Capobianco v. City of New York

Decision Date01 September 2005
Docket NumberDocket No. 04-3230-CV.
Citation422 F.3d 47
PartiesAnthony P. CAPOBIANCO, Jr., Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CITY OF NEW YORK and New York City Department of Sanitation, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Daniel F. De Vita, Esq., Garden City, New York, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Peter Rahbar, Esq., Proskauer Rose LLP, New York, New York (Michael A. Cardozo, Corporation Counsel of the City of New York, and Kristin M. Helmers, Assistant Corporation Counsel, on the brief), for Defendants-Appellees.

Before: POOLER and SOTOMAYOR, Circuit Judges, and CHIN, District Judge.*

CHIN, District Judge.

In this case, plaintiff-appellant Anthony P. Capobianco, Jr. was employed as a New York City sanitation worker. He suffers from "congenital stationary night blindness," which prevents him from driving at night and makes it difficult for him to see and function in dim light. The New York City Department of Sanitation ("DOS") fired him, at least in part, as a jury could find, because of the limitations imposed by his medical condition.

Capobianco brought this action against DOS and the City of New York (the "City"), alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (the "ADA"), and state and city law. The district court granted defendants' summary judgment motion and dismissed the complaint because it concluded that no reasonable jury could find that Capobianco was disabled or that defendants regarded him as being disabled within the meaning of the ADA.

We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE
A. The Facts1
1. Capobianco Is Hired By DOS

Capobianco was employed by DOS from December 7, 1998 until November 4, 1999. He was hired only after many years of trying to obtain employment with DOS, as he took the test to be a sanitation worker first in 1983 and again in 1990. Although he obtained perfect scores both times, he was not called by DOS to be a sanitation worker until 1995.

In June 1995, as part of the pre-employment evaluation process, Capobianco filled out a DOS medical questionnaire. He checked off "YES" for "Vision Problems," and added a note explaining: "Vision Problems: Nearsighted." He was given an eye examination and DOS advised him in August 1995 that it had determined that he was "NOT QUALIFIED" for the position of sanitation worker because of his "Visual deficit." By letter dated August 25, 1995, he appealed the decision to the New York City Civil Service Commission.

In 1997, Capobianco underwent cataract surgery to improve his vision. His doctor reported that Capobianco's vision had improved to 20/30 with both eyes together and 20/40 in each eye separately. In July 1997, with his appeal apparently still pending, Capobianco wrote to the City, enclosing a letter from his doctor advising of the improvement. He asked DOS to give him another eye examination so that he could be appointed a sanitation worker.

DOS gave Capobianco another vision test on January 13, 1998. This time, DOS determined that Capobianco had "no visual deficit" and that he was "now medically qualified to perform the duties of a sanitation worker barring any other medical problems." On September 24, 1998, DOS sent Capobianco a notice advising him to report for pre-employment processing. He did so in October 1998, and was given another medical examination. He reported no medical or physical conditions that would interfere with his ability to perform the functions of the job, but did disclose that he had had cataract surgery. On October 5, 1998, Capobianco filled out another DOS medical questionnaire form. He again checked off "YES" for "Vision problems," and added the following explanation:

Have been Nearsighted Since Birth. In April of 1997 I had Cataract Surgery in Both Eyes To improve my vision.

On December 7, 1998, Capobianco commenced employment with DOS as a sanitation worker. After classroom instruction and "hands on" training, he was assigned to work in a Queens garage. For the first month or so, he worked the day shift on a truck. This was a two-person operation, with one person driving the truck along a predetermined route and the other picking up garbage and placing it into the back of the truck. Capobianco performed both functions.

2. Capobianco Is Diagnosed with Night Blindness

On January 27, 1999, shortly after he returned from a vacation, Capobianco was assigned to work an evening shift for the first time. He drove a sanitation truck that night without incident, as he was able to follow another sanitation worker in another truck performing "relays," driving trucks that had been filled during the day shift and unloading them at a refuse transfer station. The next night, he was assigned to a different location in Brooklyn. While driving on an unfamiliar, dark route in the rain, he had difficulty seeing signs and lines on the road. He returned to his garage in Queens and informed his supervisor of the problems he had experienced. He had also developed a migraine headache, and the supervisor instructed him to go home sick.

Capobianco stayed home the next day. When he returned to work, he visited the DOS medical clinic. On February 1, 1999, he was placed on what is referred to within DOS as a "medical tissue": he was assigned to light duty, with no driving. For about two months thereafter, he was primarily assigned to clerical duties, with some garbage collection. On March 16, 1999, a consulting neuro-ophthalmologist reported that Capobianco's "best corrected vision" was 20/40 and recommended further testing. On March 18, 1999, the medical tissue was changed to "no night driving," "day driving only." There were no other restrictions.

Capobianco was then examined by Dr. Scott Brodie at Mount Sinai Medical Center, who, after performing a number of tests, diagnosed "congenital stationary night-blindness." In a report to DOS dated April 9, 1999,2 Dr. Brodie wrote:

This is an inherited condition, present throughout life. While there is no known treatment, Mr. Capobianco can be expected to retain his present level of visual function indefinitely. The "night blindness" has been present since early childhood, and is not related to the recent cataract surgery or the size of the posterior capsulotomies.

As a consequence of Mr. Capobianco's visual condition, it would not be advisable for him to drive at night, particularly a multi-ton vehicle. Bad weather would of course further exaggerate the disability. It would be appropriate for Mr. Capobianco to be placed on a duty schedule which avoids the need to drive at night. During daylight conditions, there is no significant visual disability.

This was the first time Capobianco had been diagnosed with night blindness. On April 19, 1999, he was continued on a limited duty tissue, "day driving only."

3. Capobianco Is Discharged

Until July 1999, DOS continued to assign Capobianco mostly to clerical work, even though he was capable of performing all duties during the day. For a period of time, from March 31, 1999 until the first week in May 1999, he was detached temporarily to Safety and Training and performed field training. One supervisor described his work as "terrific" and "outstanding," and he received a written commendation.

As of July 13, 1999, Capobianco was assigned to regular duty, days only, which included driving a truck as well as working the back of the truck. He performed these duties in a satisfactory manner. One of his supervisors, however, refused to rate Capobianco for two evaluation periods (December 7, 1998 to March 6, 1999 and March 7, 1999 to June 6, 1999), twice writing "unrateable" on the form. A different supervisor rated Capobianco's work "satisfactory," for the period June 7, 1999 to September 6, 1999.3

On July 27, 1999, Capobianco again was temporarily detached to Safety and Training. He assisted in the hiring of new DOS employees, performed administrative and clerical functions, and also drove DOS personnel to different locations, all during the day shift. He performed these duties satisfactorily, and one supervisor described him as an "outstanding worker" who did "everything well." He was still working in Safety and Training when he learned, in mid-October 1999, that he was being officially transferred to Safety and Training, effective October 17, 1999.

Notwithstanding the transfer order, on November 4, 1999, just two weeks later, Capobianco was informed by DOS that he was being fired. He was not given an explanation. He subsequently received a one-sentence letter dated November 8, 1999 that stated in its entirety:

Your services as a Sanitation Worker are terminated under probation effective at the close of business on Thursday, November 4, 1999.

After he was dismissed, Capobianco was commended for his job performance in Safety and Training by the Director of Human Resources. Two weeks after his dismissal, he was given a Certificate of Achievement by the Director and Assistant Director of Safety and Training.

4. Capobianco's Medical Condition Is a Factor

Internal DOS records show that Capobianco's medical condition was a factor in DOS's decision to terminate his employment. On June 11, 1999, the Personnel Management Division of DOS wrote to DOS Human Resources as follows:

The Personnel Management Division recommends termination for probationary sanitation worker Anthony Copobianco [sic]. He is unable to perform in title duties of a sanitation worker due to Myopic Macular Degeneration. Mr. Copobianco [sic] was placed on a limited duty Medical Assignment by the Medical Division shortly after he was hired.

The head of the Personnel Management Division followed up in a memorandum to Human Resources dated July 14, 1999, questioning why Capobianco had not yet been fired:

On June 11, 1999 I sent the attached letter to you recommending termination of [Capo...

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