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Pilato v. Board of Education of Nordonia Hills City School District

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Ninth District, Summit

July 31, 2019

PATRICIA PILATO Appellant
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE NORDONIA HILLS CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL. Appellees

          APPEAL FROM JUDGMENT ENTERED IN THE COURT OF COMMON PLEAS COUNTY OF SUMMIT, OHIO CASE No. CV-2017-12-5287

          SHAWN A. ROMER, Attorney at Law, for Appellant.

          CHRISTIAN M. WILLIAMS and TARYN A. WEISS, Attorneys at Law, for Appellees.

          DECISION AND JOURNAL ENTRY

          JENNIFER L. HENSAL JUDGE

         {¶1} Patricia Pilato appeals from the decision of the Summit County Court of Common Pleas, granting summary judgment in favor of the Board of Education of the Nordonia Hills City Schools and the business director for the school district, Matt Gaugler. For the reasons that follow, this Court affirms.

         I.

         {¶2} Ms. Pilato worked in the cafeteria at Nordonia High School for over 20 years, eventually becoming the manager. In this position, Ms. Pilato was a member of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees union. Throughout her employment, Ms. Pilato received positive performance evaluations and, up until the facts giving rise to this case, had never received disciplinary action. Relevantly, part of Ms. Pilato's job responsibilities included ordering food from Gordon Food Service ("GFS"). To do this, Ms. Pilato would log on to the GFS website with her own username and password. Other than her immediate supervisor, Sue Petonic (who had her own username and password), no one else at the high school had access to GFS's online ordering system.

         {¶3} In May 2017, Ms. Pilato requested time off to have knee replacement surgery, which would require her to be off work during the last two weeks of the school year. While Ms. Pilato was on leave, a GFS order that Ms. Petonic placed did not arrive. After contacting GFS, Ms. Petonic learned that someone using Ms. Pilato's username and password on a non-school computer had cancelled the order. Although Ms. Pilato denied cancelling the order, Ms. Petonic and Mr. Gaugler did not believe her, in part because her "story changed multiple times[.]" Ms. Petonic also learned that, while Ms. Pilato was on leave, Ms. Pilato was logging into the online payroll system and correcting other employees' time. According to Ms. Pilato, Ms. Petonic instructed her to continue working while on leave. According to Ms. Petonic, she instructed Ms. Pilato not to work while on leave. Further, during her investigation of the cancelled food order, Ms. Petonic spoke with other cafeteria employees who alleged that Ms. Pilato had bullied and harassed them.

         {¶4} Mr. Gaugler ultimately decided that Ms. Pilato should be removed from her position as manager, and that - given the allegations of bullying - she should not return to work at the high school. He, therefore, provided Ms. Pilato with three options: (1) complete an Employee Assistance Program and take a non-management cafeteria position at one of the other schools within the district; (2) resign, thereby allowing her to retain the district's contributions to her retirement benefits; or (3) be terminated for insubordination. After speaking with a union representative, Ms. Pilato resigned.

         {¶5} Ms. Pilato then sued the school district and Mr. Gaugler (collectively, "Defendants"), asserting three causes of action against them: (1) disparate-impact disability discrimination; (2) disability discrimination for failure to provide reasonable accommodation; and (3) retaliation. She also asserted a claim for aiding and abetting discrimination against Mr. Gaugler only.

         {¶6} After a period of discovery, Defendants moved for summary judgment on all of Ms. Pilato's claims. In doing so, they argued that Ms. Pilato could not establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination because she was not disabled, never requested an accommodation, and did not suffer an adverse employment action because she voluntarily resigned. Defendants further argued that, even if Ms. Pilato could establish a prima facie case, they had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for their actions: Ms. Pilato cancelled the GFS food order, requiring Ms. Petonic to go to the physical GFS store to buy the necessary food items, which they "needed * * * immediately."

         {¶7} Ms. Pilato responded in opposition. She argued that she was disabled because she had knee pain prior to her knee replacement surgery, which required her to wear a knee brace. Without the knee brace, she asserted, she would not have been able to work. She also argued that she was disabled during her recovery from surgery because she could not walk without the assistance of a walker or cane, and that - even when she could walk unassisted several weeks after her surgery - she did so slowly and with a limp. Regarding an accommodation, Ms. Pilato argued that she requested an accommodation by virtue of her request for leave while recovering from surgery, and that she was denied a reasonable accommodation because Ms. Petonic instructed her to continue working while on leave. She further argued that she suffered an adverse employment action because she faced a demotion, and was constructively discharged by being forced to resign.

         {¶8} With respect to Defendants' assertion that they fired her due to the cancelled GFS order, Ms. Pilato maintained that she did not cancel the order, and asserted that Ms. Petonic "had motivation to conceal the fact that she told [her] to continue working while on disability leave and therefore concoct alternative reasons for why [she] would be working while on leave." She also argued that the cancelled order did not result in any harm because Ms. Petonic was able to go to the physical GFS store and purchase the necessary food items to serve that day. She further argued that the harsh punishment was not justified given her history of exemplary performance. She, therefore, concluded that "it would seem as if something other than a legitimate business reason motivated the employment actions taken against her."

         {¶9} The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants, holding that Ms. Pilato was not disabled as defined under Revised Code Section 4112.01(A)(13), and that no evidence indicated that Defendants regarded her as such. It then made several alternative holdings, including that Ms. Pilato: (1) did not suffer an adverse employment action because she voluntarily resigned; (2) never requested an accommodation (and even if her request for leave to undergo knee surgery qualified as a request for an accommodation, she was granted leave); and (3) failed to meet her burden of demonstrating that Defendants' actions were a pretext for disability discrimination. The trial court further held that, since Ms. Pilato's disability-discrimination claims failed, her claim against Mr. ...


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