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Rotkowski v. Arkansas Rehabilitation Services

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Harrison Division

April 13, 2016

TERESA ROTKOWSKI PLAINTIFF
v.
ARKANSAS REHABILITATION SERVICES and / or ALAN McCLAIN, as Commissioner and Head of Arkansas Rehabilitation Services DEFENDANTS

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

THOMAS L. BROOKS JUDGE

Before the Court are Defendants Arkansas Rehabilitation Services’ and Alan McClain’s (together, “ARS”) Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 20) and Plaintiff Teresa Rotkowski’s Response in Opposition (Doc. 22). For the reasons stated herein, Defendants’ Motion is DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND

The facts recited herein are detailed in the light most favorable to Rotkowski, and are limited in scope to what is necessary to adjudicate the pending motion. ARS is a state agency that provides career and education services to Arkansans with special needs. First hired in 2007, Teresa Rotkowski was employed by ARS as a vocational counselor. Rotkowski claims to be a person with a disability. She has a sensitivity to certain fragrances and chemicals that causes physical manifestations including severe head pain, nausea, breathing difficulties, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and swelling in the face and neck. In 2009, she informed ARS of this condition by sharing a letter from her doctor which recommended several accommodations ARS could take to reduce or eliminate her symptoms. In response, ARS District Manager Carol Ethridge implemented a “no perfume” policy, and sent a letter to all of ARS’s clients asking them to refrain from wearing perfumes or colognes within the ARS office. ARS also set up an air purifier in the common area of the office to accommodate Rotkowski’s sensitivity.

All was seemingly well until October of 2014, when one of Rotkowski’s co-workers complained about the no perfume policy and the air purifier. The Chief of Staff of ARS, Carl Daughtery, held a conference call on October 20, 2014, during which he decided to end the no perfume policy and to move the air purifier from the common area to Rotkowski’s office. In response, Rotkowski requested a 3-in-1 combination fax, scanner, and copier for her office in order to limit the amount of time she had to spend in the office’s common area. Her request was denied.

In early November of the same year, Rotkowski’s former co-worker, Pam Koehler, filed a response brief to a pending motion for summary judgment in a federal lawsuit against ARS. The brief used Rotkowski’s testimony in support of Koehler’s position. Around the same time, ARS removed some of Rotkowski’s supervisory responsibilities, laid-off her assistant, and asked her for a doctor’s note for being absent.

A few months later, in February of 2015, Rotkowski emailed her supervisor, Daughtery, and an HR employee named DeCarlia Dickens to remind them that she had requested accommodations, inform them of the difficulty she was having attending meetings, and notify them that she had submitted certain documentation about her requested accommodations to the EEOC. Later that month, Rotkowski contacted ARS’s landlord to request a new door knob. As it would have taken a week to fix the broken door knob, Rotkowski asked for and received the landlord’s permission to have her husband install a new door knob. The new knob was installed on February 16, 2015. Ten days later, Daughtery called a meeting with Rotkowski to inquire into why she installed a lock and chain on her door. In the meeting, Daughtery stated that Rotkowski failed to follow the proper process for requesting the lock, and then terminated her employment.

Rotkowski believes that Daughtery’s justification for terminating her was prextext, and that she was actually fired because of her efforts to obtain accommodations for her fragrance sensitivity or her testimony in the Koehler case. Accordingly, after receiving a Notice of Rights letter from the EEOC, she filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) in this Court on September 23, 2015, and later filed an Amended Complaint (Doc. 16) on December 15, 2015. The Amended Complaint alleges that ARS’s actions constitute a violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and requests damages pursuant thereto. ARS filed its Answer (Doc. 19) on December 21, 2015, generally denying the allegations in the Amended Complaint. It then filed the instant Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 20) and a Brief in Support (Doc. 21) on January 26, 2016. Rotkowski countered with her Response in Opposition (Doc. 22) on February 9, 2016, and the Motion is now ripe for decision.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

As an initial matter, the distinction between a motion for judgment on the pleadings brought under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) and a motion to dismiss brought under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) “is purely formal, because we review [a] 12(c) motion under the standard that governs 12(b)(6) motions.” Westcott v. City of Omaha, 901 F.2d 1486, 1488 (8th Cir. 1990). To survive ARS’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, Rotkowski’s Amended Complaint must present “a short and plain statement of the claim that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The intention of this is to “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). In evaluating the sufficiency of the Amended Complaint, the Court assumes that “all factual allegations in the pleadings are true and interpret[s] them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Bell v. Pfizer, Inc., 716 F.3d 1087, 1091 (8th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation omitted).

Even so, the Amended Complaint “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions’ or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.’ Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]’ devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.’” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). In short, “the pleading standard that Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ’ but it demands more than an unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). When adjudicating a motion to dismiss, the Court ordinarily does not consider matters outside the pleadings, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d), but may consider exhibits attached to the complaint and documents that are necessarily embraced by the pleadings. Mattes v. ABC Plastics, Inc., 323 F.3d 695, 697 n.4 (8th Cir. 2003).

III. DISCUSSION

ARS offers two arguments as to why Rotkowski has failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. First, it contends that Rotkowski’s fragrance sensitivity does not constitute a “disability” as defined by the Rehabilitation Act. Second, it argues that Rotkowski is not a “qualified ...


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