A federal judge has affirmed a jury’s verdict that the Greenwich Board of Education failed to accommodate a teacher’s disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna F. Martinez of the District of Connecticut denied the board’s motion to vacate the verdict and remand for a new trial on special-education assistant Elizabeth Presumey’s ADA claims.
Presumey injured her shoulder in 2011 and requested her employer put her on light duty per her doctor’s orders. According to Martinez’s opinion, the defendant claimed there was no light duty in her job class and terminated Presumey on the grounds that she couldn’t perform her duties.
The board argued toileting and feeding students with special needs are essential functions of the job that Presumey could not perform. Presumey agreed she could not perform those functions without accommodation, but argued they were not core functions. The jury sided with Presumey.
Several witnesses for the board testified that the essential duties could not be modified. However, Presumey argued that she worked with special-education assistants who had a wide range of disabilities.
“Some required only classroom support. Significantly, the plaintiff testified that the defendant did not require all professional assistants to lift and toilet students—these functions were waived for certain professional assistants,” Martinez said.
Presumey also testified that she had been placed on light duty before for previous injuries. She further testified that co-workers were placed on light duty, some permanently, for their injuries.
“Even under the more relaxed review standards of a motion for new trial pursuant to Rule 59, the jury’s result was neither ‘seriously erroneous’ nor ‘a miscarriage of justice,’” Martinez said.
“On this record, the jury reasonably could have concluded that lifting and toileting students were not essential functions of the job. The resolution of these issues at trial was a quintessential jury credibility issue,” Martinez said. “Although the defendant urges that the plaintiff’s testimony was not credible, on a motion for a new trial, ‘the jury is owed substantial deference in making credibility assessments.’”
The board also argued that Presumey did not prove that it was motivated by discrimination.
“Here, it is undisputed that the plaintiff was unable to lift and toilet students because of her disability and that the defendant terminated her employment as a result,” Martinez said. “The defendant did not dispute that the plaintiff suffered an ‘adverse employment action because of her disability.’ … The plaintiff ‘need only demonstrate that, with reasonable accommodations, [s]he could have performed the essential functions of h[er] job.’”
New Haven-based John R. Williams represented Presumey. He said the jury ”simply did not believe” the defense’s story. “In my view, this case typifies the arrogance of some employers that write job descriptions which they really don’t expect employees to follow but then use them as an excuse when they want to fire somebody,” he said.
Williams noted that Greenwich had claimed lifting, toileting and chasing students were essential functions of the job. “My client admittedly could not do those things, but in reality she was not the only Greenwich BOE employee with that problem. She was, however, the only one of color.”
The plaintiff subpoenaed a Caucasian woman with physical disabilities that prevented her from walking with ease. “She, however, was kept on in the very same job for which the plaintiff supposedly was unqualified,” Williams said. “She claimed in her testimony that she was perfectly capable of performing all of those functions, which was an insult to the jury, [who] could see that the woman had difficulty even walking up to the witness stand and could not raise her arm when asked to do so.
Williams called that point in the trial “one of those so-called Perry Mason moments we all dream about. So I think this case should send a message to employers that there really are rules they must follow just like regular citizens.”
Andrew M. McPherson of Goldstein & Peck in Bridgeport represented the board. He did not respond to a request for comment.