223 F.3d 704 (8th Cir. 2000), 99-2679, Otting v. J.C. Penney Co.

Docket Nº:99-2679, 99-2680
Citation:223 F.3d 704
Party Name:RHONDA OTTING, APPELLANT/CROSS-APPELLEE, v. J. C. PENNEY COMPANY, APPELLEE/CROSS-APPELLANT.
Case Date:August 03, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
 
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Page 704

223 F.3d 704 (8th Cir. 2000)

RHONDA OTTING, APPELLANT/CROSS-APPELLEE,

v.

J. C. PENNEY COMPANY, APPELLEE/CROSS-APPELLANT.

Nos. 99-2679, 99-2680

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 3, 2000

Submitted: March 16, 2000

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Before Mcmillian, Floyd R. Gibson, and Morris Sheppard Arnold, Circuit Judges.

Floyd R. Gibson, Circuit Judge.

A jury awarded Rhonda Otting compensatory and punitive damages on her discrimination claim against J. C. Penney pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12112 (1994). Following the jury's verdict, J. C. Penney moved for judgment as a matter of law (JAML), or in the alternative, for a new trial, pursuant to Rules 50 and 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The district court granted J. C. Penney's motion for JAML as to the punitive damage award but denied the remainder of the motion. Otting appeals the district court's order striking the punitive damages award. J. C. Penney cross-appeals the district court's denial of its motion for JAML on the issue of liability and challenges several rulings of the district court. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.

I. BACKGROUND

At the time of trial, thirty-three year old Rhonda Otting suffered from epilepsy. Otting's epilepsy developed in 1983 as a result of a softball injury.1 Thereafter, despite medication, Otting suffered epileptic seizures of varying severity two or three times monthly. Subsequent to the onset of her epilepsy, Otting graduated from high school and held a series of sales associate positions, as well as one assembly line position.

J. C. Penney hired Otting on September 1, 1994, as a part-time sales associate in the Fine Jewelry Department. At the time she was hired, Otting informed J.C.

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Penney that she was epileptic. Between September of 1994 and October of 1995, in addition to the Fine Jewelry Department, Otting worked in the Home Furnishings, Children's, and Women's Departments. As a part-time sales associate working twenty-five hours per week, Otting was eligible for J. C. Penney's benefits package, which included health insurance and short-and long-term disability benefits.

In October of 1995, Otting and her treating physician, Dr. Mark Granner, decided to explore brain surgery as a potential treatment for her epilepsy. Because Otting suffers from focal-or localization-related epilepsy 2 , her doctors first attempted to assess from which portion of her brain the problem originated. In order to make this assessment, Otting was hospitalized for approximately two weeks while the doctors tapered off her anti-seizure medications and attempted to induce seizures. Otting applied for, and J. C. Penney granted, a medical leave of absence during this period.

Otting returned to work in the Housewares Department on October 17, 1995. One month later, Otting applied for and received another short-term disability leave of absence. Otting was on disability leave from November 17, 1995, to January 22, 1996. During this time, she underwent in-patient brain surgery to remove a small section of her right frontal lobe. On January 22, 1996, Otting returned to work at J. C. Penney. Rather than returning Otting to her previous position in Housewares, J. C. Penney placed her in the Shoe Department following her return from surgery.

Otting's duties as a sales associate in every department in which she had worked were essentially identical. Those duties included ringing up sales, completing paperwork, and the movement of merchandise. Her position in the Shoe Department consisted of these same duties with one exception: as a sales associate in the Shoe Department, Otting was required to climb a ladder to retrieve stocked shoes. Between January and May of 1996, Otting worked in the Shoe Department with no apparent difficulties, although she continued to suffer from epileptic seizures. She received a satisfactory performance review during the period, as well as a customer service award.

On May 29, 1996, Otting again applied for, and J. C. Penney approved, a short-term disability leave. Neither the brain surgery or medications had succeeded in controlling Otting's epilepsy. During the summer months of 1996, Otting and her doctor altered her medication regimen in an attempt to control the seizures. Throughout the summer, Otting's seizures gradually lessened in frequency. Although her seizures were not entirely under control, Dr. Granner released Otting to return to work on September 17, 1996. Dr. Granner's work release included one restriction; that Otting not climb ladders until she had been seizure-free for six months.

In early September, Otting called J. C. Penney's personnel manager, Joanne Hildebaugh, and informed her that she would soon be receiving her release to return to work. When Otting told Hildebaugh of the temporary ladder-climbing restriction, Hildebaugh informed her that she could not return to work if she had any restrictions. On September 20, 1996, Otting called Mr. Tom Morris, the store manager, regarding her desire to return to work. Morris reiterated Hildebaugh's statement that Otting could not return to work while under a restriction.

Following this phone call, Otting went to the store to meet with Morris in person. Otting informed Morris again of her desire to return to work. As the ladder-climbing requirement was unique to the Shoe Department, Otting inquired about the availability of positions in any department other

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than Shoes. Morris again stated that Otting could not return to work while she was under a restriction. Otting was terminated on September 20, 1996, and informed that she would be receiving a long-term disability benefits package from J. C. Penney. She was further advised that she could apply for Social Security disability benefits.

Between the time of her termination and early November of 1996, Otting continued to suffer seizures. During the same time period, J. C. Penney hired two full-time sales associates in the Men's and Children's Departments. Neither of the new employees suffered from a disability. J. C. Penney did not offer either of these positions to Otting.

Otting brought suit against J. C. Penney in Iowa state court in May of 1997, alleging J. C. Penney had violated the ADA and the Iowa Civil Rights Act by terminating her. J. C. Penney subsequently removed the case to federal court. Prior to trial, Otting dismissed...

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