Judge dismisses workplace discrimination case against Pa. educational agency

By Jon Campisi | Dec 7, 2012

A federal judge in Philadelphia has ruled in favor of a defendant in a disability

discrimination and hostile work environment case brought by a Pennsylvania woman who claimed she was treated differently by her employer because of her epilepsy.

In a Dec. 4 memorandum and opinion, U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, granted a motion for summary judgment that had been filed by Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 in a case in which the defendant was being sued by Barbara Johnson over claims that the defendant engaged in violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Johnson, who for more than a quarter-century has taught children with emotional and learning disorders, had been hired by the defendant in mid August 2009 for a position teaching emotionally disturbed children at the Intermediate Unit’s Manheim Education Center, the court record states.

As part of the hiring process, Johnson was required to disclose any medical conditions she had, after which she divulged that she suffered from epilepsy, a neurological disorder that can cause seizures.

In her complaint, Johnson stated that back in late August 2009, when she was required to undergo crisis prevention intervention training, a rumor began circulating that Johnson would not be able to restrain students because of her epilepsy.

The rumor eventually made its way to Johnson’s supervisor, who passed the information on to the agency’s human relations department.

A meeting was eventually arranged between Johnson and agency representatives, during which Johnson was told there was a collective concern about the plaintiff’s ability to safely manage and control a classroom of “volatile children,” her complaint had alleged.

At this point, the suit said, Johnson believed that “this was going to be a discrimination against [her] epilepsy, that it was going to be a hostile environment.”

Johnson told her supervisors that she would most likely be leaving because of the issue, after which she was told to put her resignation in writing.

Johnson never officially resigned, however, and she claims that she was subsequently discharged due to her disability even though the defendant asserted that Johnson voluntarily left her job.

In its motion seeking summary judgment, the defendant argued that Johnson could not show that she suffered an adverse employment action, a requirement for a plaintiff to make out a prima facie case of disability-based discrimination.

Goldberg, the judge, agreed with the Intermediate Unit, writing in his memorandum and opinion that the court concluded Johnson suffered no adverse employment action because it could not be proven that she was actually or constructively discharged.

Johnson had argued that the defendant’s failure to engage in the “interactive process,” which is intended to identify the precise limitations resulting from a disability and potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations, constituted an adverse employment action.

Goldberg, however, wrote that the record fails to indicate that the Intermediate Unit breached its duty to accommodate.

“As her disability required no accommodation, there was no need to engage in the interactive process,” the judge wrote. “Thus, Plaintiff suffered no adverse employment action from Defendant’s failure to accommodate.”

Goldberg also concluded that Johnson’s allegations in her hostile work environment claim were “far less severe or pervasive” than what’s required to state such a claim under existing case law.

“Plaintiff’s allegations concern four occurrences between October 29 and 31, 2009 – three phone calls and one meeting,” the ruling states. “Further, one of the phone calls and the meeting were requested by Plaintiff.

“These four incidents do not constitute ‘pervasive’ harassment,” the ruling continues. “Neither was Defendant’s conduct toward Plaintiff severe. Defendant’s conduct in following up on concerns regarding Plaintiff’s epilepsy was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to allow a reasonable jury to find that it created an abusive work environment.”

In granting summary judgment to the defendant, Goldberg dismissed Johnson’s case and ordered it marked closed.

More News

The Record Network