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Grussgott v. Milwaukee Jewish Day School Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

May 30, 2017

MIRIAM GRUSSGOTT, Plaintiff,
v.
MILWAUKEE JEWISH DAY SCHOOL INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          J. P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge.

         1. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff 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.

         2. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Federal 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).

         3. BACKGROUND

         Because 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 otherwise indicated.

         Defendant 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.

         According 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.[1]

         4. ANALYSIS

         As 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. at 182-190.[2]

         For the 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.

         Hosanna-Tabor 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.

         The 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 ...

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