January 23, 1996, Parker Simmons notified math teacher Chris Jones who had a class-room on the main floor of the school that he would have to switch classrooms with Ross to accommodate Ross pursuant to the ADA. Pl.'s Ex. 10. The switch in classrooms actually occurred in mid-February. Ross Dep. at 295. For the rest of that school year, Ross used a wheelchair while teaching, id. at 129, and the special education teachers across the hall from Ross' new room assisted her class during fire drills, id. at 149. Approximately two weeks after Ross moved classrooms, deputy superintendent Robert Slade visited Ross' classroom and found the accommodations to be "appropriate and adequate." Slade Dep. at 31.

Ross did not work during the 1996-97 school year as she underwent a right hip revision and a right knee replacement. Ross Dep. at 178-80. In August 1997, Ross attempted to return to TMMS to begin the 1997-98 school year. In a letter dated August 18, 1997, her physician outlined Ross' disability and stated that she is limited to lifting no more than five pounds, cannot walk more than 20 yards with any regularity and cannot repetitively walk up a short flight of stairs. He concluded that Ross was restricted in "pushing, pulling and climbing due to these diagnosis [sic]," but was cleared to return to work. Pl.'s Ex. 14. When Ross attempted to return, she was informed by the vice-principal that Simmons had barred her return until her doctor would release her with no restrictions. Ross Dep. at 400-06. Ross spoke with Simmons by phone and was told that "no teacher ... of this county could teach with restrictions." Id. at 412. According to Ross, when she asked Simmons about accommodating her pursuant to the ADA, Simmons told her to leave the school or he would call the police. Id. In his deposition, Simmons testified that his decision in 1997 was not based on Ross' restriction on climbing stairs, but on Ross' restrictions on pushing and pulling which he believed would prevent her from "dealing with youngsters in a classroom situation." Simmons Dep. at 57, 72. However, Simmons testified that teachers are not trained in self-defense or how to break up a physical altercation between students. Id. at 58. Finally, Simmons concluded that teachers are not required to intervene physically with a student or students. Id. at 67.

On August 28, 1997, Ross wrote to Simmons to memorialize their conversation and also to request the policy that required teachers to have no restrictions in order to return to work. Pl.'s Ex. 18. The next day, Simmons sent Ross a three page teacher position description and told Ross she could return when her doctor verified that she could perform all of the responsibilities listed without any restrictions. Pl.'s Ex. 19, 20. On October 4, 1997, Ross' doctor responded by reiterating the limitations in his August 18, 1997 letter and stating that he was not qualified to determine whether Ross is able to perform teaching related responsibilities. Pl.'s Ex. 21.

After leaving TMMS, Ross contacted her union, the Prince George's County Education Association ("PGCEA"), for assistance. Ross Dep. at 406, 413-414. Between late August and early November 1997, the PGCEA worked with county school officials to have Ross reinstated. See Exs. 15, 16. Dr. Sterling Marshall, Chief Division Administrator for personnel, decided to allow Ross to return to her position at TMMS "[t]o resolve a matter that had been going on for some time without any resolution and to see to what extent this individual could perform her duties." Marshall Dep. at 60. He told Simmons to speak...

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