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Judge allows ‘extremely narrow’ failure to accommodate claim to proceed against IPS

February 19, 2019

A disability discrimination claim brought against Indianapolis Public Schools by a former bus attendant who says the school district failed to accommodate her medical conditions will continue on “extremely narrow” grounds, a federal judge has ruled.

During her three-year employment as an Indianapolis Public Schools bus driver and attendant, Toni Lane submitted multiple accommodation requests relating to an injured rotator cuff, Lupus and chronic asthma. Among Lane’s requests was one seeking to be placed in an air-conditioned bus to combat her breathing difficulties during warmer months.

Lane was eventually moved from a bus driver position to a bus attendant position to accommodate an injured shoulder. Then, after filing a third accommodation request in August 2016 noting her need to be placed on an air-conditioned bus, Lane was placed on unpaid leave and was told not to return to work until September 2016, when an accommodation meeting could be held on her request. She subsequently filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint alleging disability discrimination.

After the accommodation meeting was held, Lane was temporarily reassigned to an air-conditioned bus. However, as IPS replaced and upgraded its buses, Lane was moved to a newer bus without air conditioning in September 2016 and remained there until her termination in May 2017.

Lane initially complained about her reassignment, but she did not follow through on a recommendation that she report her concerns to certain personnel within IPS. She then did not suffer from breathing difficulties during the fall and winter months, but again raised the issue in April 2017 when the temperature began to rise.

Also in April, Lane submitted another accommodation request with a note from her doctor saying she needed to work in air conditioning if the ambient temperature was more than 70 degrees. School officials “immediately” began working with the union on a possible accommodation plan, and Lane subsequently submitted a “corrected” doctor’s note clarifying erroneous information in the first note.

Then on May 2, Lane filed a second EEOC complaint, this time alleging discrimination based on retaliation and disability. But after her bus driver reported on May 8 that Lane had hit a student – a report confirmed by video footage – she was immediately suspended and eventually fired on May 19.

Lane then filed suit, raising four claims against IPS under the Americans with Disabilities Act: failure to accommodate, reducing her pay, subjecting her to a hostile work environment and retaliation for the second EEOC complaint. In response, IPS argued Lane’s disability discrimination theories failed because she was not disabled under the ADA, and that her claims were either barred by timeliness or administrative remedies or were not supported by evidence.

Though Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana largely agreed with the school district in a Feb. 13 opinion, she did find that Lane provided ample evidence to avoid summary judgment on the disability issue. The chief judge pointed to Lane’s Lupus diagnosis and her doctor’s opinions that riding in warm buses could exacerbate her conditions, including her asthma. The district court thus denied IPS’ motion for summary judgment as it pertained to the disability element of Lane’s discrimination claims in Toni Yvonne Lane v. Indianapolis Public Schools, 17-cv-03320.  

The judge further noted that while extremely narrow, Lane’s failure to accommodate claim could survive summary judgment as the claim related to the timeframe between April 13, 2017, when Lane submitted a doctor’s note regarding her 70-degree temperate limit, and May 8, 2017, when Lane was suspended and then terminated.

Due to conflicting evidence presented by IPS, Magnus-Stinson rejected the school district’s argument that Lane’s April 2017 accommodation request was confusing because of the corrected doctor’s note, pointing out that IPS provided evidence that it knew exactly what accommodations Lane needed.

“The Court likewise rejects any implied argument that IPS was entitled to wait for the second letter because of its right to request medical documentation,” the chief wrote. “It was Ms. Lane who informed IPS that more evidence was forthcoming; IPS did not request it.”

Further, the district court determined the adequacy of IPS’ accommodation efforts must be determined by a jury because the school district ignored the fact that Lane could have been accommodated by allowing her to work on the transportation base, rather than on a bus.

“Most of Ms. Lane’s ADA claims are barred for failure to exhaust administrative remedies or fail for lack of evidence,” Magnus-Stinson concluded. “While far from overwhelming, and the scope of recovery limited, her failure-to-accommodate claim has sufficient support to survive summary judgment.”

The chief judge requested that Magistrate Judge Tim Baker “confer with the parties to explore the possibility of resolving the sole remaining claim via negotiated resolution.”

IPS declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

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