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Wileman v. School District of Janesville

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

March 19, 2018

PEGGY A. WILEMAN, Plaintiff,

          OPINION & ORDER


         Plaintiff Peggy A. Wileman used to teach at Harrison Elementary School in Janesville, Wisconsin. She suffered from anxiety, depression, and panic disorder that sometimes caused her to miss work. She alleges that defendants have discriminated against her by disciplining her, placing her under burdensome supervision, and ultimately terminating her employment. Wileman sues the School District of Janesville, her former employer, and two individuals: defendants Jessica Grandt-Turke, a former principal at Harrison Elementary; and Stephen D. Sperry, a former director of human resources. Wileman asserts claims under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment against Sperry and Grandt-Turke, in their individual and official capacities, and claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) against the District.

         Now before the court are defendants' motions seeking: (1) dismissal of Wileman's equal protection claims for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), Dkt. 9; (2) judgment on the pleadings on her ADA claims under Rule 12(c), Dkt. 19; and (3) to strike Wileman's request for punitive damages under Rule 12(f), Dkt. 9.

         The court will deny defendants' motions for the most part. Wileman's complaint states an ADA claim because she alleges that she could perform the essential functions of her teaching job, but defendants did not reasonably accommodate her need for disability-related time off. Whether she states an equal protection claim is a closer call. That claim is reviewed under a rational-basis standard, and it would be rational for a school administrator to discipline or terminate an employee who regularly missed work, as Wileman did. But the court must give Wileman the benefit of the doubt at the pleading stage: she alleges that she had previously been allowed disability-related time off, but that starting in 2012, her discipline and termination was motivated by irrational prejudice because she was disabled. Because Wileman has stated a viable equal protection claim, the court will not strike her request for punitive damages.

         But Wileman does not allege facts that could support equal protection claims against Sperry or Grandt-Turke in their official capacities, which would have to be based on policy-based discrimination. Wileman does not allege that she has been discriminated against on the basis of any policy, so the court will dismiss the official-capacity claims.


         The court draws the following allegations from the complaint, Dkt. 1, and accepts them as true for the purposes of deciding defendants' 12(b)(6) motion. See Zahn v. N. Am. Power & Gas, LLC, 815 F.3d 1082, 1087 (7th Cir. 2016). The court may consider the District's answer for the Rule 12(c) motion, see Scherr v. Marriott Int'l, Inc., 703 F.3d 1069, 1073 (7th Cir. 2013), but in this case the answer contains no additional facts that would affect the pending motions.

         Wileman worked at Harrison Elementary as a teacher from 1995 to 2014. Despite her anxiety, depression, and panic disorder, she met or exceeded all performance expectations while she taught at Harrison Elementary. This case arises from the events that began in 2012 when Wileman had 17 years of teaching experience.

         In May 2012, Grandt-Turke notified Wileman that defendants would place her on the District's supervision and evaluation plan based on unspecified performance issues; Wileman alleges that the decision to place her on the plan was motivated by her previous absences caused by her conditions. The plan required Wileman to work after the normal work hours during the week and on the weekends. It also required her to submit her lesson plans in one week in advance for review. No other teacher at Harrison Elementary was subjected to these requirements.

         From September 2012 to January 2013, Wileman went on an approved leave of absence because of her anxiety and depression. She returned from her leave and received a positive performance review for the 2012-2013 school year despite her prolonged absence. Dkt. 1, ¶ 18. But in May 2013, Grandt-Turke extended Wileman's supervision and evaluation plan into the 2013-2014 school year anyway.

         In November 2013, Grandt-Turke spoke to Wileman about unspecified performance issues that Wileman alleges were unrelated to her actual performance. This encounter with Grandt-Turke caused Wileman to have a panic attack, which led to her hospitalization and missing a day of work. Wileman was then “written up” by Grandt-Turke for missing a day of work, even though Wileman had provided a medical excuse for her absence. Id. ¶ 21. On November 21, 2013, Grandt-Turke wrote to Wileman that “continued performance issues . . . will lead to additional disciplinary action” including termination. Id. A few weeks later, with no additional evaluation of Wileman's performance after the November 21 letter, Grandt-Turke recommended to Sperry not to renew Wileman's employment at the end of the 2013- 2014 school year. Grandt-Turke had not recommended a non-renewal for any other teacher at Harrison Elementary. (The court infers that teachers at Harrison Elementary were subject to an annual renewal process.)

         In mid-January 2014, Wileman was observed during her lessons on at least three occasions. On January 31, the District's management personnel, including Grandt-Turke, called Wileman to a meeting and placed her on a “formal remedial assistance plan with the threat of termination if she was unsuccessful in the plan.” Id. ¶ 26. Wileman left the meeting in tears and suffered a severe panic attack. On February 3, she asked to use her sick days for February 3 and 4. On the same day, Grandt-Turke emailed Wileman that her “sub plans for today were unacceptable.” Id. ¶ 30. Wileman provided documentation from her physician who stated that Wileman could not perform her job functions in a hostile work environment because of her anxiety and depressed mood. Wileman also submitted paperwork to take a leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which defendants denied. Wileman alleges that the denial was motivated by defendants' desire to terminate a disabled employee. Wileman missed work until March 17. The next day, Sperry notified Wileman that the District terminated her employment due to her “job abandonment.” Id. ¶ 47.

         Wileman filed an administrative complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Equal Rights Division (ERD). Wileman received a right to sue letter from the ERD on April 14, 2017, and filed her complaint in this case on July 11, 2017.


         A. Defendants' motion to dismiss the equal protection claims

         Wileman contends that Grandt-Turke and Sperry discriminated against her based on her disabilities when they disciplined her by placing her on the supervision and evaluation plan, failed to provide accommodations by denying an FMLA leave and by subjecting her to a hostile work environment, and terminated her employment. Wileman asserts equal protection claims against Grandt-Turke and Sperry both in their individual capacities and official capacities. Defendants move to dismiss both sets of claims under Rule 12(b)(6).

         In evaluating a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the question is “simply whether the complaint includes factual allegations that state a plausible claim for relief.” BBL, Inc. v. City of Angola, 809 F.3d 317, 325 (7th Cir. 2015); accord Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The plausibility standard requires only “enough details about the subject-matter of the case to present a story that holds together.” Runnion ex rel. Runnion v. Girl Scouts of Greater Chi. & Nw. Ind., 786 F.3d 510, 526 (7th Cir. 2015) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         1. Official capacity claims

         An equal protection claim against school administrators in their official capacities requires a constitutional violation stemming from a policy, custom, or their equivalents. Gernetzke v. Kenosha Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1, 274 F.3d 464, 468 (7th Cir. 2001). Wileman does not allege that she suffered discrimination because of a policy, custom, or their equivalents. Nor does she attempt to explain how she has otherwise stated an ...

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