Whitfield v. State

Decision Date18 April 2011
Docket NumberNo. 09–6488.,09–6488.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit
PartiesJessica WHITFIELD, Plaintiff–Appellant,v.State of TENNESSEE; Tennessee Department Of Mental Health & Developmental Disabilities; Virginia Trotter Betts, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Developmental Disabilities, Defendants–Appellees.

639 F.3d 253
24 A.D. Cases 641
42 NDLR P 254

Jessica WHITFIELD, Plaintiff–Appellant,
State of TENNESSEE; Tennessee Department Of Mental Health & Developmental Disabilities; Virginia Trotter Betts, Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Developmental Disabilities, Defendants–Appellees.

No. 09–6488.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

Argued: Jan. 18, 2011.Decided and Filed: March 25, 2011.Rehearing Denied April 18, 2011.

[639 F.3d 255]

ARGUED: Michelle Blaylock Owens, Agee, Van Atta & Owens, LLC, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant. Michael K. Markham, Office of the Tennessee Attorney General, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Michelle Blaylock Owens, Lynn Agee, Agee, Van Atta & Owens, LLC, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant. Michael K. Markham, Office of the Tennessee Attorney General, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellees.Before: BOGGS, SUHRHEINRICH, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.BOGGS, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which SUHRHEINRICH and STRANCH, JJ., joined. STRANCH, J. (pp. 262–65), delivered a separate concurring opinion.

BOGGS, Circuit Judge.

Jessica Whitfield is blind in one eye and has cerebral palsy. She began working as an administrative secretary with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities (“DMHDD”) on September 4, 2007. She was fired less than six months later and subsequently brought this action alleging unlawful employment discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The district court granted summary judgment for Defendants, and we affirm.


Whitfield began working for the State of Tennessee in 1998 as a telephone operator with the Department of Finance and Administration (“DFA”). As a telephone operator, Whitfield answered calls, looked up information in a computer, wrote letters and emails, and updated a directory. Eventually, she was promoted to the position of telephone operator II, which included supervisory duties such as training other telephone operators. Other responsibilities of telephone operator II included drafting business letters. The DFA accommodated her disabilities by providing her with a large computer monitor and a special one-handed keyboard, and Whitfield consistently earned favorable evaluation ratings. While still employed at DFA, Whitfield applied for multiple positions with the state of Tennessee. She was eventually offered and—although she could have stayed at DFA—accepted a new position at DMHDD, a different state agency.

On September 4, 2007, Whitfield began her new position at DMHDD. This position commenced with a six-month probationary period, during which DMHDD could fire Whitfield for almost any reason. At DMHDD, Whitfield worked for Ann Turner Brooks, and her responsibilities were to answer the phone and direct phone calls, make file folders, copy and file applications and forms, input complaints into a computer system, prepare mailings, and handle documents for fire marshal inspections. Before Whitfield took the job, she explained that she could not type quickly, and Brooks promised that another secretary would do “a good part of the typing.” Brooks, a cancer patient, had a mobility disability of her own and took

[639 F.3d 256]

steps to provide Whitfield with various accommodations. Before Whitfield's start date, Brooks requested for her a special left-handed keyboard and a larger computer monitor. And although Whitfield did not request it, Brooks had a printer/scanner placed at Whitfield's desk to accommodate her difficulties walking, transporting documents, and standing.

Unfortunately, these accommodations did not work for Whitfield. Although she had a large monitor and a special keyboard, the same accommodations that had served her well at DFA, the office circumstances were different at DMHDD. Whitfield needed the monitor and keyboard to be directly in front of her, but because of her L-shaped cubicle and the depth of her large monitor at DMHDD, both were off to the side. A coworker moved the monitor for her, but it was not enough to help. And, although her coworkers received new, smaller flat-panel monitors that could be appropriately positioned, the IT staff determined that Whitfield's special keyboard could not work with the new monitors, so she was stuck with her bulky, poorly-positioned monitor. In late January, Whitfield requested an ergonomic evaluation of her workspace to determine how her situation could be improved. Brooks requested that Whitfield draft for her a letter that she could sign and send to the department that could perform the evaluation, and Whitfield did so on January 30, 2008, although Brooks testified that she never received the letter.

Whitfield's work product at DMHDD was plagued with problems. When entering information into the computer, she made serious spelling and grammatical errors. She was told to correct her mistakes and that the information needed to be entered in complete sentences. Whitfield responded in an email: “sorry about my Grammar and English never have done complete sentences very well Thanks[.]” Two employees in charge of the computer program testified that they could recall no other employees who had spelling and punctuation problems with the program. Whitfield also entered the wrong county or no county at all on numerous forms and made serious errors on mailing labels. Whitfield later testified that she “just wasn't looking that close, you know.” Brooks testified that, although the filing system had been poorly organized for some time, it got worse after Whitfield arrived and that files were not being filed alphabetically. Brooks pointed out Whitfield's errors to her and requested that they be corrected. And, although Whitfield knew she had trouble with grammar, she never attended any of the training classes that were offered to her. Over time, Brooks began doing more of Whitfield's work herself as well as assigning it to other staff members.

On February 7, 2008, Whitfield was notified that her employment would be terminated on February 22, which was during the probationary period. Her termination date was later extended to February 27, 2008, still within the probationary period. Whitfield exhausted administrative remedies and, on October 14, 2008, filed a complaint against Defendants in district court, alleging disability discrimination in violation of Titles I and II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Whitfield's requested relief included monetary damages and reinstatement.

On January 6, 2009, the district court dismissed Whitfield's claim for monetary damages under Title I of the ADA. The court based its decision on Board of Trustees v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 121 S.Ct. 955, 148 L.Ed.2d 866 (2001), in which the Supreme Court held that Title I did not abrogate states' sovereign immunity from suits for monetary damages. Whitfield

[639 F.3d 257]

conceded this point, but maintained that she could pursue damages under Title II, which the district court did not address in its order.

On November 16, 2009, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants. The district court held that Whitfield did not create a genuine issue as to whether Defendants fired her solely because of her disability and, as a result, the court did not decide the issue of whether the Eleventh Amendment precluded an award of monetary damages against the state under Title II of the ADA. Whitfield filed this timely appeal, arguing that the district court erred in granting summary judgment for Defendants. This court has jurisdiction to review the district court's final order. 28 U.S.C. § 1291.


Because Title I did not abrogate the states' Eleventh Amendment immunity, individuals may not sue states for money damages under Title I. Bd. of Trs. of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 374, 121 S.Ct. 955, 148 L.Ed.2d 866 (2001). However, individuals can seek prospective injunctive relief for Title I violations pursuant to Ex parte Young. Id. at 374 n. 9, 121 S.Ct. 955; see Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 28 S.Ct. 441, 52 L.Ed. 714 (1908). Accordingly, Whitfield's Title I claim survives the Eleventh Amendment only to the extent that it constitutes an Ex parte Young action for prospective injunctive relief. Garrett, 531 U.S. at 374 n. 9, 121 S.Ct. 955. The question, then, is whether Whitfield's Amended Complaint contains such an action.

An Ex parte Young action may be commenced only against a state official acting in her official capacity and may “seek [only] prospective relief to end a continuing violation of federal law.” Carten v. Kent State Univ., 282 F.3d 391, 395 (6th Cir.2002). The question of whether a complaint contains an Ex parte Young action is determined on a claim-by-claim basis. Ernst v. Rising, 427 F.3d 351, 368 (6th Cir.2005) (en banc) (“We consider Eleventh Amendment immunity, as well as any exceptions to it, on a claim-by-claim basis.”). Whitfield's Amended Complaint names three entities as defendants: the state of Tennessee, DMHDD, and Virginia Trotter Betts, the commissioner of DMHDD. As relief, Whitfield requests: $50,000 in general and specific damages, including back wages; reinstatement with the state in a like position; $450,000 in punitive and compensatory damages; and attorneys' fees, costs, and interest. Significantly, Whitfield requests reinstatement, which constitutes prospective injunctive relief. Carten, 282 F.3d at 395. Further, Whitfield identifies a state official, Virginia Trotter Betts, as a defendant. Although it is not clear that she is suing Betts in her official capacity, Whitfield's amended complaint can be read generously to bring both a distinct Title I claim for injunctive relief against Betts, in her official capacity, and a separate Title II claim for damages against all parties. Defendants also read Whitfield's complaint in this manner. Appellees' Br. at 3 (“Plaintiff then filed an amended complaint ... seeking injunctive relief under Title I and...

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