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MELING v. ST. FRANCIS COLLEGE

March 31, 1998

BARBARA MELING, Plaintiff, against ST. FRANCIS COLLEGE and DONALD SULLIVAN, Defendants.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: GLEESON

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

 JOHN GLEESON, United States District Judge:

 On July 7, 1997, a jury returned a verdict for Barbara Meling on her claims that she was terminated from her employment with St. Francis College ("St. Francis") because of her physical disabilities, in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 1201 et seq. (the "ADA"), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., and other related state anti-discrimination statutes. The jury awarded Meling $ 225,000 in compensatory damages and $ 150,000 in punitive damages.

 Pending before me now are (1) defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial; (2) defendants' motion to set aside the jury's award of punitive damages; (3) defendants' contention that I should refuse to award back pay or, in the alternative, that the back pay award be subject to certain offsets; and (4) plaintiff's request for an order requiring St. Francis to reinstate *fn1" Meling with tenure. For the reasons set forth below, the jury's liability and damage verdicts shall remain undisturbed; Meling is also awarded $ 141,251, plus interest, in back pay, and Meling is reinstated without tenure to her position on the faculty at St. Francis. Meling shall have until April 10, 1998, to supplement her application for back pay for the period of time from the trial to now.

 FACTS

 Meling was hired by St. Francis as a physical education instructor on September 1, 1988. By that time, Meling had obtained a Master's Degree in Physical Education from Manhattan College, *fn2" and had worked for two years as a physical education teacher for children from grades seven through twelve. A martial arts expert, Meling holds a fourth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

 St. Francis and Meling initially agreed to a one-year contract of employment. Following annual reviews of her job performance, St. Francis offered, and Meling accepted, three subsequent one-year contracts. In September 1992, St. Francis promoted Meling to Assistant Professor and they entered into a three-year contract. As a full-time Assistant Professor of Physical Education, Meling supervised student teachers and taught a variety of courses, including "Care and Prevention of Athletic Injuries," "Exercise, Nutrition and Weight Control," "History and Principles of Physical Education" and "Tae Kwon Do." Most of the courses Meling taught were strictly lecture courses, requiring no physical exertion on her part. Others, such as Tae Kwon Do, required either Meling or a student assistant to demonstrate certain skills. Faculty members and the administration considered Meling an excellent professor, who taught well and created a stimulating learning environment.

 On March 22, 1993, while Meling was driving on the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx, New York, a car crashed into the rear of her vehicle. Meling suffered a variety of injuries: a concussion, multiple fractures of her cheek bones and eye orbits, a nasal bone fracture, whiplash and damage to her shoulder and knee. Despite these injuries and the difficulties they created for her, Meling continued to teach at St. Francis during the balance of the Spring 1993 semester.

 Throughout the summer of 1993, Meling experienced severe headaches, and she spent most of her time in bed. She attempted to return to work at St. Francis in the fall of 1993. However, the pain in her shoulder and knee, which restricted her ability to stand, sit, walk and reach, led her to request medical leaves of absence from St. Francis for the Fall 1993 and Spring 1994 semesters. St. Francis granted Meling's requests.

 While Meling was on medical leave, she engaged in an extensive physical therapy program and had surgery on her shoulder and fractured eye orbits. Her goal was to return to work at St. Francis in the fall of 1994. When Meling communicated this hope to John Hawes, the academic dean at St. Francis, he told her that she "would have to be able to return to full duties and full responsibilities" and the school "would not accept [her] back with limitations." Tr. at 82. *fn3"

 On July 27, 1994, Meling met with Donald Sullivan, the President of St. Francis, and requested disability leave for the Fall 1994 semester because she wanted to undergo corrective surgery for accident-related sinus problems. Sullivan rejected Meling's request, stating that, under Section J(4)(c) of the St. Francis Faculty Handbook, Meling could not remain on medical leave. *fn4" In those circumstances, Meling agreed to postpone her surgery and to resume her teaching responsibilities for the Fall 1994 semester.

 St. Francis requested a letter from Meling's physician indicating whether Meling was physically able to return to work, and Meling provided one. In that letter, Dr. Louis Starace, Meling's treating physician, advised St. Francis that Meling could not engage in "strenuous physical activities," but she could return to work for "light duty only," which could include "teaching courses of a non physical nature -- lecture only." By letter dated August 30, 1994, St. Francis informed Meling that "the schedule you have been assigned requires strenuous physical activity and [we are] unable to provide you with a schedule which is light duty only."

 In a letter dated September 1, 1994, Meling urged St. Francis to reconsider its decision, and she proposed accommodations that would have enabled her to teach physical education at St. Francis during the Fall 1994 semester. For example, Meling proposed that she (1) work on the physical education curriculum; (2) serve on faculty committees; (3) advise students; and (4) be provided with an assistant when teaching courses which required the demonstration of skills.

 On September 7, 1994, Sullivan reviewed Meling's September 1 letter setting forth her proposed accommodations. On that same day, Sullivan wrote back, stating that it was too late to implement any of the accommodations that she suggested, "even if they were appropriate." In addition, Sullivan stated, St. Francis had already replaced Meling with two adjunct instructors, since St. Francis was "doubtful that someone physically limited could qualify as a proper supervisor for a physical education course." Tr. at 99.

 Neither Sullivan nor anyone else at St. Francis spoke to Meling about the courses she was scheduled to teach, the methods for teaching those courses, or whether those courses required any physical exertion at all. In addition, no one from St. Francis discussed with Meling her proposed accommodations or any other accommodations that might have permitted her to teach in the fall of 1994. St. Francis did not attempt to speak to Meling's doctors in order to clarify the extent of Meling's injuries.

 In fact, Meling was fully capable of teaching all of the courses on her schedule for the Fall 1994 semester. The courses assigned to her (Kinesiology (the study of human motion), Exercise, Nutrition and Weight Control, Tae Kwon Do, Folk, Square and Social Dance and Field Experience) either involved no physical activity by the instructor or, in the case of Tae Kwon Do and Exercise, Nutrition and Weight Control, required physical demonstrations that could have been performed by students. *fn5"

 On September 26, 1994, Meling notified St. Francis that she wished to resume her "regular teaching duties" in the Spring 1995 semester, and that she wanted to be considered for tenure. Donald Sullivan wrote back on October 20, 1994, informing Meling that she would not be placed on the schedule for the spring term. He explained that, pursuant to St. Francis' policy, since Meling was not able to "perform all duties and responsibilities as a faculty member" at the end of her one-year medical leave of absence, she was deemed to have "resigned" from the faculty.

 As of June 30, 1997, when Meling testified at trial, she remained unable to stand or walk for long periods of time or to lift heavy objects. Accordingly, were she to resume teaching at St. Francis, she still would need the school to accommodate her disability by providing her with (1) a student demonstrator for courses such as Tae Kwon Do and gymnastics; and (2) an assistant to help Meling with ministerial tasks and typing. Otherwise, Meling is physically able to resume her teaching career, and she hopes to do so at St. Francis.

 Procedural History

 On September 14, 1995, Meling filed this action. After the close of discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment, claiming that plaintiff's certifications to insurance carriers that she was "totally disabled" as a result of her automobile accident precluded her from asserting that she was able to perform the essential functions of her job at St. Francis. Sullivan also moved for summary judgment on the Rehabilitation Act claim on the additional ground that the Act did not impose liability on individuals. By Memorandum and Order dated April 1, 1997, I granted Sullivan's motion for summary judgment on that issue, but denied defendants' motion in all other respects. A jury trial was then held between June 30, ...


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