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Hamel v. Board of Education of Harford County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 22, 2018



          James K. Bredar, Chief Judge.

         Kourtney Hamel (“Plaintiff”) filed suit against her former employer, the Board of Education of Harford County (“Defendant”), alleging violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 et seq. (the “Rehabilitation Act”) and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (the “ADA”). Now pending before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 31), seeking judgment as a matter of law as to Plaintiff's hostile-work-environment and failure-to-accommodate claims under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. The issues have been briefed (ECF Nos. 31-1, 33, & 39), and no hearing is required, Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons explained below, Defendant's motion will be granted.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff has a medical condition known as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, “a group of inherited disorders that affect connective tissues, primarily skin, joints, and blood vessel walls.” (Plf.'s Opp'n to Def. Bd. of Educ. of Harford Cty.'s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 33, at 1.) Her condition affects the stability of her joints and requires that she use crutches to assist her when walking. (Id.)

         Plaintiff was previously employed by Defendant as a tenured elementary school teacher at Emmorton Elementary School (“EES”) in Harford County. Plaintiff began working for Defendant in 2005 as a long-term substitute and later became a full-time teacher in 2006 and served in that role until her retirement in 2015. Plaintiff last attended work on August 28, 2013; she subsequently took a series of paid and unpaid leaves throughout the remainder of 2013 and 2014, and ultimately took disability retirement on January 31, 2015. (Def.'s Answers to Plf.'s First Set of Interrogs., ECF No. 33-4, ¶ 5.)

         Plaintiff was initially quite happy with her employment conditions, however, that changed in the fall of 2010 with the appointment of Peter Carpenter, Ph.D., as Principal of EES. Notably, Plaintiff was not the only teacher at EES who felt that the school environment changed for the worse under Dr. Carpenter's tenure. Indeed, a number of her colleagues testified that Dr. Carpenter and Ms. Vohs, the Assistant Principal, created a cliquey environment in which certain teachers were treated more favorably than others. That said, Plaintiff and at least some of her colleagues believe that she was more disfavored by the administration than others and that she was specifically targeted because of her disability. (See Phillips Dep., ECF No. 33-1, at 160-61; Spector Dep., id. at 171-72; Elliott Dep., id. at 33-34.) She also contends that Defendant failed to grant her reasonable accommodations that would have allowed her to continue to work as a teacher.

         A. Plaintiff's Work Environment Under Dr. Carpenter

         Plaintiff contends that Dr. Carpenter-almost from the moment he arrived at EES- embarked on a sustained campaign of harassment targeted at her because of her physical disability.[1] Dr. Carpenter (and Ms. Vohs) allegedly harassed Plaintiff by: excessively supervising her activities at school, making unsolicited inquiries into her medical condition, treating her rudely, changing school policies in a manner targeted to impede Plaintiff's work, designing school activities so as to exclude Plaintiff, and relocating Plaintiff's classroom on multiple occasions.

         At the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, Dr. Carpenter's first at EES, Plaintiff provided Dr. Carpenter with two letters from her physical therapist requesting that she be allowed to use crutches and wear athletic shoes to provide stability in the wake of a hip surgery. (Def.'s Answers to Plf.'s First Set of Interrogs., ECF No. 31-2, at 119-20.) Dr. Carpenter approved both requests. (Id. at 120.) Approximately two months later, in October 2010, Plaintiff met with Dr. Carpenter to tell him that she needed to take additional leave to continue to heal from her hip surgery. (Hamel Dep. Tr., id. at 65-67.) During this meeting Plaintiff became very emotional about the prospect of leaving her students for an extended period of time. (Id.) Immediately following the meeting, and in spite of Plaintiff's fragile emotional state, Dr. Carpenter conducted a formal evaluation of Plaintiff's teaching. (Id.; Aff. Carpenter, id. at 128.)

         Plaintiff takes issue not only with the timing of Dr. Carpenter's first formal evaluation of her, but also with the frequency of his informal oversight, which was far greater than that of his predecessor. For instance, Dr. Carpenter visited Plaintiff's classroom daily as an informal check-in, which Plaintiff perceived as more frequent than his visits to other teachers' classrooms. (Hamel Dep. Tr., id. at 58-62.) Additionally, Dr. Carpenter observed Plaintiff in “day-to-day interactions” while doing “walk-throughs” and kept notes about Plaintiff-including when she was absent and when staff members assisted her-in a handwritten log he used to document information about EES generally. (Carpenter Dep. Tr., ECF No. 33-1, at 14.) Plaintiff also believes that Dr. Carpenter and Ms. Vohs surreptitiously read her personal plan book to learn more about her medical appointments. (Id. at 77.) And, on one occasion, another teacher observed Dr. Carpenter and Ms. Vohs standing alone in Plaintiff's classroom near her filing cabinet. (Neidhardt Dep. Tr., id. at 138-40.)

         Dr. Carpenter also treated Plaintiff disrespectfully both in private and in front of other teachers. For example, Dr. Carpenter frequently glared at Plaintiff, pursed his lips, shook his head from side to side, and was dismissive of her comments during staff meetings. (Hamel Dep. Tr., id. at 72.; Phillips Dep. Tr., id. at 145-48.) On one occasion, while Plaintiff was discussing her vertigo with another teacher, Dr. Carpenter interjected himself into the conversation and asked, “Did the doctor even look in your ear?” (Hamel Dep. Tr., id. at 73-75.) When Plaintiff responded that he had, Dr. Carpenter's face turned red. (Id.) On another occasion, after Plaintiff told Dr. Carpenter that she was having a prototype prosthesis made specifically for her, Dr. Carpenter remarked that she “must love having her condition because of her love of science.” (Id. at 66-67.) In yet another incident, one of Plaintiff's colleagues overheard Dr. Carpenter and Ms. Vohs mocking the name of Plaintiff's condition, although Plaintiff was not aware of this incident. (Howard Dep. Tr., id. at 114-16.) Finally, Plaintiff points to an incident when Dr. Carpenter chuckled while Plaintiff was ascending stairs with the aid of her crutches. (Hamel Dep. Tr., id. at 59-60.)

         Plaintiff also believes that Dr. Carpenter and Ms. Vohs designed school events so as to exclude her from participating. For instance, Dr. Carpenter and Ms. Vohs orchestrated a choreographed “flash mob” dance for teachers to participate in during a student assembly; Plaintiff was unable to participate fully in the event due to her disability. (Elliot Dep. Tr., id. at 35; Cox Dep. Tr., id. at 16-19; Phillips Dep. Tr., id. at 152, 159.) Dr. Carpenter and Ms. Vohs also planned team-building activities for teachers that were physical in nature, such as timed scavenger hunts. (Neidhardt Dep. Tr., id. at 142; Spector Dep. Tr., id. at 167-68.) Again, Plaintiff was not able to participate fully in these events due to her disability. On one such occasion, Dr. Carpenter asked Plaintiff, “Don't you want to try?” (Maranto Dep. Tr., id. 123- 24.)

         In addition to excluding her from events, Plaintiff believes that Dr. Carpenter actively sought to make her job more difficult by moving her classroom and modifying school policies in a way that disproportionately affected Plaintiff. In the four years prior to Dr. Carpenter's arrival at EES, Plaintiff occupied the same classroom on the third floor of the school. (ECF No. 31-2, 115-16.) For the 2011-12 school year, Dr. Carpenter's second at EES, he relocated Plaintiff's classroom to the ground floor so that Plaintiff and her students would have direct access outside in the event of an emergency. (Id.) Plaintiff remained in this room the following year. Prior to the 2013-14 academic year, Dr. Carpenter reassigned Plaintiff from the fourth grade to the third grade. (Id.) As part of this reassignment, Dr. Carpenter moved Plaintiff's classroom back to the third floor so that she would be grouped with other third grade teachers. (Id.)

         Plaintiff also contends that Dr. Carpenter changed or applied certain school policies with discriminatory intent. In February 2013, Dr. Carpenter instituted a new policy requiring all teachers to retrieve their own mail from the school mailroom. (The Friday Flyer, ECF No. 33-2, at 46.) Previously, teachers and students had been allowed to retrieve mail for other teachers. (Hamel Dep. Tr., ECF No. 33-1, at 84-86.) Plaintiff had often relied on the assistance of her colleagues and students to get her mail because it was difficult for her to carry mail while using her crutches. (Id.) In addition, Dr. Carpenter reinforced a policy requiring teachers to supervise and escort children at all times throughout the building. (Id. at 87-89.) Under the previous administration, Plaintiff had occasionally requested that another teacher supervise her students on the stairs while she took the elevator. (Id.) Furthermore, Plaintiff believes that Ms. Vohs, who served as the EES state-standardized testing coordinator in 2012 and 2013, targeted her when she changed school policy regarding the distribution of standardized testing materials. Previously, the testing coordinator had distributed testing materials to individual teachers' classrooms; however, Ms. Vohs instituted a new policy requiring that all teachers personally pick up their testing materials from her. (Vohs Dep. Tr., id. at 201-02.) Multiple teachers attempted to retrieve Plaintiff's testing materials for her and Ms. Vohs prevented each one (except Elizabeth Steinen) from doing so. (Steinen Dep. Tr., id. at 184-85; Neidhardt Dep. Tr., id. at 136-37; Maranto Dep. Tr., id. at 127-29; Ellenby Dep. Tr., id. at 21-22.) Finally, Plaintiff contends that Defendant “disproportionately applied existing school policy concerning when doctor's notes were required.” (ECF No. 33, at 6.) In support, Plaintiff cites to one occasion when Plaintiff told Dr. Carpenter and Ms. Vohs that she anticipated being out for three consecutive days and they asked her to provide a doctor's note explaining her absence upon her return. (Hamel Dep. Tr., id. at 89-91.)

         In the spring and fall of 2012, Dr. Carpenter and Ms. Vohs made multiple inquiries into Plaintiff's health, conduct that Plaintiff contends was inappropriate and designed to harass her. First, during an evaluation conference on February 16, 2012, Dr. Carpenter and Ms. Vohs suggested that Plaintiff's physical therapy appointments were affecting her job and asked if she needed any accommodations. Plaintiff indicated that she did not need any accommodations.[2](Plf.'s Answers to Def.'s First Set of Interrogs., ECF No. 33-5, at 13.) Second, on October 23, 2012, Dr. Carpenter asked Plaintiff whether she needed any assistance because she was not using one of her feet during a classroom observation. (Email from Carpenter to DeHoff, Oct. 23, 2012, 11:12 a.m., ECF No. 33-2, at 17; Def.'s Answers to Plf's First Set of Interrogs., ECF No. 33-4, at 12.) Plaintiff again indicated that she did not need any accommodations. (Id.) Later, on December 4, 2012, during the course of a performance review, Dr. Carpenter and Ms. Vohs again asked Plaintiff about her health and if she needed any assistance or accommodations. (Hamel Dep. Tr., ECF No, 33-1, at 97-99; ECF No. 33-4, at 12-13.) Dr. Carpenter also told Plaintiff that she should not be “ashamed” of her condition. (Id.) Again, Plaintiff indicated that she did not need any accommodations. (Id.)

         Another representative of Defendant also inquired into Plaintiff's health and asked if she needed any accommodations. This inquiry was triggered by an incident in which Plaintiff was injured at work. On May 24, 2012, Plaintiff suffered an injury to her shoulder and leg when a chair she was sitting on collapsed. (Vohs Aff., ECF No. 31-2, at 152-53; Supervisor's Accident Investigation Report, ECF No. 33-2, at 2; Vohs Dep. Tr., ECF No. 31-2, at 210.) The next day Plaintiff reported the incident to Ms. Vohs, who completed an Accident Investigation Report. (Id.) In the course of completing the report, Ms. Vohs asked Plaintiff if she had any preexisting conditions, and Plaintiff responded that she was “hypermobile.” (Vohs Dep. Tr., ECF No. 31-2, at 213.) Ms. Vohs later met with Dr. Carpenter regarding the incident and, at the direction of the Board's Risk Management Department, they amended the form to mark Plaintiff's preexisting condition as “Ellers”-a misspelling of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. (Id. at 213-14; ECF No. 33-2, at 2.) Shortly after Plaintiff's injury, Dr. Carpenter submitted a “Request for Fitness for Duty Examination” regarding Plaintiff to Kathy Dehoff, Defendant's Medical Case Manager. As grounds for the request, Dr. Carpenter noted that Plaintiff had a degenerative condition that affected her mobility and that he was concerned about her ability to safely evacuate students in an emergency. (Request for “Fitness for Duty” Examination, ECF No. 31-2, at 138-40; Carpenter Aff., id. at 130.) Ms. Dehoff denied the request; however, she and Dr. Carpenter continued to communicate privately about Plaintiff's health and, in particular, whether her condition posed a safety risk should she need to help evacuate students in an emergency. (Emails between Kathy DeHoff and Peter Carpenter, ECF No. 33-2, at 13-19.) Plaintiff was not aware of these communications.

         Following Dr. Carpenter's request, at the June 2012 meeting of Defendant's Risk Management Department's Case Management Team (“CM Team”), the CM Team concluded that Melanie Wernig, Defendant's Risk Manager at the time, should contact Plaintiff to determine whether Plaintiff needed any accommodations. Ms. Wernig contacted Plaintiff on July 5, 2012, to ask if she needed any accommodations; Plaintiff responded that she did not. (Wernig Aff., ECF No. 31-2, at 239.)

         B. Plaintiff's Requests for Accommodation

         As described supra, Defendant and its employees asked Plaintiff on multiple occasions if she needed any accommodations. Each time, Plaintiff rebuffed them and insisted that she could fully perform her job without any assistance. Despite this history, Plaintiff did eventually ask for several accommodations from Defendant.

         On May 14, 2013, Plaintiff's attorney sent a letter to Defendant requesting that: (1) Plaintiff be placed in a classroom closer to her team members and nearer to the elevator; (2) Dr. Carpenter and his staff be instructed to cease and desist making inappropriate comments and inquiries regarding Plaintiff's health; and (3) Plaintiff be transferred to another elementary school in the northern half of the county. (Letter from Joseph Meadows to Patrick Spicer, ECF No. 33-3, at 2-3.) In that same letter, Plaintiff's attorney stated that Defendant had “violated [Plaintiff's] rights under the Americans with Disability [sic] Act and consequently . . . created a hostile work environment.” (Id. at 2.)

         Defendant took two actions in response to the letter. First, at the request of Jeff Fradel, Senior Manager of Staff and Labor Relations for Defendant, Wayne Boyer, Coordinator of Internal Investigations for Defendant, initiated an investigation into Plaintiff's claim that Dr. Carpenter had harassed her and created a hostile work environment. (Fradel Aff., ECF No. 31-2, at 2; Harford Cty. Public Schools Managerial Inquiry, ECF No. 33-2, at 224-32.) Second, at Ms. Wernig's request, Plaintiff completed an “Employee Request for Accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act” form in which she requested: (1) a classroom close to teammates; (2) access to an elevator if needed; and (3) a transfer to another elementary school in the northern part of Harford County “due to harassment from Mr. Carpenter.” (ECF No. 33-2, at 3.) Approximately two weeks later, Ms. Wernig interviewed Plaintiff regarding her requests for accommodation. According to Ms. Wernig's interview notes, Plaintiff indicated that her condition limited the major life activity of walking “but with use of crutches [she] c[ould] perform all job functions.” (ADA Employee Questions, ECF No. 33-2, at 6.) Plaintiff also told Ms. Wernig that her symptoms were triggered by “temperature” and “stress” but she could perform all functions of her job with or without accommodations. (Id. at 6, 8.) On June 19, 2013, Ms. Wernig officially responded to Plaintiff's requests for accommodation and provided that Plaintiff would be placed in a classroom near her teammates and given access to the elevator if needed. (Letter from Melanie Wernig to Kourtney Hamel, id. at 4.) In addition, the letter indicated that Plaintiff could use a chair while supervising children during free play. (Id.) The letter, however, was silent regarding Plaintiff's request for a transfer. After following up by email regarding her request for a transfer, Plaintiff was informed by Ms. Wernig that a transfer was “not being provided as an ADA accommodation.” (Email from Melanie Wernig to Kourtney Hamel, June 27, 2013, 6:27 a.m., id. at 5.)

         On July 9, 2013, shortly after Ms. Wernig had informed Plaintiff of the final resolution of her requests for accommodation, Mr. Boyer issued his investigation report. (Id. at 24-32.) As part of his investigation, Mr. Boyer conducted interviews with Plaintiff (in the presence of her attorney), Dr. Carpenter, Ms. Vohs, Ms. Dehoff, Ms. Wernig, and Margaret Weinbeck, the Instructional Facilitator at EES whom Plaintiff identified as a witness to certain of Dr. Carpenter's and Ms. Vohs's derogatory remarks about her. (Id.) Mr. Boyer concluded that Plaintiff's allegations were “unsubstantiated, ” and further found that Dr. Carpenter and Ms. Vohs had been “very supportive” of Plaintiff and “stated to her in a professional manner on many occasions if there is anything that she needs to please let the administration know.” (Id. at 32.)

         C. Plaintiff's Retirement

         On August 28, 2013, Dr. Carpenter held a meeting with teachers to announce a new initiative for teachers to volunteer to meet students at the local library and walk them to school in the morning. (Carpenter Dep. Tr., ECF No. 31-2, at 226.) Deborah Elliot, another member of Plaintiff's team, commented that Plaintiff would need a wheelchair to participate.[3] (Hamel Dep. Tr., ECF No. 33-1, at 96.) Plaintiff was embarrassed and upset by the comment and left the meeting crying. (Carpenter Aff., ECF No. 32-1, at 132.) Plaintiff refused to speak to any of her colleagues and instead waited for her father to pick her up. (Id.) Plaintiff did not return to EES after this incident. She took a series of paid and unpaid leaves and eventually entered disability retirement on January 31, 2015.

         II. Standard for Summary Judgment

         A party seeking summary judgment must show “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact” and that it is “entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the absence of any genuine dispute of material fact. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). If a party carries this burden, then the court will award summary judgment unless the opposing party can identify specific facts, beyond the allegations or denials in the pleadings, that show a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2). If sufficient evidence exists for a reasonable jury to render a verdict in favor of the party opposing the motion, then a genuine dispute of material fact is presented and summary judgment should be denied. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). However, the “mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [opposing party's] position” is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 252. To carry these respective burdens, each party must support its assertions by citing specific evidence from the record. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). The court will assess the merits of the motion, and any responses, viewing all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Iko v. Shreve, 535 F.3d 225, 230 (4th Cir. 2008).

         III. ...

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