United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin
Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge.
Miriam Grussgott filed this action on September 16, 2016,
alleging that Defendant Milwaukee Jewish Day School, Inc.
violated her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act
(“ADA”). (Docket #1). Defendant moved for summary
judgment on October 19, 2016, arguing that it is a religious
organization, and that Plaintiff was a ministerial employee,
rendering this dispute outside the purview of the ADA.
(Docket #12). Pursuant to the parties' agreement,
Plaintiff was permitted to conduct limited discovery on the
issues raised in the motion. (Docket #23). That discovery
apparently took almost five months to complete, as Plaintiff
did not submit her response to the motion until May 11, 2017.
(Docket #26). Defendant offered its reply on May 23, 2017.
(Docket #32). The motion is now fully briefed, and for the
reasons explained below, it must be granted.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides the mechanism for seeking
summary judgment. Rule 56 states that the “court shall
grant 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); see Boss v. Castro, 816 F.3d 910, 916 (7th
Cir. 2016). A “genuine” dispute of material fact
is created when “the evidence is such that a reasonable
jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248
(1986). The Court construes all facts and reasonable
inferences in a light most favorable to the non-movant.
Bridge v. New Holland Logansport, Inc., 815 F.3d
356, 360 (7th Cir. 2016). In assessing the parties'
proposed facts, the Court must not weigh the evidence or
determine witness credibility; the Seventh Circuit instructs
that “we leave those tasks to factfinders.”
Berry v. Chicago Transit Auth., 618 F.3d 688, 691
(7th Cir. 2010). The non-movant “need not match the
movant witness for witness, nor persuade the court that her
case is convincing, she need only come forward with
appropriate evidence demonstrating that there is a pending
dispute of material fact.” Waldridge v. Am. Hoechst
Corp., 24 F.3d 918, 921 (7th Cir. 1994).
many of the core facts are at least facially in dispute, the
Court will provide only a brief timeline here. A detailed
description of the parties' facts, and their disputes
thereof, will be provided in conjunction with the relevant
analysis. All factual discussion is drawn from the
parties' factual briefing, (Docket #28 and #34), unless
is a private primary school providing a Jewish education to
Milwaukee schoolchildren. Plaintiff was hired for the 2013-14
school year to teach first and second grade Jewish Studies
and Hebrew. The classes were so closely linked that both were
addressed in a single regular staff meeting which was
attended by a rabbi. She was hired for her extensive
experience teaching Judaism in schools and congregations.
After the first year, Defendant offered to continue
Plaintiff's employment for the next school year, 2014-15.
Plaintiff requested that she not teach first graders, and
Defendant obliged. Plaintiff returned the next year, this
time teaching Hebrew to second and third graders.
to her complaint, Plaintiff suffers from mental impairment
due to a brain tumor, the treatment of which caused her to
leave work for a time. (Docket #1 at 2-3). In March 2015,
Plaintiff had a confrontation with a student's parent,
wherein the parent mocked Plaintiff for her mental
limitations. Id. at 3. When Defendant heard about
the incident, it fired Plaintiff immediately rather than
investigate the matter or engage in progressive discipline.
Id. at 4.
noted above, Defendant's motion presents only one issue:
whether the ministerial exception to employment
discrimination claims bars Plaintiff's suit. The ADA
requires reasonable accommodation of employees with
disabilities, and prohibits firing such employees because of
their disabilities. See 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a),
(b). This rule does not apply, however, to the
“ministerial” employees of a religious
organization. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church
& Sch. v. E.E.O.C, 565 U.S. 171, 188 (2012). This
“ministerial exception” is rooted in the First
Amendment's religious clauses, Establishment and Free
Exercise, in that a religious employer's First Amendment
interests override the protections afforded to an employee by
employment discrimination laws when both apply. Id.
exception to apply, the Court must find that Plaintiff is a
“minister.” Id. at 190-92. This does not
mean that Plaintiff must be an ordained head of a
congregation. Id. at 190. Rather, “[i]n
determining whether an employee is considered a minister for
the purposes of applying this exception, we do not look to
ordination but instead to the function of the
position.” Alicea-Hernandez, 320 F.3d at 703.
This inquiry is focused on the position the employee
occupied, not the reasons for her termination; to ask whether
the reasons were religious or secular would bring First
Amendment concerns back to the fore. Id.;
Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 194-95.
is the most recent controlling precedent on application of
the ministerial exception (the Seventh Circuit has not had
occasion to squarely address the issue since 2012), and so
the Court places its greatest reliance on that opinion.
There, the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Church and School (the
“Church”) was a religious primary school.
Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 177. It employed two
categories of teachers: “called, ” who have both
academic and religious qualifications, and “lay,
” who had no religious requirements. Id.
Cheryl Perich (“Perich”) was hired as a lay
teacher, then became a called teacher soon thereafter.
Id. at 178. She received a “diploma of
vocation” and became a commissioned minister.
Id. Her duties included various secular (math,
science, language arts classes) and religious (religion
class, leading prayers, attending services) assignments.
Id. Perich was diagnosed with narcolepsy, left work,
and was eventually terminated when she attempted to return to
work. Id. at 178-79.
Hosanna-Tabor Court did not “adopt a rigid
formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a
minister, ” or otherwise announce any elements to be
followed, but instead engaged in a fact-intensive analysis
based on the general principles cited above. Id. at
191-94. It found the following facts relevant:
1) Her title was “Minister of Religion, Commissioned,
” and she was tasked in performing that role in
accordance with religious guidance;
2) The title required significant religious training as well
as a formal commissioning by the congregation;
3) Perich held herself out as a minister, accepting the
“called” teaching position, taking a religious
employee tax allowance, and in seeking to return to work,
stating that she felt that God was calling her back to a
teaching ministry; and
4) Her job duties “reflected a role in conveying the
Church's message and carrying out its mission, ”
including regularly teaching ...