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Brown v. Milwaukee Board of School Directors

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

March 30, 2016



HON. RUDOLPH T. RANDA U.S. District Judge

Sherlyn Brown alleges that Milwaukee Public Schools, her former employer, failed to reasonably accommodate her knee disability in violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both parties move for summary judgment. MPS’s motion is granted, Brown’s motion is denied, and this matter is dismissed in its entirety.


Brown was hired by MPS as a Teacher’s Aide in 1993. Subsequently, Brown held a variety of positions before being promoted to Assistant Principal on August 20, 2004. Brown was assigned to eight different schools over her career as an Assistant Principal. Most recently, Brown was the Assistant Principal at Starms Discovery Learning Center for the 2010-11 school year.

Brown’s job duties as Assistant Principal included, but were not limited to: coordinating, supervising, and providing leadership in the school’s program of student control and discipline; supervising and controlling student accounting; meeting with parents whose children are having academic and/or behavioral difficulties; planning class schedules and organizing classes; coordinating supervision for playground activities and student entry to and exit from the building; assisting the Principal with Teacher orientation and in-service training; assisting the Principal in the delegation of duties to staff members; assisting the Principal in coordinating the activities of the school psychologists, social workers, building engineer, nurse, and doctor; making arrangements for the conduct of summer school, if scheduled; assisting the Principal with fiscal responsibilities; keeping abreast of developments and changes in the field; and related duties.

As an Assistant Principal, Brown belonged to The Administrators and Supervisors Council (“ASC”), a union that had a collective bargaining agreement with MPS. Under the CBA, MPS had the “sole right” to assign and reassign members of the bargaining unit. This right was also recognized by the MPS Employee Handbook.

During the 2006-2007 school year, Ms. Brown began experiencing pain in her left knee while assigned as an Assistant Principal at Cass Street School. On or about October 11, 2006, William Smith, M.D., Brown’s treating physician, diagnosed Brown as having “severe arthritis in the lateral and patelloformal compartments” of her left knee.

Subsequent to her severe arthritis diagnosis, Brown underwent four surgical procedures on her left knee: a total left knee replacement on May 11, 2009, removal of a loose patellar component on November 9, 2009, arthroscopic debridement of the knee joint and open removal of a loose patellar component on March 25, 2010, and Zimmer augmentation of the patella with a revision of the patellar component on September 23, 2010.

Brown was diagnosed with a “permanent disability” by multiple physicians. Brown’s knee disability limits her ability to walk, stand, and climb stairs; she uses a cane to walk. Brown experiences weakness and a feeling of instability in her left knee, pain in her left knee, muscle weakness in her left thigh, and a low tolerance for walking long distances. Dr. Smith imposed permanent, physical work restrictions on Brown, limiting her ability to walk, stand, and climb stairs, as well as her ability to be placed into positions that require physical restraint of students. Brown’s need for surgery on November 9, 2009 - removal of a loose patellar component - was caused by her physical restraint of a student.

Based on the permanent, physical work restrictions and limitations resulting from Brown’s knee disability, MPS periodically transferred Brown into different positions or between different locations, and it modified her job duties and responsibilities as an Assistant Principal. MPS’s “Accommodations Administrator, ” James R. Gorton, was directly responsible for handling Brown’s accommodations and job modification issues.

On May 7, 2010, Gorton received a letter from Dr. Smith which stated that incidental contact “should not be a problem. One-on-one contact or if student restraint is not required, it certainly should be fine.” Dr. Smith noted that Brown had been injured while “restraining a third grader at school, ” the “kind of ‘student interaction’ that [he] would prefer that she avoid.” On July 28, 2010, Dr. Smith faxed a letter to Gorton in which he concluded, based on his most recent exam, that Brown would need additional surgery. Dr. Smith recommended that Brown would be much better off at a central location that did not require movement as an Assistant Principal. Dr. Smith also opined that Brown should not be “in the vicinity of potentially unruly students.” Dr. Smith stated that these restrictions were permanent and that they were unlikely to change for three to four years into the future, even with additional surgery. Based on this restriction, Gorton determined that Brown was “not capable of performing [her] core duties as Assistant Principal, with or without reasonable accommodation.” Accordingly, MPS placed Brown on a leave of absence.

On September 23, 2010, Gorton received a letter from Brown’s lawyer, Mark Sweet, stating that Brown’s restrictions “would simply limit her ability to serve in a position of authority (i.e., assistant principal) over potentially unruly students. Your assumption that Brown is unable to work in an environment where she interacts with students and staff is, at best, in error.” On March 16, 2011, Gorton received Dr. Smith’s response to a Medical Questionnaire, in which Dr. Smith stated: “My understanding is that the current situation was precipitated by the patient’s attempt to control and discipline an unruly student … she should not be put in a position where the left knee can be further compromised in attempting to subdue an unruly student.” After Brown was removed from the Assistant Principal position, Gorton instructed Brown to review available MPS positions and apply for positions in which she was interested. MPS did not excuse Brown from the competitive process for any vacant positions.

On August 4, 2010, in an email to Brown, Gorton discussed eight positions that he investigated, but went on to say that she was not qualified for any of the positions, noting with respect to five of the eight that “the job duties require being in the vicinity of potentially unruly students.” Gorton further stated: “I do not anticipate ‘just placing you’ in a position. I anticipate engaging in a dialogue with you in the event I identify a suitable position.”

On April 7, 2011, Brown applied for the position of MPS/GE Grant Administrator. Kimberly LaMothe, MPS’s Human Resources Coordinator, screened the applicants and determined that Ms. Brown was qualified for the position. On April 19, 2011, LaMothe emailed Brown, stating in part, “The initial screening for … MPS/GE Grant Administrator … has been completed. It is with pleasure that I inform you that you met all qualifications and your application and credentials will be forwarded to the interview committee for consideration and an interview.” As a result of the competitive hiring process, ...

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