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Watson v. U.S.D. No. 500

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 30, 2019

CARMEN N. WATSON, Plaintiff,
U.S.D. NO. 500 et al., Defendants.



         Defendants U.S.D. No. 500 (“the School District”), Lenora Miller, and Sandy Kiper move the Court to dismiss Plaintiff Carmen Watson's Amended Complaint (Docs. 35, 37, 39). For the reasons that follow, the Court grants the motions as to every claim except ADA retaliation against the School District. The District also moves the court to change the location of trial from Wichita to Kansas City (Doc. 12). That motion is also granted.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background [1]

         Watson worked as a bus driver for the School District from 2008 to 2018. Defendants Miller, Kiper, Miguel Martin, and Anita Rocha all had management positions within the district's Department of Transportation.

         Watson alleges that she has suffered from numerous disabilities since 2014. On January 30, 2017, she complained to Martin, the assistant director of transportation, that Kiper and Rocha had mistreated her and other disabled bus drivers under their watch. In particular, she alleges that the supervisors derided the disabled employees as “FMLA-ers” and “fakers, ” gave them longer bus routes, and refused to sign them up for extra activities. Martin reputedly answered that “we need people who can really work” and that he appreciated Kiper and Rocha's “passion.”

         In February, Watson held a meeting with Lenora Miller, the executive director of transportation, to air her concerns. She alleges that Miller brought up Watson's spotty attendance record and told her to return to work. After this, Watson alleges the school district retaliated against her by cancelling her short-term disability benefits and critical-care insurance, which she had had for years without interruption.

         Watson alleges that Kiper and Rocha continued to harass her by making fun of her attendance record, letting other drivers use her bus which forced her to find a spare, and changing her assigned bus routes. She complained to Miguel Martin again in April. Martin did not believe Kiper and Rocha's conduct warranted his action.

         After driving one of the spare buses, Watson claims that she began suffering back pain because the driver's seat was stuck in an uncomfortable position. She asked Martin to “been seen at the job clinic.” The assistant director denied her request on the grounds that she had failed to make her request within 72 hours. After reviewing the company policy, Watson informed Martin that she in fact had 30 days. Martin did not waver. Watson allegedly sought treatment elsewhere and was diagnosed with two herniated discs.

         Watson also alleges that the district breached her confidentiality when one of the bus drivers found a report containing her personal information in his mailbox and put it inside a bus seat. She complained to Miller, the executive director, about this, who assured her the driver was no threat to her safety. Following the breach, Watson filed a grievance with district superintendent Cynthia Lane, detailing not only this incident but the previous instances in which she felt discriminated against by her supervisors. This was denied.

         After this, she had another meeting with Miller. This meeting took place on June 9, 2017, and allegedly lasted over six hours. Watson describes the meeting as “inhumane, ” “demoraliz[ing], ” and in violation of “numerous state and federal laws and regulations.” The offending conduct was evidently the executive director's comment, “I've been really worried about you this year, wondering if you're going to make it. Is this something we need to talk about?” The concern was in reference to Watson's anxiety and depression, which Watson wanted to be confidential. Miller went on to advise that if Watson did not seek treatment, she could be reported or terminated. She reportedly made Watson explain her conditions in great detail. Finally, she told Watson the department would be evaluating her performance in the upcoming year. In Watson's view, this constituted “retaliat[ion] with threats [and] coercion to expose the petitioners private health records shortly after the petitioner exercised her right to free speech.”[2]

         After this, Watson claims that the district further retaliated against her by cancelling her short-term disability benefits and critical-care insurance. This is the same act she alleges occurred after her first meeting with Miller. It is unclear whether the district reinstated her insurance at any point between the two meetings.

         Watson filed charges with the Kansas Human Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The KHRC issued a finding of no probable cause. The EEOC dismissed her complaint and issued her a right to sue letter.

         By September 2018, Watson had been on leave for several months, and now qualified as a retiree for the purposes of COBRA insurance. In order to get COBRA insurance, Watson alleges that the district made her sign a document representing that she had “been with continuing coverage without lapse up until September 1st, 2018.” Watson said this was false and refused to sign.

         Watson soon filed another charge of retaliation with the KHRC. She intended this second charge to be joined with the first, which was still pending. The KHRC dismissed the charge after finding out this action had been filed in the district court. It did not issue her a right to sue letter.

         Watson filed this suit against the school district, Miller, Martin, Kiper, and Rocha. The precise nature of her allegations is difficult to determine because she does not specify her claims or put them in numbered paragraphs as required by Rule 10(b).[3] She invokes the Americans with Disabilities Act and claims the district unlawfully retaliated against her. She also refers to Titles VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments, and the Rehabilitation Act. She cites 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and claims that the defendants have committed “unconstitutional violations” against her. In her response, she elaborates that she “should have been provided equal protection from retaliation for exercising free speech by the First and Fourteenth Amendment.” Finally, she cites the Kansas Act Against Discrimination. She seeks damages against the defendants in the total sum of $500, 000. Defendants Miller, Kiper, and the district now move to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), arguing that Watson has not stated a claim upon which relief can be granted.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), a defendant may move for dismissal when the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.[4] Upon such motion, the court must decide “whether the complaint contains ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'”[5] A claim is facially plausible if the plaintiff pleads facts sufficient for the court to reasonably infer that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct.[6] The court is required to accept the factual allegations in the complaint as true, but is free to reject legal conclusions.[7]The plausibility standard reflects the requirement in Rule 8 that pleadings provide defendants with fair notice of the nature of claims as well as the grounds on which the claims rest.[8] The court construes the complaints of pro se plaintiffs liberally in the interest of justice.[9] The court will not, however, advocate for the plaintiff or construct legal theories on her behalf.[10]

         III. Analysis

         Watson, as a pro se plaintiff, is entitled to a careful review of her complaint. The Court determines that she is attempting to pursue claims of ADA and Title VII retaliation, violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments (via 42 U.S.C. § 1983), and the Kansas Act Against Discrimination. She also refers to Title IX of the Education Amendments, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and negligence, but she does so only offhandedly or in the context of another complaint. The Court does not interpret Watson's complaint as seeking relief under any of these theories.

         a. Does Watson State a Claim for Retaliation Under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

         Watson alleges that the defendants have unlawfully retaliated against her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Defendants Kiper and Miller argue they are not subject to liability because they are not “employers” within the meaning of the ADA. The school district argues it is not liable because it did not subject Watson to an adverse employment action and that, even if it did, it was not linked to Watson's protected activity.

         The Americans with Disabilities Act's anti-retaliation provision declares: “No person shall discriminate against any individual because such individual has opposed any act or practice made unlawful by this chapter.”[11] To prove a violation of this provision, the plaintiff must show three elements: (1) she engaged in a protected activity; (2) the employer took an adverse employment action against her contemporaneously or subsequently; and (3) a causal connection exists between the two.[12] The first element, that Watson engaged in a protected activity under the ADA, is not in dispute.

         The second element requires that the employer's action be materially adverse, or “a significant change in employment status” such as “a decision causing a significant change in benefits.”[13] Such an action will be found adverse only if it “could well dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”[14] The third element, a causal connection between the protected activity and the materially adverse action, can be met when the plaintiff shows “protected conduct closely followed by adverse action.”[15]

         The District asserts in conclusory fashion that “none of [Watson's] additional allegations support finding Defendant USD No. 500 subjected her to anything that rises to the level of an ‘adverse employment action' or that there is any connection to her exercise of a protected activity and any employment action.” In fact Watson alleges that the District cut her health insurance shortly after she complained to Lenora Miller about the unfair treatment she and other disabled employees allegedly suffered. This change in benefits is plainly sufficient to meet the standard for a materially adverse action.

         It is also reasonable to draw a causal connection from the allegations based on timeframe alone: Watson alleges the District cancelled her short-term insurance “immediately” after her initial complaint to Miller. Watson can state a claim for ADA retaliation against the School District.

         She cannot, however, state a claim against the individual defendants Miller and Kiper. The ADA anti-retaliatory provision by its clear terms applies to employers, which does not include supervisors such as Miller and Kiper.[16] To the ...

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