Anderson v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co.

Decision Date31 March 2021
Docket NumberCase No. 3:18-cv-00190
CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. Western District of Pennsylvania



Before the Court is "Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment" (ECF No. 52) filed by defendant Norfolk Southern Railway Company ("NSRC") and "Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment" (ECF No. 55) filed by plaintiff Paul Anderson ("Anderson"). Also pending before the Court is NSRC's "Defendant's Motion to Strike the Affidavit of Timothy Laeving (ECF No. 62). The motions are fully briefed (ECF Nos. 52, 53, 61, 63, 55, 56, 58, 62, 67) and ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS NSRC's motion for summary judgment, DENIES Anderson's motion for partial summary judgment, and DENIES NSRC's motion to strike.

I. Jurisdiction and Venue

The Court has subject matter jurisdiction because Anderson's Rehabilitation Act and ADA claims arise under federal law. 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The Court has supplemental jurisdiction over Anderson's PHRA claim because it forms part of the same case or controversy as his Rehabilitation Act and ADA claims. 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Venue is proper in this district because a substantial portion of the events giving rise to the claim occurred in this district. 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(2).

II. Factual Background

The Court derives the following facts from a combination of NSRC's Concise Statement of Material Facts (ECF No. 54), Anderson's Statement of Material Facts (ECF No. 57), and the Parties' Briefs in Support of their Motions for Summary Judgment (ECF Nos. 52, 56).

NSRC is a freight railroad that employs approximately 24,500 people and operates more than 20,000 route miles in twenty-two states and the District of Columbia. (ECF No. 54 at ¶ 1). Anderson was employed by NSRC in 2007 as a Conductor Trainee, received a promotion to Conductor in 2008, and then another promotion to Locomotive Engineer in 2015. (Id. at ¶¶ 2-3). Anderson was a member of a union, and NSRC and the union maintained a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") that included, among other provisions, seniority provisions for conductors and engineers. (Id. at ¶¶ 5-6). Anderson's job duties consisted of the safe and proper management of trains, often through populated areas and/or with cargo consisting of chemicals and other hazardous materials. (Id. at ¶¶ 7-8). Anderson's job duties also required driving locomotives, working in proximity to moving machinery, and mounting and dismounting equipment. (Id.). Anderson's positions of train conductor and engineer are recognized by the Federal Railroad Administration as "safety-sensitive," meaning the safety of individual employees and the public is implicated in the positions' performance. (Id. at ¶ 9)

In June 2016, Anderson took a medical leave of absence from work after several episodes of unexplained falls, that resulted in the loss of consciousness, head injuries, and hospitalization ("syncopal episodes"). (Id. at ¶¶ 12-14). Anderson was diagnosed with Brugada Syndrome, alifelong condition that causes disruption to the heart's normal rhythm that can result in the sudden loss of consciousness and death. (Id. at ¶¶ 14-16). Anderson received an automated implantable cardiac defibrillator ("ICD") as part of his treatment. (Id. at ¶ 16). The ICD's purpose is to shock the heart to restore its normal rhythm, and the shocks the ICD delivers can be strong enough to knock a person to the ground and cause loss of situational awareness. (Id. at ¶ 18-20). Anderson notified NSRC of his Brugada Syndrome diagnosis and provided medical records in July 2016. (Id. at ¶ 21). Upon receipt of the records NSRC's Health Services agency ("NSHS") deemed Anderson not medically qualified for the safety sensitive positions of Conductor and/or Locomotive Engineer. (Id. at ¶¶ 22-26).

In September 2016, NSRC referred Anderson to its Vocational Rehabilitation Services ("VRS") program to assist him in finding alternative employment for which he was qualified. ( ¶¶ 24, 29). Anderson was also instructed to provide NSRC with updated medical records after September 2016, including work restrictions and accommodation recommendations. (Id. at ¶ 26). Anderson was "not interested in relocating" and refused multiple positions over two years because of his opposition to relocating. (ECF Nos. 60-1 at 96:6-23; 54-3). While Anderson initially accepted and prepared for a position as Yardmaster in Altoona, this position ultimately did not become available. (ECF No. 54 at ¶¶ 32-36). Anderson declined to be considered or subsequently withdrew from consideration for various Yardmaster and Train Dispatcher positions in various locations because of his opposition to relocating. (Id. at ¶¶ 37-47). Further, Anderson lacked the seniority required under the CBA for other open positions. (Id. at 41). 6-8). Anderson sought a Yardmaster position in Baltimore but lacked sufficient seniority under the CBA. (Id. at 7).

Anderson provided NSRC updated medical records in March 2017. (Id. at ¶ 49). Anderson's treating cardiologist, Dr. Michael Larkin wrote a letter in September 2017 stating Anderson had not had episodes of loss of consciousness since the June 2016 medical leave from work. (ECF No. 61 at 1). Dr. Larkin also stated in the letter that he "could not guarantee Plaintiff would not lose consciousness should his Brugada Syndrome cause his ICD to have to shock his heart." (ECF No. 54 at ¶ 63). NSHS's Medical Services Director, Dr. Francesca Litow, conducted a review of Anderson's medical records after his request to return to work and affirmed the prior conclusion that Plaintiff was not medically fit to return to work in the safety sensitive positions of Conductor and/or Train Engineer. (ECF Nos. 61 at 1-2; 54 at ¶¶56-58). Anderson withdrew from the VRS program in March 2018 and started his own automotive repair business the same year. (ECF No. 54 at ¶ 66).

Anderson brought this action against NSRC, his former employer, alleging that NSRC unlawfully discriminated against him in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (the "RA"), the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the "ADA"), and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (the "PHRA") when NSRC deemed Anderson medically disqualified to hold the positions of conductor and/or train engineer after he was diagnosed with Brugada Syndrome in 2016.

III. Legal Standard

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper when the record evidence "shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing the basis for its motion and identifying portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. CelotexCorp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party has carried such burden, the opposing party must provide more than "metaphysical doubt" regarding the material facts and cannot rely on "mere allegations or denials of its pleading." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Rather, the opposing party must highlight specific facts in affidavits, depositions, or other factual material that show "a genuine issue for trial," and that some factual basis exists upon which a reasonable jury could find for the opposing party. Id.

IV. Discussion

NSRC makes two principal arguments in support of its Motion for Summary Judgment against on Anderson's Rehabilitation Act, ADA, and PHRA claims: (1) that NSRC conducted an individualized, thorough review of Anderson's medical records and relied on sound medical advice in deeming Anderson not medically qualified for the Conductor and/or Train Engineer positions due to his Brugada Syndrome; and (2) NSRC properly attempted to accommodate Anderson by placing him in a different position for which he was qualified, but was hampered by Anderson's job search preferences. (ECF No. 53 at 9). Anderson seeks partial summary judgment as to NSRC's direct threat defense, contending that it failed to conduct the required individualized assessment direct threat analysis of Anderson's ability to perform the essential functions of his job. (ECF No. 56).

A. The Court Grant's NSRC's Motion for Summary Judgment and Denies Anderson's Motion for Summary Judgment

"The 'substantive standards for determining liability [under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act] are the same.'" Gibbs v. City of Pittsburgh, 989 F.3d 226, 229 (3d Cir. 2021) (quoting McDonaldv. Com. of Pa., Dept. of Public Welfare, 62 F.3d 92, 95 (3d Cir. 1995)) (alteration in original). Similarly, "[t]he PHRA is basically the same as the ADA in relevant respects, and courts 'generally interpret the PHRA in accord with its federal counterparts.'" Alston v. Park Pleasant, Inc., 679 F. App'x 169, 170 (3d Cir. 2017) (quoting Rinehimer v. Cemcolift, Inc., 292 F.3d 375, 382 (3d Cir. 2002)). Accordingly, the Court will evaluate Anderson's claims together. Gibbs, 989 F. 3d at 229.

The ADA "prohibits covered entities from discriminating against qualified employees based on their disabilities." Eshleman v. Patrick Indus., Inc., 961 F.3d 242, 245 (3d Cir. 2020) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 12112). To establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that "(1) he is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA; (2) he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and (3) he has suffered an otherwise adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination." Gaul v. Lucent Techs., Inc., 134 F.3d 576, 580 (3d Cir. 1998).

"For the purposes of the ADA, plaintiffs are disabled if they: (1) have 'a physical or mental impairment that substantially...

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