About Us  |  About Cheetah®  |  Contact Us

Distance disabled prof had to walk between classes supports Rehab Act claims

By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.

An English professor whose ability to walk was limited by an on-the-job injury and arthritis, and who requested accommodations that included having classrooms scheduled close to one another, will proceed with two Rehabilitation Act claims, a federal district court in Maryland ruled. The remainder of her claims, including claims under the ADA and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, however, were dismissed based on a variety of procedural flaws, including failure to exhaust administrative remedies and untimeliness. The defendants’ motion to dismiss was granted in part (Edwards v. Montgomery College, October 9, 2018, Chuang, T.).

Needed classes in same building. In her thirteenth year as an English professor at Montgomery College in Rockville, the employee fell in an elevator on campus and tore her patella. That injury, along with rheumatoid arthritis, thereafter limited her ability to walk long distances. She requested as a reasonable accommodation that her classes be scheduled in the same building and the employer substantially complied with that request until 2013. However, on four occasions between 2013 and 2017, the employer failed to comply. In 2013, her employer denied her request to have all of her classes scheduled to be held in the same building and, as a result, she injured her knee. When she returned she submitted a doctor’s note reiterating the need to have all of her classes in the same building. Although that request was honored, the classroom assignments were arranged in such a way that she had to walk a long way between classes. She asked that her classes be scheduled in the same room, to no avail. Instead, she was offered a wheelchair or scooter.

Non-disabled professors’ requests were granted. In January 2015, the employee’s classes were again scheduled in different buildings and floors of buildings. She was told she would need to update her doctor’s note if she needed a more specific accommodation. Two years later, prior to the beginning of the spring semester, she learned that although her classrooms were on the same floor that semester, they were again far apart. Her request that all classes be scheduled in the same room or adjoining rooms was denied. She complained to HR that classroom change requests by non-disabled professors had been granted and that she also had not been provided a usable chair or stool in her classrooms. After unsuccessful internal complaints she filed a complaint with the EEOC. In 2017 she updated her charge. Later she filed suit alleging violations of the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the MFEPA. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss. In her opposition, she conceded several claims.

“Natural decision point” used to retaliate? Of the ones left, only two survived the motion—two Rehabilitation Act claims based on the January 2017 class schedule. With regards to the retaliation claim based on how the classrooms were scheduled, the employee contended that her EEOC charge was formally processed in May 2016, that the scheduling of the January 2017 classes was the first opportunity for retaliation thereafter, and that the employer made use of that opportunity. The court rejected the employer’s argument that the alleged failure to accommodate was not an adverse employment action, explaining that as an individual with a disability the employee likely would have been dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew it would result in accommodations problems. The employee also pleaded a causal connection, the court concluded, by alleging that the adverse action occurred at a “natural decision point” that occurred after formal processing of her EEOC charge—the start of the first semester she taught classes after the filing. The employee’s pleading was sufficient to move the claim forward.

Could do the job with previous accommodations. Her claim for failure to accommodate, based on the spring 2017 schedule, also survived. She asserted that she had a disability, she alleged her employer’s awareness of that condition, and she alleged that she was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job, including that she had been able to teach classes with accommodations for over a decade and that she could perform the essential functions of her job as long as she did not have to walk long distances and so long as she had a chair or stool to use in class as needed. Finally, she alleged that the college denied her requests for reasonable accommodation. The court could not conclude, based on the complaint, that her proposed accommodations were unreasonable or that they would not enable her to do the essential functions of the job.

Two-year limitations period applied to Rehab Act. However, the Rehab Act claim under Count III of the complaint, related to the spring semester 2015 schedule, was untimely. Because the Act itself does not contain a statute of limitations, the court explained, it had to apply the statute of limitations from the most analogous state law. Previously, courts had applied the three-year statute of limitations applicable to general civil causes of action in Maryland as the most analogous law. However, the employer argued, and the court agreed, that the amended state anti-discrimination law was now the most proper statute for analogy. That law had been amended in 2007 to a private right of action for employment discrimination and the cases cited by the employee were decided before that amendment. And while the Fourth Circuit has not squarely addressed the issue, the court added, in addressing a similar question the appeals court’s language strongly suggested that where the state law provides a cause of action for employment discrimination, its statute of limitations would apply. Therefore, applying the two-year limitations period, the court concluded that the claim was time-barred.

Remaining claims dismissed. The MFEPA claims alleged in the fourth and fifth counts of the complaint, moreover, were dismissed because the employee failed to plead compliance with the Maryland Local Government Tort Claims Act, failed to actually or substantially comply with it, and failed to meet any of the requirements for exception. Furthermore, the sole ADA claim not conceded by the employee was also dismissed as requesting injunctive relief that was now moot as the result of the passage of time.