SESSOMS v. THE TRUSTEES OF THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY HONORABLE GENE E.K. PRATTER ON 5/24/2017. 5/24/2017 ENTERED AND COPIES E-MAILED.(sme, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
THE TRUSTEES of the UNIV. of PA.,
d/b/a THE UNIV. of PA. HEALTH SYS.,
MAY 24, 2017
Plaintiff Andrea Sessoms brings this employment discrimination suit against her former
employer, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania (“Penn”), under Title VII, the
Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act. Penn has moved for summary
judgment, arguing that Ms. Sessoms’s claims all fail as a matter of law. The Court heard oral
argument on May 4, 2017 and will grant Penn’s motion in its entirety.
Ms. Sessoms, an African American female, complains of sexual harassment, disability
discrimination, failure to accommodate, racial discrimination, and retaliation in connection with
her employment as a Human Resources Information Systems Coordinator at the University of
Pennsylvania Health System. At the time Ms. Sessoms began working in Human Resources for
the Penn, there was only one other HRIS Coordinator in her department, a Hispanic male. In
2014, the department was reorganized, and Maria Colavita (a white female) became the new
manager of the HRIS Coordinator team. Her supervisor was Margaret Alford (a white female).
Another white female was also hired as an HRIS Coordinator in 2014.
In early 2014, Ms. Sessoms received a performance review, on which she scored between
a 2 (threshold) and a 3 (target). Ms. Colavita characterized Ms. Sessoms’s performance as
inconsistent, but also testified at a deposition that Ms. Sessoms’s performance was, at that
particular point in time, satisfactory. In April 2014, at the same time that Ms. Sessoms’s mother
suddenly fell seriously ill, Ms. Sessoms’s work performance began to decline. Ms. Sessoms’s
mother passed away in May 2014, and Ms. Sessoms took two weeks of leave. Ms. Sessoms
returned to work; her performance continued to decline. Ms. Sessoms argues that Penn offers no
proof of this decline in work performance beyond the testimony of Ms. Colavita, but admitted
that because of her grief over her mother’s death and memory problems, she may have made
After Ms. Colavita became her supervisor, Ms. Sessoms claims that she was overlooked
at meetings and verbally abused, unlike her non-black, non-disabled co-workers. Ms. Sessoms
also claims that Ms. Colavita harassed her in a different way by touching Ms. Sessoms’s inner
thigh during a one-on-one meeting in September 2014, while discussing an incident in the past
between Ms. Colavita and a male supervisor. Ms. Sessoms complained about Ms. Colavita’s
treatment of her to Ms. Alford and to others on multiple occasions, to no avail.
On September 12, 2014, Ms. Sessoms received a written coaching memo due to her poor
performance, pursuant to the department’s policies. Ms. Sessoms claims that the coaching was
written by Ms. Colavita, but signed by Ms. Alford. The written coaching was presented to Ms.
Sessoms at a meeting attended by her, Ms. Colavita, and Ms. Alford. Ms. Sessoms claims that
during that meeting, Ms. Colavita made a derogatory comment about her disability – namely,
that Ms. Colavita said that her medical problems did not matter. On that same date, Ms. Sessoms
requested leave pursuant to the FMLA because of acute stress disorder, major depressive
disorder, and memory issues. The request was approved. While on leave, Ms. Sessoms filed a
charge of discrimination with the EEOC. After she had exhausted her FMLA leave, Ms.
Sessoms was permitted to take 12 more weeks of medical leave, pursuant to Penn’s employment
On March 4, 2015, after her expiration of 24 weeks of leave, Penn reached out to Ms.
Sessoms to invite her to submit a Certificate of Return to Work and/or an Employee Request for
Reasonable Accommodation. On March 16, 2015, Ms. Sessoms submitted these forms, on
which she indicated that she could not return to work without restrictions. The parties then met
to discuss possible accommodations on April 13, 2015. Ms. Sessoms requested four items: (1) a
part-time schedule, (2) time upon returning to work to become reacquainted with procedures, (3)
ergonomic review of workspace, 1 and (4) transfer to a supervisor other than Ms. Colavita. Penn
offered all of the accommodations except for reassignment to a new a supervisor. 2 Although she
may have initially accepted the offer or in some way indicated that acceptance was likely, Ms.
Sessoms eventually rejected the offered accommodations, claiming that accepting them would be
against medical advice. Ms. Sessoms notes that she could have worked for another analyst or
senior coordinator, or in another department, but that none of those options were offered to her.
She does not, however, identify any other open positions for which she was qualified. On April
22, 2015, Ms. Sessoms was terminated. According to Penn, the termination was solely due to
Ms. Sessoms’s refusal to return to work with reasonable accommodations. Ms. Sessoms was
eventually replaced with an African-American female with a disability.
Ms. Sessoms argues that she did not ask for this, but it is included in the documentation and, in any
event, Penn agreed to that accommodation.
There is some dispute over whether the part-time hours ultimately offered to Ms. Sessoms were the ones
she wanted – she now claims that 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. were the only hours offered, and that these hours were
the busiest time of the day and thus not appropriate for her.
Ms. Sessoms filed this suit in June, 2016, seeking damages for failure to accommodate
her disability; racial, gender, and disability discrimination; and retaliation. After the completion
of discovery, Penn filed the pending motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of all of
Ms. Sessoms’s claims.
A court shall grant a motion for summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no
genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of
law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). An issue is “genuine” if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on
which a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Kaucher v. Cnty. of
Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242,
248 (1986)). A factual dispute is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the case under
governing law. Id. (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). Under Rule 56, the Court must view the
evidence presented on the motion in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. However, “[u]nsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere
suspicions are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment.” Betts v. New Castle
Youth Dev. Ctr., 621 F.3d 249, 252 (3d Cir. 2010).
The movant bears the initial responsibility for informing the Court of the basis for the
motion for summary judgment and identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the
absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).
Where the non-moving party bears the burden of proof on a particular issue, the moving party’s
initial burden can be met simply by “pointing out to the district court that there is an absence of
evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case.” Id. at 325. After the moving party has met the
initial burden, the non-moving party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a
genuinely disputed factual issue for trial by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record,
including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations,
stipulations . . . , admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” or by “showing that the
materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute.” Fed. R. Civ. P.
56(c). Summary judgment is appropriate if the non-moving party fails to rebut by making a
factual showing “sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case,
and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.
A. Failure to Accommodate claim
First, Penn argues that Ms. Sessoms has not shown that it failed to make reasonable
accommodations to enable her to return to work, in that the only accommodation it rejected was
her request for a different supervisor. “Discrimination under the ADA encompasses not only
adverse actions motivated by prejudice and fear of disabilities, but also includes failing to make
reasonable accommodations for a plaintiff’s disabilities.” Taylor v. Phoenixville Sch. Dist., 184
F.3d 296, 306 (3d Cir. 1999). For an employer “to be found liable for discrimination on the basis
of failure to accommodate, the plaintiff must prove ‘(1) [s]he is a disabled person within the
meaning of the ADA; (2) [s]he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the
job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and (3) [s]he has suffered an
otherwise adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination . . . [which] in this
context include[s] refusing to make reasonable accommodations for a plaintiff’s disabilities.’”
Hohider v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 574 F.3d 169, 186–87 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Williams
v. Phila. Housing Auth. Police, 380 F.3d 751, 761 (3d Cir. 1999)) (internal quotations omitted).
Penn argues that Ms. Sessoms’s request for a new supervisor was not reasonable as a
matter of law, citing EEOC enforcement guidelines and case law. See Taylor, 184 F.3d at 319
n.10 (“a disabled employee is not entitled to a supervisor ideally suited to his or her needs”);
Gaul v. Lucent Tech., Inc., 134 F.3d 576 (3d Cir. 1998) (request to be transferred away from coworker causing employee stress was not reasonable); Dart v. Cty. Of Lebanon, No. 13-CV02930, 2014 WL 4792135, at *10 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 23, 2014) (finding a request for a different
supervisor unreasonable as a matter of law); Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable
Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Question 33
(EEOC Notice No. 915.002, Oct. 17, 2002) (“An employer does not have to provide an
employee with a new supervisor as a reasonable accommodation.”).
Penn also argues that because Ms. Sessoms was the one who rejected the reasonable
accommodations and insisted upon an unreasonable one, she was at fault for the breakdown in
the interactive process and therefore cannot now complain that Penn was at fault. Yovtcheva v.
City of Philadelphia Water Dep’t, 518 Fed. App’x. 116, 121 (3d Cir. 2013) (“An individual with
a disability is not required to accept an accommodation, aid, service, opportunity or benefit
which such qualified individual chooses not to accept. . . However, if such individual rejects a
reasonable accommodation . . . that is necessary to enable the individual to perform the essential
functions of the position held or desired, and cannot, as a result of that rejection, perform the
essential functions of the position, the individual will not be considered qualified.”).
Ms. Sessoms responds by arguing that the failure to accommodate started in the months
leading to September 2014, in that she reported health concerns as well as harassment by Ms.
Colavita during that time and no one offered any accommodations to assist her. She argues that
her employer was aware of her medical condition and of her requests for help (complaining
about Ms. Colavita and complaining about memory problems), which triggered Penn’s duty to
enter into an interactive process. She also argues that she did not necessarily want to stay in her
old job with a different supervisor, but that she was open to any job working for someone other
than Ms. Colavita, and that Penn did not give her any such options. She contends that she did
not have enough time to find other open positions with Penn on her own. She argues that she
had a problem with the part-time hours proposed by Penn as well, but even different part time
hours would not have addressed her concern about working for Ms. Colavita. 3
Penn replies that Ms. Sessoms has not pointed to any evidence that she requested an
accommodation prior to September 2014. It also denies that Ms. Sessoms ever requested a
different job, or that Penn in any way prevented her from looking at the publicly available job
listings on its website and applying for any of them. Moreover, Penn argues that Ms. Sessoms
has the obligation at this stage to identify open positions for which she was qualified, and that
she has not done so. See Castellani v. Bucks Cnty. Municipality, 351 Fed. App’x. 774, 777 (3d
Cir. 2009) (“If the employee cannot be reasonably accommodated in her previous position, she
must identify another position that is vacant and funded, at or below her level, for which she is
qualified to perform the essential functions. . . if, after an opportunity for discovery, the
employee still has not identified a position into which she could have transferred, the court must
grant summary judgment in favor of the defendant.”) (internal citations omitted); Donahue v.
Consolidated Rail Corp., 224 F.3d 226, 234 (3d Cir. 2000) (“[I]n a failure-to-transfer case, if,
after a full opportunity for discovery, the summary judgment record is insufficient to establish
Ms. Sessoms also points to internal documents that show that Penn’s counsel may have advised the
decision-makers to offer Ms. Sessoms the opportunity to find a new position somewhere else at Penn.
She claims the fact that the decision-makers did not offer her any other jobs, against advice of counsel, is
proof that Penn acted in bad faith during the interactive process. Penn, naturally, argues that it does not
matter what counsel recommended. Ultimately, though, because Ms. Sessoms has not shown any
evidence or even made the suggestion that there were open positions that she was qualified to perform, it
does not matter whether Penn offered her another job.
the existence of an appropriate position into which the plaintiff could have been transferred,
summary judgment must be granted in favor of the defendant—even if it also appears that the
defendant failed to engage in good faith in the interactive process.”).
Regardless of who acted in what manner during the interactive process, it is clear that
there were no accommodations that Penn could have offered that would have made Ms. Sessoms
accept her prior position with Ms. Colavita as a supervisor. To the extent that Ms. Sessoms
argues that she requested a new job within Penn and that she was not afforded enough time to
identify a new job, she has not provided any evidence that there were any open jobs that she
would have been qualified to perform. Again, then, it does not much matter whether Penn gave
her enough time or assistance in identifying a new job if Ms. Sessoms has no evidence there
were available jobs. As for the claim that Penn failed to provide any accommodations before
September 2014, even giving Ms. Sessoms the benefit of the doubt that her complaints amounted
to a request for an accommodation, the complaints revolved around Ms. Colavita. Thus, the
analysis of this earlier “request for accommodation” is the same as her later request – an
employer has no obligation to provide a different supervisor for an employee in their current
position as a reasonable accommodation, and an employee must at least show that there was an
open position to which she could have transferred if transfer to a new job with a different
supervisor was the reasonable accommodation she sought. Therefore, the Court will dismiss Ms.
Sessoms’s reasonable accommodation claims.
B. Racial Discrimination, Disability Discrimination, and Retaliation Claims
When evaluating discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII and the ADA,
courts apply the familiar three-part burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas
Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Under McDonnell Douglas, a plaintiff must first establish
a prima facie case for discrimination. Id. at 802. If a plaintiff does so, the burden then shifts to
the defendant to advance a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions. Id. at 802–03.
If the employer does so, it is up to the employee to “point to some evidence, direct or
circumstantial, from which a fact finder could reasonably either (1) disbelieve the employer’s
articulated legitimate reasons; or (2) believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more
likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the employer’s action.” Lawrence v. Nat’l
Westminster Bank N.J., 98 F.3d 61, 66 (3d Cir. 1996). The McDonnell Douglas framework “was
never intended to be rigid, mechanized or ritualistic. Rather, it is merely a sensible, orderly way
to evaluate the evidence in light of common experience as it bears on the critical question of
discrimination.” Weldon v. Kraft, Inc., 896 F.2d 793, 798 (3d Cir. 1990).
To establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment based on race or disability, a
plaintiff must show (1) that she was a member of a protected class; (2) that she was qualified for
the position; (3) that she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) circumstances give rise
to an inference of unlawful discrimination. See, e.g., Walton v. Mental Health Ass’n. of
Southeastern Pa., 168 F.3d 661, 668 (3d Cir. 1999) (burden shifting rules that apply to Title VII
claims also apply to ADA claims). To the extent that Ms. Sessoms asserts a claim for disparate
treatment (as opposed to hostile work environment, which will be discussed below), the only
adverse employment action she has identified is her termination. As to her race and disability
discrimination claims, Penn argues that there are no circumstances giving rise to an inference of
discrimination with respect to her termination. It points out that her replacement was also
African-American and disabled, and that there are no similarly situated individuals (i.e.,
employees who took an extended leave of absence and then refused to return to work without a
different supervisor) who were treated differently.
Ms. Sessoms’s primary argument that her employment was terminated due to her race
and/or disability is that she was the only African-American employee in her department, as well
as the only disabled employee in her department. She also points to one comment made by Ms.
Colavita in a September, 2014 meeting, which she claims was a derogatory comment regarding
her disability. However, these facts alone are not sufficient to raise an inference of
discrimination in the decision to terminate Ms. Sessoms’s employment. Ms. Sessoms has not
identified any similarly situated individuals, nor does she offer evidence that would raise her
claim that race or disability motivated her termination beyond speculation. Therefore, without
any evidence connecting her race or her disability to the decision to terminate her employment,
Ms. Sessoms’s disparate treatment claims must fail.
As to the retaliation claim, Penn observes that several months passed between the filing
of an EEOC charge and her termination of employment, and that there was no pattern of
antagonism or hostile treatment between the EEOC charge and the termination. Marra v.
Philadelphia Hous. Auth., 497 F.3d 286, 302 (3d Cir. 2007) (“Where the time between the
protected activity and adverse action is not so close as to be unusually suggestive of a causal
connection standing alone, courts may look to the intervening period for demonstrative proof,
such as actual antagonistic conduct or animus against the employee.”) Indeed, Ms. Sessoms was
not even at work for that time period. Penn also argues that even if the prima facie case is met
with respect to her retaliation claim, it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for
terminating her employment (i.e., that Ms. Sessoms would not return to work without a different
supervisor) and there is no evidence to show that this legitimate, non-discriminatory reason was
mere pretext, in that (1) there are no comparators, (2) Ms. Sessoms was replaced by someone
who was a member of all of her protected classes, and (3) Penn offered all reasonable
Ms. Sessoms counters that Penn failed to properly engage in the interactive process by
pre-determining which accommodations it would offer and refusing to even consider her request
for a job with a supervisor who did not harass her. This failure, she argues, is evidence that the
true reason for her termination was retaliation. Ms. Sessoms also points to her complaints to
other supervisors about Ms. Colavita’s conduct and her testimony that Ms. Colavita’s harassment
increased thereafter as providing evidence of a “pattern of antagonism” in support of her
retaliation claim. As discussed above, however, Ms. Sessoms’s reasonable accommodation
claim fails because assigning a different supervisor would not have been a reasonable
accommodation, and she has not provided any evidence that there were other jobs with a
different supervisor to which she could have transferred. Thus, to the extent that she is basing
her retaliation claim on the alleged failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, the retaliation
claim must fail. Put another way, even if her complaints qualified as protected conduct, Penn
has offered a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Ms. Sessoms’s termination (i.e., that Ms.
Sessoms would not agree to return to work without a new supervisor, giving Penn no choice but
to terminate her employment), and Ms. Sessoms has failed to show that this reason was
C. Hostile Work Environment
To establish a prima facie hostile work environment claim under Title VII or the ADA, a
plaintiff must show:
1) the employee suffered intentional discrimination because of his/her sex[, race, or
disability], 2) the discrimination was severe or pervasive, 3) the discrimination
detrimentally affected the plaintiff, 4) the discrimination would detrimentally affect a
reasonable person in like circumstances, and 5) the existence of respondeat superior
Mandel v. M & Q Packaging Corp., 706 F.3d 157, 167 (3d Cir. 2013). Factors to consider in
determining whether a hostile work environment actually exists include, “the frequency of the
discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere
offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work
performance.” Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993).
Ms. Sessoms potentially advances four hostile work environment claims – race, gender,
disability, and retaliation. Beginning with her gender-based claim, Ms. Sessoms alleges only one
incident that she claims was related to her gender – the incident in early September, 2014, when
Ms. Colavita touched her inner thigh. Penn argues that even if this one incident of sexual
harassment actually happened, one incident is not sufficient to rise to the level of a hostile work
environment, in that there is nothing severe or pervasive about it. Ms. Sessoms agrees that her
gender-based hostile work environment claim is based only on this one incident, but argues that
even though one incident may not be sufficient to support a gender-based hostile work
environment claim, the incident can still be counted toward the other hostile work environment
claims. Because Penn is correct that this one incident is not sufficiently severe to create a hostile
work environment on its own (and because Ms. Sessoms all but concedes that point), the Court
will dismiss the gender-based hostile work environment claim.
As to race, disability, and retaliation, Ms. Sessoms argues that her supervisors’ treatment
of her did rise to the level of severe and pervasive, as she was constantly criticized, ignored, and
publicly berated. The evidence Ms. Sessoms presents to support each of these claims is the same
and is based on her own deposition and a document that she prepared while employed by Penn,
in which she kept notes on what she perceived to be unfair treatment. It is difficult to tell from
this evidence how frequently some of this offending treatment supposedly occurred. While she
characterizes the harassment as very frequent in her deposition testimony, the notes she kept
contemporaneously tell a somewhat different story – they outline eleven instances that occurred
over the course of nine months. Most of those relate to Ms. Colavita yelling at Ms. Sessoms
about work deficiencies. The February 2014 entry details how Ms. Colavita followed her to the
lunch room “numerous” times. Two of the instances detailed in Ms. Sessoms’s notes cannot be
characterized as harassment at all (at least of her) – one discusses how Ms. Colavita noted to Ms.
Sessoms and her co-worker that she smelled something unpleasant, and the other details an
incident during which Ms. Colavita yelled at Ms. Sessoms’s non-disabled, non-AfricanAmerican, male co-worker. To supplement these incidents of harassment, Ms. Sessoms also
testified at her deposition that Ms. Alford never said good morning to her, although she said
good morning to everyone else, and that Ms. Colavita overlooked her in meetings and was
unsympathetic about her mother’s passing. She also testified at her deposition that a white
coworker was given more opportunities to take on new projects, but she does not describe how
often this happened or what kind of projects were offered to others. She testified that she was
asked to report to work at 7:00 a.m., even though she was already the first employee to arrive at
work at 7:30 a.m.
First, although it is clear that Ms. Colavita’s treatment of Ms. Sessoms was upsetting to
her, from an objective viewpoint Ms. Sessoms has not presented evidence of treatment so severe
as to alter the conditions or terms of her employment. See Brooks v. CBS Radio, Inc., 342 F.
App’x. 771, 776 (3d Cir. 2009) (“[I]t is not sufficient for [a plaintiff] to have subjectively
perceived the harassment as severe or pervasive; the conduct in question must also be so severe
or pervasive that it creates an objectively hostile work environment.”) Moreover, aside from her
notes outlining a handful of incidents over a nine-month span, Ms. Sessoms presents only her
own testimony, in which she fails to provide sufficient detail to allow the Court to make any
reliable determination as to the pervasiveness of Penn’s conduct.
Even if the conduct Ms. Sessoms complains of were sufficiently severe or pervasive, Ms.
Sessoms provides almost no evidence from which a finder of fact could infer that the treatment
had anything to do with her race, disability, or allegedly protected conduct. While it is true that
facially neutral harassment may serve as evidence of a hostile work environment, see Cardenas
v. Massey, 269 F.3d 251, 261-62 (3d Cir. 2001) (“[T]he advent of more sophisticated and subtle
forms of discrimination requires that we analyze the aggregate effect of all evidence and
reasonable inferences therefrom, including those concerning incidents of facially neutral
mistreatment, in evaluating a hostile work environment claim.”), a plaintiff must still present
some evidence connecting that harassment to her protected status. Ms. Sessoms relies heavily on
the fact that she was the only African-American, disabled employee in the department.
However, “[s]imply being the lone member of an identifiable racial or [other] minority within [a
work department], without more, does not demonstrate racial animus.” Chavez v. New Mexico,
397 F.3d 826, 834-35 (10th Cir. 2005). At best, Ms. Sessoms argues that she was treated badly,
and that she did not observe her co-workers, who did not belong to her protected classes, being
treated in the same way. However, even her own contemporaneous notes undermine this
assertion, in that her non-black, non-disabled, male co-worker was also publicly yelled at by Ms.
Colavita on at least one occasion. Without some evidence to show that Ms. Sessoms’s race or
disability, or even her complaints of poor treatment, had anything to do with those the way she
was treated, Ms. Sessoms’s hostile work environment claims must fail. 4
To the extent that Ms. Sessoms is now attempting to add constructive discharge to her list of claims,
such a claim must fail for the same reasons that her hostile work environment claims fail.
For the foregoing reasons, the Court will grant Penn’s Motion. An appropriate Order
BY THE COURT:
S/Gene E.K. Pratter
GENE E.K. PRATTER
United States District Judge
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