CHICAGO — A Chicago federal judge has sided with a teacher who sued the Chicago Board of Education, claiming she was fired from her job as an elementary school teacher because of a disability.
In late November, U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Durkin concluded Linda Ortega, a tenured fifth-grade teacher at James Hedges Elementary in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood, is entitled to more than $730,000 in unpaid wages, interest and lost pension benefits.
According to Ortega’s complaint, the principal of the school fired her, claiming she no longer could meet the requirements of her job because one of her arms was paralyzed. She had worked at the school for about 10 years until she was terminated in 2011.
According to the Nov. 21 opinion, summary judgment had been entered in favor of the school’s principal because the Americans with Disabilities Act allows for action against an employer, but not a supervisor.
In October 2015, a jury awarded Ortega $285,000 in compensatory damages. With the new order, Ortega is slated to receive more than $1 million.
Following the verdict, Ortega and the district continued to debate the case in court to discuss disputes over equitable relief that she might be entitled to after the jury agreed intentional discrimination was involved in her dismissal.
“After careful consideration of the evidence introduced at the equitable relief hearing, as well as the evidence submitted at trial and the legal briefs filed thereafter, the court now concludes that Ortega is entitled to equitable relief in the form of back pay, prejudgment interest, front pay, and lost pension benefits,” Durkin wrote in the opinion.
Ortega was seeking lost wages of $363,413 and lost pension benefits in the amount of $433,222.
While an actuary testified that Ortega’s lost earnings through August 2016 were $547,359, Durkin ruled that figure could be slightly inflated, given assumptions regarding pay increases.
Durkin further ruled that Ortega was entitled to interest for lost wages at a rate of 3.25 percent.
The board never offered to reinstate Ortega, instead offering to return her to the reassigned teacher’s pool for four years or until she received an offer for a permanent teaching job.
The pool option wasn’t a suitable alternative for a tenured teacher, according to Ortega, and Durkin agreed it wasn’t an offer of a “substantially equivalent job.”
Durkin also agreed that Ortega was entitled to lost benefits, including a state pension she received as a teacher.
As a result, Durkin said the court would retain jurisdiction over the case for three months beyond the date her state pension would be vested, which is May 1, 2021.
Overall, Ortega will receive back pay of $322,788, plus $47,511 in prejudgment interest, plus additional back pay and prejudgment interest through the date of the judgment of $60,398, for a total back pay award of $430,697.
The court also awarded Ortega front pay of $83,512 and lost pension benefits in the amount of $216,716.
If no motion is filed for additional lost pension benefits by Aug. 1, 2021, the case will be dismissed with prejudice.
Ortega was represented in the case by Baumann & Shuldiner, of Chicago.
The Board of Education was represented by attorneys with its Department of Law.