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Patricia Hughes v. Southern New Hampshire Services

November 26, 2012

PATRICIA HUGHES, PLAINTIFF
v.
SOUTHERN NEW HAMPSHIRE SERVICES, INC., DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steven J. McAuliffe United States District Judge

Opinion No. 2012 DNH 196

ORDER

Plaintiff, Patricia Hughes, brings this action against her former employer, Southern New Hampshire Services, Inc. ("SNHS"), seeking damages for alleged acts of discrimination. More specifically, she says SNHS violated the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") by failing to reasonably accommodate her disability: type 1 diabetes. She also advances numerous claims under state statutory and common law. SNHS moves for summary judgment, asserting that there are no genuinely disputed material facts and claiming it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. That motion is granted in part, and denied in part.

Standard of Review

When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must "view the entire record in the light most hospitable to the party opposing summary judgment, indulging all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Griggs-Ryan v. Smith, 904 F.2d 112, 115 (1st Cir. 1990). Summary judgment is appropriate when the record reveals "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). In this context, "a fact is 'material' if it potentially affects the outcome of the suit and a dispute over it is 'genuine' if the parties' positions on the issue are supported by conflicting evidence." Int'l Ass'n of Machinists & Aerospace Workers v. Winship Green Nursing Ctr., 103 F.3d 196, 199-200 (1st Cir. 1996) (citations omitted).

Nevertheless, if the non-moving party's "evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative," no genuine dispute as to a material fact has been proved, and "summary judgment may be granted." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50 (1986) (citations omitted). The key, then, to defeating a properly supported motion for summary judgment is the non-movant's ability to support his or her claims concerning disputed material facts with evidence that conflicts with that proffered by the moving party. See generally Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). It naturally follows that while a reviewing court must take into account all properly documented facts, it may ignore a party's bald assertions, unsupported conclusions, and mere speculation. See Serapion v. Martinez, 119 F.3d 982, 987 (1st Cir. 1997). See also Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).

Background

SNHS was established in 1965 and serves as the Community Action Partnership for Hillsborough County, under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. It operates pre-school programs and child care centers, serving approximately 30 New Hampshire communities, and is subject to the Federal Head Start Performance Standards and the New Hampshire Child Care Program Licensing Rules.

In September of 2007, SNHS hired Hughes as a preschool teacher in the Silver One classroom, in Manchester, New Hampshire. Hughes suffers from type 1 diabetes, and requires a strict diet and insulin injections 15 minutes prior to any meals. She also requires insulin testing five to eight times each day. Nevertheless, as part of the hiring process, Hughes completed a disclosure form for new employees, in which she certified that she did not need any special accommodations to perform the position for which she was hired. See New Employee Information Form (document no. 15-8).

Hughes's claims against SNHS center on her special dietary needs. Consequently, of particular relevance to this proceeding are those federal regulations and Head Start programming guidelines governing the manner in which children and their teachers participate in mealtime interactions. For example, the Head Start programming guidelines require teachers to "set good examples by demonstrating a positive attitude toward all foods served." Head Start Programming Guidelines at 111, Exhibit 2 to Defendant's Memorandum (document no. 15-4). Pertinent federal regulations require that "all toddlers and preschool children and assigned classroom staff, including volunteers, eat together family style and share the same menu to the extent possible." 45 C.F.R. § 1304.23(c)(4). Those regulations also require SNHS to comply with "all applicable Federal, State, Tribal, and local food safety and sanitation laws, including those related to the storage, preparation and service of food and the health of food handlers." Id. at § 1304.23(e)(1). Given those regulations and guidelines, and to avoid safety, allergy, and sanitation problems, SNHS says it does not allow "outside food" - that is, food not prepared in its kitchens - to be brought into the classrooms or consumed in front of the children during their mealtimes.

Hughes claims that, because she suffers from type 1 diabetes, she is disabled within the ADA's meaning, and, therefore, entitled to reasonable accommodations. She says SNHS violated the ADA when, first, it denied her requests for reasonable accommodations and, again, when it terminated her employment in retaliation for having made such requests. She also advances several state law claims of unlawful discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Discussion

Turning first to Hughes's federal claims, she advances three distinct causes of action. First, she says SNHS intentionally discriminated against her on the basis of her disability and unlawfully terminated her employment (count 5). Next, she says SNHS failed to reasonably accommodate her disability (count 6). And, finally, she claims SNHS unlawfully retaliated against her (by terminating her employment) after she requested reasonable accommodations for that disability (count 7).

With regard to her "failure to accommodate" claim, Hughes complains that, during the children's lunch break, she was not permitted to eat meals that she had prepared at home. She claims to have "made two requests for accommodation during her employment." Plaintiff's memorandum (document no. 19-1) at 4. In January of 2008, Hughes says she "first requested to bring her own meals from home into the classroom, consistent with a meal plan prescribed by her doctor." Id. But, she never provided any such medically prescribed meal plan, and she claims "management responded that no outside food should be brought into the classroom." Id. She says, "[i]n the alternative, plaintiff requested that defendant's kitchen prepare low carbohydrate meals, which would not be considered outside food." Id. But, she claims SNHS responded by saying that although it accommodates special dietary needs of the children, it does not prepare special meals for its teachers. Id. at 5.

As to her retaliation and wrongful termination claims under the ADA, Hughes asserts that a day or two after she made her second request for accommodation from SNHS, she was fired. She says there was a direct causal connection between her requests for accommodation and SNHS's decision to fire her, and claims that decision amounted to unlawful, disability-based discrimination.

I. The ADA and Diabetes.

SNHS's first line of defense to Hughes's ADA claims is straightforward: because her type 1 diabetes is well-controlled through medication and diet, it does not "substantially limit" a major life activity (i.e., eating). Accordingly, says SNHS, Hughes is not disabled within the meaning of the ADA. On this record and given the parties limited briefing of the issue, the court cannot agree.

The ADA prohibits covered employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with a disability. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). A person is "disabled" under the ADA if he or she suffers from a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A). A "qualified individual" is one "who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires." Id. at § 12111(8). Under the ADA, unlawful discrimination includes "not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual ...


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