Donaldson v. Clover School District
ORDER AND OPINION RULING ON REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION adopting 59 Report and Recommendation, granting 40 Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Clover School District. Signed by Honorable Margaret B Seymour on 9/21/2017. (mdea )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
ROCK HILL DIVISION
Debra L. Donaldson,
) C/A No. 0:15-1768-MBS
) ORDER AND OPINION
Clover School District,
Plaintiff Debra L. Donaldson filed the within complaint on April 23, 2015, alleging that her
former employer, Defendant Clover School District, discriminated against and terminated her in
violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12112, as amended (First Cause of
Action). Plaintiff also asserts state law causes of action for wrongful discharge in violation of public
policy (Second Cause of Action), violation of South Carolina Human Affairs Law (Third Cause of
Action), and violation of South Carolina’s Whistleblower Protection Act (Fourth Cause of Action).
In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 73.02, D.S.C., this matter was referred to
United States Magistrate Judge Kaymani D. West for pretrial handling.
This matter is before the court on Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, which motion
was filed on November 15, 2016. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition on December 9, 2016, to
which Defendant filed a reply on December 16, 2016. The Magistrate Judge issued a Report and
Recommendation on July 24, 2017, in which she recommended that Defendant’s motion for
summary judgment be granted. Plaintiff filed objections to the Report and Recommendation on
August 14, 2017, to which Defendant filed a reply on August 17, 2017.
The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this court. The recommendation has
no presumptive weight. The responsibility for making a final determination remains with this court.
Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976). This court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole
or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).
This court may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the Magistrate Judge with
instructions. Id. This court is obligated to conduct a de novo review of every portion of the
Magistrate Judge’s report to which objections have been filed. Id.
The facts are thoroughly discussed in the Report and Recommendation. Briefly, Plaintiff
began working for Defendant in 2000. She eventually was hired as a teaching assistant (TA) at
Larne Elementary School in 2010. She performed satisfactorily working with “older kids” through
the 2012-2013 school year. In June 2013, Plaintiff underwent knee replacement surgery. Her
physician released her to work without restrictions. Plaintiff believed she could perform the physical
requirements of her job because she had been working with the older children.
When she returned to Larne Elementary School for the 2013-2014 school year, Plaintiff was
placed with a transitional special education class (grades 2-5) to assist Amy Brewer. Brewer’s
handwritten notes of Plaintiff’s work performance recite that, in Brewer’s view, Plaintiff spent too
much time talking and sitting in the classroom and occasionally spoke in a disrespectful manner to
Brewer. Plaintiff received a performance review on November 13, 2013, that identified specific
areas for improvement: (1) utilizing technology to increase achievement; (2) producing required
amount of acceptable work within a specified time period; (3) beginning work without prompting
and independently contributing ideas; and (4) working with minimal supervision, managing time
effectively, and maintaining control of all assigned projects/responsibilities. After the performance
review, the principal of Larne Elementary School, Tony Hemingway, began transitioning Plaintiff
to Hannah Goolsby’s classroom (grades K-2), where the students receive intensive teaching, a
teaching model for which Plaintiff had received training. According to Brewer, Plaintiff would
return to her classroom to sit and talk rather than reporting to Goolsby’s classroom as scheduled.
Plaintiff underwent a second knee replacement surgery on November 18, 2013. Plaintiff was
released to return to work on December 21, 2013, without restrictions. Plaintiff alleges, however,
that she was not able to get up and down on the floor or chase a child, which made her position
working with younger children more difficult.
Plaintiff returned to Larne Elementary School on January 6, 2014, after the school holidays.
She was assigned full time to Goolsby’s classroom. Goolsby evaluated Plaintiff after nine weeks
and on February 11, 2014, Plaintiff, Goolsby, and Hemingway met to discuss Goolsby’s performance
concerns, including the following: (1) dealing with problem behaviors consistently; (2) pace of
instruction; (3) delivery of direct instruction programs; (4) amount of direct instruction done in a
week; (5) following proper order in steps of teaching; (6) appropriate prompting in general education
environment; (7) rate at which student picks up skills, and (8) amount of student independence.
Plaintiff and Goolsby agreed to certain actions to help Plaintiff improve her performance.
On February 28, 2014, Hemingway and Goolsby met with Plaintiff and observed Plaintiff
had made improvement in some areas but would be required to improve on all deficiencies by March
28, 2014. On March 31, 2014, Plaintiff met with Hemingway and Goolsby, who informed Plaintiff
that her performance remained deficient. Specifically, Plaintiff failed to meet the following goals:
(1) errorless teaching strategies; (2) appropriate prompting in general education environment; (3) rate
at which student picks up skills; (4) delivery of direct instruction programs. According to
Hemingway, he made a decision at this time not to renew Plaintiff’s contract for the following year.
Plaintiff’s ADA Discrimination Claim
The Magistrate Judge observed that Plaintiff initially is required under McDonnell Douglas
Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. To establish
a prima facie case, Plaintiff must produce evidence sufficient to demonstrate that she (1) is a
qualified individual with a disability; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; (3) she was
fulfilling her employer’s legitimate expectations at the time of the adverse employment action; and
(4) the circumstances of the adverse employment action raise a reasonable inference of unlawful
discrimination. See Reynolds v. American Nat’l Red Cross, 701 F.3d 143, 150 (4th Cir. 2012). The
Magistrate Judge recommended a finding that Plaintiff satisfied the first two elements of the test in
that Plaintiff presented some record evidence that her knee replacement surgeries impacted her
ability to walk and to get up and down off the floor of the classroom. The Magistrate Judge also
identified two adverse employment actions for purposes of summary judgment: (1) the transfer to
Goolsby’s classroom, which required Plaintiff to spend more time on the floor with younger
students, and (2) the decision not to renew Plaintiff’s contract for the 2014-2015 school year.
The Magistrate Judge concluded, however, that Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that she was
fulfilling Defendant’s legitimate expectations at the time of the adverse employment actions. In
doing so, the Magistrate Judge relied upon Brewer’s notes regarding Plaintiff’s performance,
Plaintiff’s various performance appraisals, and Plaintiff’s failure to meet the improvement goals.1
The Magistrate Judge further determined that Plaintiff had failed to show any discriminatory animus
on the part of Defendant. Accordingly, the Magistrate Judge recommended that Defendant’s motion
for summary judgment be granted as to this issue.
In her objections, Plaintiff contends that Hemingway was aware of her disability and that
there exists sufficient temporal proximity between Hemingway’s knowledge and the adverse
employment actions to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Defendant unlawfully
discriminated against her. The court disagrees. Assuming for purposes of summary judgment that
Hemingway was aware of Plaintiff’s alleged disability, the transfer to Goolsby’s class commenced
with a transitional period in November, a period of approximately three months from the beginning
of the school year. The court concludes that three months is too long a lapse to support an inference
of causal connection between Plaintiff’s alleged disability and the earliest adverse employment
action. See, e.g., Bones v. Honeywell Int’l, Inc., 366 F.3d 869, 879 (10th Cir. 2004). Moreover,
Plaintiff does not show that Defendant’s perception of her job performance gives rise to an inference
of unlawful discrimination. See James v. Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Inc., 368 F.3d 371, 377 (4th Cir.
2004) (noting that it is the perception of the decisionmaker that is relevant, not the self-assessment
of the plaintiff, in determining satisfactory job performance). Plaintiff’s objection is without merit.
Plaintiff’s Failure to Accommodate Claim
The Magistrate Judge noted that, for Plaintiff to establish a prima facie case against
The Magistrate Judge also recounted other issues related to Plaintiff’s employment, including a
complaint from a parent, a reprimand for revealing confidential information, and the imposition of
administrative leave with pay after a threatening comment. The evidence suggests Hemingway did
not base his decisions to transfer Plaintiff or end her employment on these events.
Defendant for failure to accommodate under the ADA, Plaintiff must show that: (1) she was an
individual who had a disability within the meaning of the ADA; (2) Defendant had notice of her
disability; (3) with reasonable accommodation she could perform the essential functions of her
position; and (4) Defendant refused to make such accommodations. See Wilson v. Dollar Gen.
Corp., 717 F.3d 337, 345 (4th Cir. 2013). The Magistrate Judge concluded that, even if Plaintiff had
met the first three elements of the test, summary judgment is appropriate because there is no
foundation in the record that Defendant failed to accommodate Plaintiff’s disability. The Magistrate
Judge noted Plaintiff acknowledged in her deposition that she had not requested a larger chair or any
alternative to aid her in kneeling or getting up and down on the classroom floor. The Magistrate
Judge further noted that Plaintiff has the burden of “identifying an accommodation that would allow
a qualified individual to perform the job . . . , as [well as] the ultimate burden of persuasion with
respect to demonstrating that such an accommodation is reasonable.” Lamb v. Qualex, Inc., 33 F.
App’x 49, 59 (4th Cir. 2002).
In her objections, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant’s knowledge of her disability obviated any
requirement she request accommodation that would allow her to successfully perform her job. Even
under those circumstances, Plaintiff has presented no evidence to support a finding that Defendant
refused or was unwilling to provide a reasonable accommodation to assist Plaintiff in performing
her position. Plaintiff’s objections are without merit.
The Magistrate Judge recommended that summary judgment be granted in favor of
Defendant as to Plaintiff’s state law claims, as well as to any ADA retaliation claim Plaintiff may
have attempted to argue at the hearing on the matter. Plaintiff does not object to the Magistrate
Judge’s recommendations regarding the remaining causes of action. In the absence of a timely filed
objection, a district court need not conduct a de novo review, but instead must “only satisfy itself that
there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.” Diamond
v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005). The court discerns no clear
error on the face of the record.
The court concurs with the Report and Recommendation and incorporates it herein by
reference. For the reasons stated herein and in the Report and Recommendation, Defendant’s motion
for summary judgment (ECF No. 40) is granted, and the case dismissed, with prejudice.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
/s/ Margaret B. Seymour
Senior United States District Judge
Columbia, South Carolina
September 21, 2017
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