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Crystal M. Stephan v. West Irondequoit Central School District

January 4, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer


Plaintiff Crystal M. Stephan ("Stephan") initiated the instant action against her former employer, the West Irondequoit Central School District (the "District"). Stephan, a former District cafeteria employee, alleges that she was discriminated against and subjected to a hostile work environment on the basis of disability, and ultimately terminated in retaliation for complaining about the discriminatory treatment, all in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. Ãé§12101 et seq. ("ADA") and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. Ãé§794 ("Rehabilitation Act").

The District now moves for summary judgment dismissing Stephan's claims (Dkt. #16). For the following reasons, the District's motion is granted.


Summary judgment will be granted if the record demonstrates that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56Ãé©). See also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Although courts should be cautious about granting summary judgment in cases where motive, intent or state of mind are at issue, a common component of discrimination actions, see Dister v. Cont'l Group, Inc., 859 F.2d 1108, 1114 (2d Cir.1988); Montana v. First Federal Savings and Loan Ass'n of Rochester, 869 F.2d 100, 103 (2d Cir.1989), "the salutary purposes of summary judgment -- avoiding protracted, expensive and harassing trials -- apply no less to discrimination cases than to... other areas of litigation." Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.2d 989, 998 (2d Cir.1985). See also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 148 (2000), quoting St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 524 (1993) (trial courts should not "treat discrimination differently from other ultimate questions of fact").

I. Stephan's ADA/Rehabilitation Act Discrimination Claim

Plaintiff's claims of employment discrimination are subject to the burden-shifting analysis first articulated in McDonnell-Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). First, plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination by demonstrating: (1) that the employer is subject to the ADA; (2) that plaintiff is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (3) satisfactory job performance, with or without reasonable accommodations for plaintiff's disability; and (4) an adverse employment action, occurring under (5) circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. See Collins v. New York City Transit Authority,305 F.3d 113, 118 (2d Cir. 2002); Giordano v. City of New York, 274 F.3d 740, 747 (2d Cir. 2001). Once plaintiff has established a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the District to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. See James v. New York Racing Ass'n, 233 F.3d 149, 154 (2d Cir. 2000). The burden then returns to plaintiff, to furnish evidence that the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason offered by the District is a pretext. See St. Mary's Honor Center, 509 U.S. 502 at 508.*fn1

Initially, I find that plaintiff has failed to make a prima facie showing that she is a protected individual with a disability under the ADA.

For purposes of the ADA, a disabled individual is one who: (1) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person's major life activities; (2) has a record of such an impairment; or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. See 42 U.S.C. Ãé§12102(2). However, an impairment that "results only in mild limitations," Baerga v. Hospital for Special Surgery, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17201 at *15 (S.D.N.Y. 2003), will not qualify: the impairment must significantly restrict or completely foreclose a plaintiff's performance of a major life activity. See Reeves v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 140 F.3d 144, 151 (2d Cir. 1998) ("not any limitation, but only a 'substantial' limitation, of not any life activity, but only a 'major' life activity, will constitute a disability within the meaning of the statute"). See generally 29 C.F.R. Ãé§1630.2(j).

Plaintiff claims that she suffers from a learning disability which results in delayed processing of directions, difficulty expressing intent, understanding higher-order language, and organizing verbal output, and offers as evidence the fact that she has difficulty reading, remembering, solving problems, and performing math above a sixth-grade level. She was able to earn only an IEP ("individualized education program") diploma, and not a conventional high school diploma or GED. However, the ADA requires something more than mere diagnoses and/or educational credentials to establish a disability: it "requires those claiming the Act's protection . . . to prove a disability by offering evidence that the extent of the limitation . . . in terms of their own experience . . . is substantial." Toyota Motor Mfg., Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184, 198 (2002).

Plaintiff offers no medical evidence regarding the specific extent to which her diagnosed conditions affect her ability to perform major life activities. She testifies from her own experience that her learning disability interferes with her mental acuity, such that she requires that instructions be repeated, and needs assistance with reading and mathematical computations because she cannot read or calculate above a sixth-grade level. However, difficulties with short-term memory and lack of proficiency with reading and mathematics are not uncommon among the general population, and plaintiff's description of her difficulties does not suggest that her limitations with respect to either activity are significant rather than mild. To the contrary, it is undisputed that plaintiff's performance of her job duties for the District, insofar as those duties included remembering, understanding and following instructions, reading and/or mathematics, was satisfactory. (Dkt. #7 at Ãé¶Ãé¶6, 7). In sum, I find that the evidence proffered by plaintiff does not suggest any "significant" restriction on her ability to perform a major life activity.

Nor does plaintiff offer any evidence that she has a record of disability beyond her academic and employment histories, or that the District regarded her as disabled or unable to perform the essential functions of her job. Plaintiff offers no evidence, beyond her allegation that the District should have presupposed a learning disability based on her IEP diploma, that the District was ever informed of her alleged learning difficulties. Even if it had been, "[t]he mere fact that an employer is aware of an employee's impairment is insufficient to demonstrate either that the employer regarded the employee as disabled or that that perception caused the adverse employment action." Reeves, 140 F.3d 144 at 153. To the contrary, it is undisputed that the District believed that plaintiff performed the essential functions of her job well, throughout her nearly-four-year tenure, without any appreciable accommodations. (Dkt. #7 at Ãé¶Ãé¶6, 7). See generally Kamrowski v. Morrison Mgmt. Specialist, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 103290 at *30-*31 (S.D.N.Y. 2010).

Furthermore, even if plaintiff were able to establish the elements of a prima facie case of discrimination, she has failed to rebut the District's legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating her employment -- her violation of the District's policy against food theft, by giving free food to a student. Significantly, plaintiff has at all times admitted that she knowingly violated the District's written policies against food theft by giving food to a friend's child without exacting proper payment. Plaintiff contends, however, that the District should have excused her conduct, because other employees regularly engaged in food theft. Nonetheless, plaintiff testified that she never reported such activity by other employees, and offers no evidence that the District was informed of it, let alone that it treated similarly-situated employees (i.e., other employees ...

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