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Benton v. Prince George's Community College

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

August 21, 2013



DEBORAH K. CHASANOW, District Judge.

Presently pending and ready for review in this discrimination case is the motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant Prince George's Community College ("PGCC") (ECF No. 17). The issues have been briefed, and the court now rules, no hearing being deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the following reasons, the motion for summary judgment will be granted.

I. Background

Unless otherwise noted, the facts outlined here are construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the nonmoving party.

In 2000, Plaintiff incurred an injury which required her ankle to be fused. She also suffers from a herniated disc and arthritis in both knees. (ECF No. 17-2, at 8-9, deposition of Plaintiff). On account of her physical condition, Plaintiff is unable to walk without aid or assistance and must wear tennis shoes or diabetic shoes. ( Id. at 26-27; ECF No. 10, at 2, Plaintiff's amended complaint).

Plaintiff has been a periodic student at PGCC since the early 1980s. (ECF No. 17-2, at 6). She was enrolled at PGCC from approximately 2005-2006 and again in the 2011-2012 school year. (ECF No. 10, at 2).[1] During the 2005-2006 period, Plaintiff took two classes at PGCC. At that time, PGCC's campus was undergoing construction, which resulted in one of Plaintiff's classes being relocated to a temporary building. The temporary building was not near parking and required a milelong walk to the bathroom. Additionally, Plaintiff's other class was held at the other end of campus. (ECF No. 17-2, at 15). Plaintiff approached Thomas Mays of PGCC's Disability Support Services and requested that both her classes be held in the same building. ( Id. ). Defendant did not provide the accommodation, despite Plaintiff's repeated requests. (ECF No. 10, at 2). According to Plaintiff, she "was placed on financial and academic probation as a result of her inability to participate fully, " ( id. ), and ended up withdrawing from PGCC some time later. (ECF No. 17-2, at 15).

Plaintiff enrolled again in August 2011, and in the spring semester took SPH 1010: Introduction to Speech Communication taught by Professor Ennis Allen. The class was taught partly online, partly in-class. Professor Allen had a policy that students were to "dress professionally" for classroom sessions. The class syllabus provided that, "[n]o hats, jeans, tennis shoes, sweats, work uniforms, military uniforms, etc. will be acceptable." (ECF No. 17-6, at 5, syllabus for SPH 1010). Students were advised that failure to dress professionally would result in a reduced grade. ( Id. ).

Owing to her disability, Plaintiff told Professor Allen that she needed to wear tennis shoes and requested an accommodation. (ECF No. 10 at 2). Plaintiff alleges that Professor Allen remarked that "[i]f I do it for you, I'll have to do it for everybody, " and that Professor Allen privately told Plaintiff that "[f]rom the first day you've caused a problem." (ECF No. 17-2, at 28). Plaintiff contends that her grade was lowered as a result of her wearing tennis shoes, which contravened the class dress code. (ECF No. 10, at 2).

After the initial exchange between Professor Allen and Plaintiff, Professor Allen received an email from Mr. Mays, informing her that Plaintiff has a documented disability, needs to wear orthopedic shoes, does not wish to be penalized for inappropriate dress, and requests that her grade be adjusted accordingly. (ECF No. 17-5). Professor Allen responded to Mr. Mays, acknowledged Plaintiff's disability, and found the requested accommodation reasonable. ( Id. ). In her declaration, Professor Allen stated that she adjusted Plaintiff's grade on her first speech to an 80 out of 100. (ECF No. 17-4). This adjusted score is reflected in Plaintiff's itemized final grade sheet. ( See ECF No. 17-11). Professor Allen declared that no further deductions were made to Plaintiff's grade on account of her footwear. (ECF No. 17-4).

Beyond this initial incident, Plaintiff lodged numerous complaints with PGCC administration regarding Professor Allen over the course of the spring 2012 semester. Defendant provided correspondence from Plaintiff to Dr. Charlene Dukes, President of PGCC, and to Professor Tammy O'Donnell, head of Professor Allen's department. In that correspondence, Plaintiff stated that Professor Allen was running her class as if it were the U.S. military and was exhibiting no compassion for her students and the unexpected developments that occur in their lives. Specifically, Plaintiff unexpectedly had to spend time with her ill husband at the hospital, causing her not to be prepared fully for her class presentation. ( See ECF No. 17-8, email from Plaintiff to Tammy O'Donnell; ECF No. 17-9, letter from Plaintiff to Charlene Dukes). While not stated in either correspondence, one can infer that Plaintiff felt that Professor Allen did not accommodate her unexpected situation. Professor O'Donnell responded to Plaintiff, informed her that if she wanted to lodge a complaint against Professor Allen she would be welcome to use the student complaint process, but that Professor Allen has accommodated Plaintiff's disability and that Plaintiff had ample time to complete her assignments even with her husband's sudden illness. (ECF No. 17-13, email from Tammy O'Donnell to Plaintiff).

Plaintiff alleges that Defendant denied her repeated requests for an accommodation, even after she provided documentation of her disability. She alleges that Defendant lowered her grade to a "D" "because of her persistent requests and attempts to wear tennis shoes." (ECF No. 10, at 3).

On July 27, 2012, Plaintiff filed a pro se amended complaint in this court. (ECF No. 10). Plaintiff contends that Defendant violated the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. ; the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. ; and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1991, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 et seq. Following discovery, Defendant moved for summary judgment on February 19, 2013. (ECF No. 17). In accordance with Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975), the clerk of the court mailed a letter to Plaintiff on February 19, 2013, notifying her that a dispositive motion had been filed and that she was entitled to file opposition material or risk entry of judgment against her. (ECF No. 18). Plaintiff did not respond to Defendant's motion.

II. Standard of Review

A motion for summary judgment will be granted only if there exists no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact. However, no genuine issue of material fact exists if the nonmoving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of his or her case as to which he or she would have the burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. Therefore, on those issues on which the nonmoving party has the ...

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