As Georgia kids head back to school in muggy, 90-degree weather, an Atlanta-based federal appeals court has revived a school bus driver’s lawsuit that claims Clayton County school officials violated federal law by not giving her an air-conditioned bus.
Edith Jeanette Hill, who was placed on unpaid leave in 2009 after she complained she was having difficulty breathing in the hot bus due to a medical condition, sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act. A district court judge tossed the case on summary judgment, but a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit revived the suit on Friday. The judges held that there were factual disputes about whether the school district had reasonably accommodated Hill’s request for a new bus, thereby setting the case up for a jury trial.
Hill’s case is about whether the school district discriminated against her based on a disability by not giving her an air-conditioned bus when she asked for it. But her attorneys also cited news articles highlighting safety concerns about children riding non-air-conditioned buses in hot weather.
According to the Eleventh Circuit’s recitation of the facts, the Clayton County School District hired Hill as a bus driver in 2006. She encountered trouble at the start of the 2009-2010 school year, when she was reassigned a route for special needs students in a bus without air conditioning. She went on a practice run on Aug. 5, 2009, and became so hot and short of breath that she pulled over to the side of the road. Hill, who had been assigned an air-conditioned bus in the past, complained to her supervisors, but they told her that all of the schools air-conditioned buses had been assigned to more senior drivers.
About a week later, she filed a formal request for a bus with air conditioning, attaching two doctors’ statements saying she had breathing difficulties caused by an airway-related physical impairment. The doctors said Hill could do her job if given a bus with air-conditioning.
The school district promptly put Hill on unpaid leave while it considered her request. Two weeks later, the district sent Hill a letter denying her request on the basis that all air-conditioned buses were assigned to other drivers. There is some dispute as to whether the district offered Hill a newly acquired air-conditioned bus that October; Hill says she doesn’t recall such an offer. The district terminated Hill the following March, after she had failed to show up for work for several months.
Hill initially filed her lawsuit without an attorney—asserting claims under the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Clay Fuller recommended that all of Hill’s claims be dismissed, except for her failure-to-accommodate claim under the ADA. U.S. District Judge Steve Jones granted summary judgment in full to the defense.
Hill appealed, and the court appointed Atlanta attorney Edward Buckley at Buckley Beal to represent her. In an unsigned, unpublished decision, Eleventh Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan, Senior Judge Joel Dubina and visiting Senior Judge Richard Goldberg of the U.S. Court of International Trade said they agreed with the magistrate judge that the defense was not entitled to summary judgment on the failure-to-accommodate claim. The panel rejected Hill’s attempts to revive her other claims.
The appeals judges said the district judge was wrong on the failure-to-accommodate claim because there were disputes of fact on each of the three elements of such a claim. To prove those elements, Hill must show 1) that she is disabled, 2) that she is qualified to do her job, and 3) she was subjected to unlawful discrimination because of her disability.
As to the first two elements, the school district argued that Hill was not disabled because her condition was temporary, and she was not qualified because her essential job functions involved being exposed to outdoor heat—including for an unpredictable length of time during an emergency bus evacuation. But the panel said the statements of Hill’s doctors that she had chronic breathing issues but could perform her job with reasonable accommodation created a dispute on those points.
The district court judge found that the school district hadn’t discriminated against Hill because of her disability but instead had offered her an air-conditioned bus in October 2009. But the panel said there was a dispute over whether the district had actually made such an offer. The panel indicated it was not convinced that, even if such an offer had been made, it was reasonable for Hill to wait two months for an air-conditioned bus.
“All the school district said was that it would have had to upset its seniority-sensitive bus-allocation process [to provide an air-conditioned bus sooner],” said the panel. Other courts have denied summary judgment to defendants presenting similar “sparse assertions” about an equipment-allocation process, the panel added.
“Moreover, Hill was previously assigned an air-conditioned bus, so it is difficult to understand how reassignment would upset the bus-allocation process in such a way as to cause undue hardship.”
Buckley argued the appeal at the Eleventh Circuit in June, with Randall Farmer of Gregory, Doyle, Calhoun & Rogers in Marietta speaking for the school district. Farmer could not be reached for comment.
An associate of Buckley who worked on the appeal, Rachel Berlin, said her firm handled the appeal pro bono. She called the decision a “really great result” for Hill. “It was nice to see a pro bono case that we could work on that we felt had so much merit,” said Berlin.
Because the decision is unpublished, it is not binding precedent for future cases, although lawyers can cite it as persuasive authority. “If an employee has a disability and requests an accommodation, the employer should accommodate the employee if they can do the essential job duties with the accommodation,” said Berlin.
The case is Hill v. Clayton County School District, No. 13-14951.