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Hargett v. Jefferson County Board of Education

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville

March 9, 2017




         I. Introduction

         This matter is before the Court on the motion of Defendant the Jefferson County Board of Education (JCBE) for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), ECF No. 43. Plaintiff Avadawn Hargett responded, ECF No. 43. JCBE replied, ECF No. 44. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant JCBE's motion for summary judgment.

         II. Background

         B. Hargett's Employment at Audubon Traditional Elementary School

         Hargett began her employment with the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in August 1987. Hargett Dep. 3, ECF No. 40-2. In 2007, Hargett began teaching third grade at Audubon Traditional Elementary School (“Audubon”). Id.; Notification of Change 2, ECF No. 40-6. In May of 2013, Hargett requested a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which was granted. Notification of Change 2, ECF No. 40-7; Designation Notice FMLA, 2, ECF No. 40-8. Hargett and Audubon intended that her FMLA leave of absence would end in August 2013. Notification of Change 2, ECF No. 40-7.

         Hargett's planned return date, however, was extended until September 2013 because she was scheduled to undergo knee surgery. Notification of Change 2, ECF No. 40-9; Hargett Dep. 6, ECF No. 40-2. Hargett later provided JCBE a series of four doctor's notes from Dr. Joseph F. Catalano that extended the date on which Hargett was scheduled to return to teaching at Audubon. The first doctor's note was dated August 6, 2013. 8/6/13 Return to Work Note 2, ECF No. 40-10. This note stated, “Avadawn T Hargett will undergo knee surgery on 8-9-13. She will be off work from 8-9-13 until tentatively 9-16-13.” Id. The second doctor's note from Dr. Catalano was dated August 23, 2013. 8/23/13 Return to Work Note 2, ECF No. 40-11. The note asserted that Hargett was to “remain off work until her next appointment on September 27th” and that she would be “reevaluated then.” Id. The third doctor's note from Dr. Catalano was dated September 23, 2013. The noted affirmed, “It is my medical opinion that Avadawn T Hargett is to remain off work from today to 10/6/2013 and may return to work on 10/7/2013. No prolonged standing or walking. These restrictions are in effect for 4 weeks.” 9/23/13 Return to Work Note 2, ECF No. 40-12. The fourth and final doctor's note was dated October 4, 2013. 10/4/13 Return to Work Note 2, ECF No. 40-13. The note stated, “Avadawn T Hargett was seen in our office today for evaluation. It is my medical opinion that Avadawn T Hargett should remain out of work until 1/1/2014.” Id.

         Like all JCPS teachers, Hargett had building rights. Hargett Dep. 8, ECF No. 40-2. As described by Hargett, building rights are a right to work in a particular building. Id. They are not the right to teach a particular grade. Id. Building rights derive from JCBE's collective bargaining agreement with the Jefferson County's Teachers Association (JCTA). JCBE-JCTA Agreement 2, ECF No. 40-14. Under this agreement, “[t]he Employer will keep the employee's assignment available upon resumption of assigned duties provided: . . . The employee's planned absence does not exceed ninety (90) days.” Id.

         Hargett's planned absence exceeded 90 days from the date when she began her FMLA leave. See Notification of Change 2, ECF No. 40-15 (asserting that Hargett's building rights expired on November 20, 2013); 10/4/13 Return to Work Note 2, ECF No. 40-13 Because Hargett's planned absence exceeded 90 days, Tiffany Marshall, the Audubon's principal, hired a new teacher to take Hargett's third grade teaching position. Notification of Change 2, ECF No. 40-16 (stating “on medical leave per documentation until 01/06/2014. Please contact HR for assignment upon return.”). The new teacher began teaching the third grade class on October 19, 2013. Marshall Aff. ¶ 7, ECF No. 40-17.

         Hargett attempted to return to work on November 6, 2013, after Marshall had filled her third grade teaching position. 11/6/13 Email Exchange 2, ECF No. 40-20. Upon returning, she provided a fifth doctor's note from Dr. Catalano. 11/4/13 Return to Work Note 2, ECF No. 40-19. Dr. Catalano asserted, “It is my medical opinion that Avadawn T Hargett may return to work on 11/6/2013 with the following restrictions: No prolonged walking or standing. This work note suprecedes [sic] any prior note listing return to work as January 2014.” Id.

         Shortly thereafter, Marshall offered her a position teaching a first grade class. Marshall Aff. ¶ 8, ECF No. 40-17. Hargett rejected the offered position. Id. ¶ 9. In an email written to the EEOC, Hargett explained that she had rejected the offered position because Marshall would not accept the following three “requested reasonable accommodations/restrictions” that she had suggested: (1) that she and her students walk with another class and teacher to the lunchroom and to recess since she walked slowly, (2) that a teacher assistant walk with Hargett and her class to the computer lab and during bathroom times, and (3) that a teacher assistant help her and check on her class when they left the school building during a fire drill. 12/19/13 EEOC Email 2, ECF No. 40-24. Hargett testified that she did not know if there were teachers' assistants available to assist her with her class. Hargett Dep. 11, ECF No. 40-2.

         Hargett also testified that she would have preferred to teach fourth grade, for which she says there was a position available. Id. at 7-8. She specified, “[F]irst grade required more physical demands. And [Marshall] could have put the teacher she hired in the first grade, and coming up in that January, she could have given me a fourth grade position . . . So that was a vacancy in fourth and first, and she wouldn't give me my third grade or fourth grade that would fit my physical needs.” Id. Despite her assertions that allowing her to teach fourth grade would have been a reasonable accommodation, Hargett also recognized that her building rights did not guarantee her the right to teach a certain grade. Id. at 8.

         Hargett also conceded that JCBE offered her a wheelchair to assist her with transitioning to working with a first grade class. Id. at 12. But Hargett did not consider the wheelchair a reasonable accommodation because her “doctor wanted [her] moving, not in a wheelchair” and “I could move through [the classroom] with a cane.” Id. She attested:

And the wheelchair is just trying to get through the hallways with the students going in both directions and classes going in both direction and classes going, when I could get through with the cane and use that as an assistance. I had some assistance, and that's what was available to the doctor, because he knew my condition, and [JCBE] didn't.


         Hargett also testified about taking her FMLA leave of absence. She agreed that no one at the Jefferson County Public Schools had suggested to her that she had improperly taken FMLA leave or questioned that medical leave was necessary. Id. at 16. She also confirmed that no one had suggested to her that the reason she could not be placed back into her old teaching position was that she had inappropriately taken medical leave. Id. Hargett also verified that she applied and obtained disability benefits for the time that she had missed for her knee surgery. Id. at 6.

         B. Hargett's Employment at Kammerer Middle School

         On January 8, 2014, Bill Allison, a JCTA representative emailed JCBE. 1/08/14 Email, ECF No. 40-25. He stated, “Ms. Hargett is ready and available for placement at another school. She will accept any class above the 3rd grade. She would prefer high school rather than middle and as close as possible to her home in Prospect.” Id. The next day, JCBE emailed Hargett and several other people with a job placement. 1/09/14 Email, ECF No. 40-26. The email specified, “Avadawn Hargett will return from Leave on Monday, January 13th. She will report to Kammerer Middle School and teach 8th grade Social Studies.” Id.

         Hargett began working at Kammerer Middle School (“Kammerer”) on January 13, 2014 under the supervision of David Armour, the principal. Hargett Dep. 16, ECF No. 40-2. She also worked with Carolyn Smith, the assistant principal. Id. At Kammerer, Hargett asked for a stool or chair that sat up high to accommodate her health condition in the classroom. Id. at 17. Hargett's request was granted. Id.

         About a month after Hargett began teaching at Kammerer, she met with Smith to review her job responsibilities. Smith Aff. ¶ 4, ECF No. 40-27. Smith asked Hargett to participate in hall monitoring between morning classes. Id.; Hargett Dep. 17, ECF No. 40-2. Morning hallway monitoring duties required Hargett to stand at an assigned location in the hallway approximately 50 feet from her classroom for two to three minutes while students walked from one classroom to another. Smith Aff. ¶ 4, ECF No. 40-27. At the meeting, Hargett did not mention to Smith any restrictions on her ability to complete her morning hall monitoring duties. Id. ¶ 5.

         Hargett performed morning hallway monitoring duties for several weeks. Hargett Dep. 18, ECF No. 40-2. Hargett, however, believed her morning hallway monitoring duties would place her knee at risk of re-injury because she was told to stand in the middle of the hall with students “rushing” from both directions. Id. at 17. Additionally, her monitoring duties “caused more pain than [she] had had before” and that she “wasn't able to move.” Id. at 18.

         Smith and Hargett discussed ways to accommodate her knee injury while she performed her morning hallway monitoring duties. Id. Smith told Hargett that she could move around the hallway, bring her stool into the hallway, or stand in an alcove that was away from the hallway traffic. Id.; see also Smith Aff. ¶ 7, ECF No. 40-27 (explaining accommodations that Smith offered Hargett).

         On April 7, 2014, Hargett submitted a doctor's note. Id. ¶ 8. The note stated:

Avadawn T Hargett was seen in our office on 3/31/2014. She is here for continued treatment regarding orthopedic condition which started August 2013. She has undergone surgery, 4 months of physical therapy, along with rest. She still has some impairments resulting in work restrictions of limited walking and standing. After discussion of her job duties, it is determined she is to avoid hall duty to reduce the risk of re-injury to the knee.

3/31/14 Return to Work Note 2, ECF No. 40-28. In response, Smith contacted Toni Kelman, a JCPS leave administrator, about the doctor's note. Kelman Letter 2-3, ECF No. 40-29. Kelman advised Smith to send Hargett home until she provided an updated note allowing her to fulfill her teaching duties in their entirety. Id. at 2; Smith Aff. ¶ 9, ECF No. 40-27. Kelman then contacted Dr. Catalano's office for more information. Kelman Letter 2-3, ECF No. 40-29. Dr. Catalano's assistant told Kelman that Hargett could perform her morning hallway monitoring duties if she were given a stool and allowed to sit at the side of the hallway. Id. at 3.

         Hargett remained off work for two days and returned to teaching at Kammerer on April 14, 2014. Smith Aff. ¶ 10, ECF No. 40-27. Hargett was eventually paid for these days. Hargett Dep. 19, ECF No. 40-2. Armour later agreed to change her hallway monitoring schedule, and she participated in afternoon hall monitoring for the remainder of the school year. Id.

         At the end of the school year, Armour asked Hargett why she was not retiring. Id. Then, Smith told Hargett that if she did not participate in morning hall monitoring duty or take medical leave, she would not be eligible for health insurance. Id.

         C. Hargett's Disability Retirement

         Thereafter, Hargett applied for disability retirement. Id. The Kentucky Teachers' Retirement System (KTRS) received her application. Applicant Statement of Disability 2, ECF No. 40-30. The application's fourth question asks, “Was the work stoppage due to illness which renders you incapable of carrying out your duties?” Id. Hargett checked “yes” in response. Id. She wrote, “Breathing difficulties got progressively worse teaching in poor ...

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