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Lisa Polonsky-Britt v. Yuba City Unified School District

November 15, 2012



Defendants filed a summary judgment motion contending among other thingsthat plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. (ECF 41.) The court held a hearing on this matter on October 26, 2012; James Ward appeared for defendants and Michael Trezza appeared for plaintiff. Because plaintiff has established a prima facie case of retaliation as explained below, defendant's motion for summary judgment is DENIED.


A. Procedural History

Plaintiff, a special education teacher, filed her complaint on November 1, 2010, alleging two causes of action: 1) deprivation of constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and 2) violation of § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. (ECF 1.) Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the first cause of action on March 30, 2011, arguing for dismissal primarily on Eleventh Amendment grounds. (ECF 13.) After the parties' stipulation based on Rule 41(a)(1) and (2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure this court dismissed plaintiff's first claim. (ECF 19.) On August 31, 2012, defendants filed the present summary judgment motion, contending in part that plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The court initially set the hearing for the motion on September 28, 2012. (ECF 41.) Plaintiff filed opposition documents on September 17 and 18, three and four days past the Local Rule 230(c) deadline. (ECF 45, 46, 48, 49, 50-66.) Defendants filed a reply brief on September 21 (ECF 67), and on September 24 the court vacated the September 28 hearing and reset it for October 26, 2012 (ECF 68).*fn1

B. Statutory Background

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is intended in part to deter employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities. 42 U.S.C. § 701. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act's anti-retaliation provision has been incorporated by the Rehabilitation Act, extending the Rehabilitation Act's protections to "'any individual' who has been intimidated, threatened, coerced, or discriminated against 'for the purpose of interfering with [protected rights]' under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act or the Rehabilitation Act." Barker v. Riverside Cnty. Office of Educ., 584 F.3d 821, 825 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Weber v. Cranston Sch. Comm., 212 F.3d 41, 48 (1st Cir. 2000)). The Ninth Circuit has interpreted this to mean that a special education teacher who is not disabled but who advocates on behalf of her disabled students has standing under the Rehabilitation Act. Id. The parties agree that plaintiff has standing and that the Rehabilitation Act applies to this action.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., is also relevant to this case. The IDEA requires all states receiving federal education funds to provide disabled children a free and appropriate public education ("FAPE"). 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). A FAPE must be tailored to each student's unique needs through an individualized education program ("IEP"). 20 U.S.C. § 1401(9). An IEP is a written statement for each disabled student that includes, for example, goals, measures of progress, and a statement of special education and supplementary aids and services the student will be provided. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(I). The parties agree that many of plaintiff's students were IDEA beneficiaries at all times relevant to this action.

C. Undisputed Facts

Plaintiff has worked as a special education teacher in the Yuba City Unified School District ("YCUSD") for approximately 15 years. (Defs.' Separate Statement of Undisputed Facts in Reply ¶ 7, ECF 67-1.) Most of the facts relevant to this case are tied to the time periods when plaintiff taught at two schools: first at April Lane Elementary School, where she worked from approximately 2001 through the 2008-2009 school year, and then at King Avenue Elementary School during the 2009-2010 school year. (See id. ¶ 8.) At both schools, plaintiff taught students who are beneficiaries of the Rehabilitation Act. (Id. ¶¶ 8-9.) At April Lane, plaintiff contends she informed school authorities that her students were not receiving all the services as required by their IEPs under the IDEA. (Id. ¶ 10.) For example, plaintiff alleges that Vice Principal Brian Arcuri asked her to obtain post hoc waivers for modified student assessments that had already been administered. (Id. ¶¶ 56-57.) Plaintiff refused because she thought this contravened IDEA procedures. (Id.) Plaintiff contends that because she stood up for her students YCUSD retaliated against her, most notably by falsely telling her that beginning next academic year her position at April Lane was being reduced from full-time to eighty-percent. (Id. ¶ 66.)

At the end of the 2008-2009 school year, plaintiff was given the option to stay at April Lane at eighty-percent of full time or to transfer to another school. (ECF 67-1 ¶¶ 67, 74.) Plaintiff claims hers was the only special education position in the district that was reduced. (Id. ¶ 68.) The April Lane position returned to full time the following year. (Id. ¶ 67.) Defendants contend that the April Lane position was reduced due to budgetary pressures. (Id. ¶ 70.) Ultimately, plaintiff decided to transfer, and began working at King Avenue Elementary School for the 2009-2010 school year. (Id. ¶¶ 79-80.)

At King Avenue, plaintiff was assigned a caseload of twenty-nine students. (ECF 45 ¶ 10.) Plaintiff remonstrated with Principal Tom Walters, maintaining that twenty-nine was in excess of the number allowed by law. (Defs.' Reply to Pl.'s Separate Statement of Undisputed Facts at ¶ 11, ECF 67-2.) Plaintiff also alleges she informed YCUSD administrators that her students were not receiving services as required by the IDEA, in part because of scheduling difficulties, and that Walters failed to provide her enough support. (ECF 67-1 ¶¶ 93-94; ECF 45 ¶ 12.) Plaintiff maintains that defendants' retaliation and lack of support resulted in her taking a medical leave of absence from King Avenue on October 7, 2009. (Id. ¶ 93.) This leave resulted in lost wages and medical bills. (ECF 45 ¶¶ 11-12.)

Plaintiff returned from medical leave in March 2010. (ECF 67-1 ¶ 107.) Rather than return to King Avenue, she worked at Tierra Buena Elementary School and at the district office for the remainder of the school year. (Id.) She was then assigned to Lincrest Elementary for the 2010-2011 school year. (Id. ¶ 112.) Plaintiff claims that retaliation continued at Lincrest, because, among other things, administrators did not accommodate her visual disability. The undisputed record, however, shows that Lincrest allowed her to choose a classroom with the most natural light and had special lights and light covers installed, and plaintiff did not alert administrators thereafter that she continued to have problems with her vision. (Id. ¶¶ 117-124.)

Plaintiff names the YCUSD, Angela Huerta (Principal at April Lane), Brian Arcuri, Craig Guensler (YCUSD Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources) and Elizabeth Engleken (Director of Student Support ...

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