Corning v. Lodgenet Interactive Corp.

Decision Date14 September 2012
Docket NumberCase No. 3:08–cv–1171–J–32MCR.
Citation896 F.Supp.2d 1138
PartiesWilliam H. CORNING, Plaintiff, v. LODGENET INTERACTIVE CORPORATION, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Florida

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Crystal Lorraine Freed, The Freed Firm, PA, Michael R. Freed, Patrick S. Bennett, Brennan, Manna & Diamond, PL, Jacksonville, FL, for Plaintiff.

Daniel E. Traver, GrayRobinson, PA, Orlando, FL, Jennifer V. Ives, Jennifer L. Olson, Richard W. Pins, Leonard, Street & Deinard, PA, Minneapolis, MN, Leslie R. Dean, GrayRobinson, PA, Jacksonville, FL, for Defendant.

ORDER

TIMOTHY J. CORRIGAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff, William H. Corning, filed suit against Defendant, LodgeNet Interactive Corporation, claiming that LodgeNet discriminated against him based on a disability. This case is before the Court on LodgeNet's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 83.) The Court held a hearing on August 10, 2012, the transcript of which is incorporated herein, and the Court considers LodgeNet's motion and exhibits and Corning's response and exhibits. (Docs. 83, 85, 86, 90, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103.) 1

I. Background

LodgeNet, a provider of broadband and interactive entertainment for hotels, employed Corning as a field service technician from August 1, 1996 until his termination on February 15, 2008. (Docs. 71 at 1–2; 100 at 1.) Corning was responsible for servicing the twenty-five to thirty hotels in the Jacksonville area that used LodgeNet's services. (Doc. 71 at 2.) On September 10, 2001, Corning suffered kidney failure, for which he received dialysis until a kidney transplant in May 2007. ( Id. at 3; Doc. 100 at 1–2.) Additionally, in 2004, Corning suffered chronic heart failure and had a defibrillator surgically implanted. (Doc. 71 at 3.)

Corning alleges that during his 2004 employee review, LodgeNet told him that his illness and disability was costing LodgeNet too much money; therefore, in January 2005, Corning received a lesser raise than others. ( Id.; Doc. 100 at 2.) He claims that in December 2007, his supervisor, Ron Jackowski, told Corning that his excessive health insurance claims caused an increase in LodgeNet's insurance premiums and that his kidney transplant, hospitalization, and three-month FMLA leave cost LodgeNet a “lot of money.” (Doc. 71 at 4.) The same month, LodgeNet put Corning on a performance improvement plan after a customer allegedly complained about Corning. ( Id. at 4–5; Docs. 85–1 at 50–51; 90–1 at 1.)

In February 2008, Jackowski showed Corning LodgeNet's new office space, which Corning contends was a dusty, moldy, storage unit with no heating, air-conditioning, plumbing, running water, or toilet. (Docs. 71 at 5–6; 85–2 at 8–10, 15; 103–1 at 20; 103–5 at 54.) Corning told Jackowski that he could not tolerate those conditionsbecause of restrictions related to his kidney and compromised immune system. (Docs. 71 at 6; 85–2 at 9, 13; 103–1 at 21, 36.) He requested to continue working in the current office location 2 and asked for an OSHA inspection of the space. (Docs. 71 at 6; 85–2 at 9; 103–1 at 40; 103–2 at 27, 31.) Two days later, on February 15, 2008, LodgeNet fired Corning. (Docs. 71 at 6; 103–2 at 27.)

Corning timely filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which the EEOC forwarded to the Florida Commission on Human Relations, claiming that LodgeNet discriminated against him based on a disability. (Doc. 71 at 8–9, 15.) The EEOC was “unable to conclude that the information obtained establishe[d] violations of the statutes and issued a Notice of Suit Rights on September 5, 2008. ( Id. at 15.) Thereafter, on December 4, 2008, Corning filed a complaint against LodgeNet in this Court under the ADA, alleging unlawful employment practices on the basis of disability. (Doc. 1.) His third amended complaint also sets forth claims under the Florida Civil Rights Act and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. (Doc. 71.)

II. Discussion

Summary judgment is proper “when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Josendis v. Wall to Wall Residence Repairs, Inc., 662 F.3d 1292, 1314 (11th Cir.2011); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The inquiry is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251–52, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). All facts and reasonable inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Ramos–Barrientos v. Bland, 661 F.3d 587, 594 (11th Cir.2011).

A. ADA and FCRA Claims

Counts I and II of Corning's complaint allege discrimination and retaliation under the ADA, respectively, and Counts III and IV allege discrimination and retaliation under the FCRA, respectively. (Doc. 71 at 7–11.) LodgeNet contends that it is entitled to summary judgment because (1) Corning is not “disabled” under the ADA and therefore cannot prove a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation under the ADA or FCRA; 3 and (2) even if Corning was disabled, LodgeNet had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating him. (Doc. 83 at 10–11.)

1. Discrimination

A plaintiff may prove discrimination through either direct or circumstantial evidence. Damon v. Fleming Supermarkets of Fla., Inc., 196 F.3d 1354, 1358 (11th Cir.1999). “Direct evidence of discrimination is evidence, that, ‘if believed, proves [the] existence of [a] fact in issue without inference or presumption.’ Schoenfeld v. Babbitt, 168 F.3d 1257, 1266 (11th Cir.1999) (quoting Burrell v. Bd. of Trs. of Ga. Military Coll., 125 F.3d 1390, 1393 (11th Cir.1997)). It “is composed of ‘only the most blatant remarks, whose intent could be nothing other than to discriminate’ on the basis of some impermissible factor.” Id. (quoting Carter v. City of Miami, 870 F.2d 578, 582 (11th Cir.1989)). Corning is not relying on such direct evidence of discrimination.

When a plaintiff attempts to prove intentional discrimination using circumstantial evidence, the Court must apply the burden-shifting framework established by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973) and Texas Department of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 67 L.Ed.2d 207 (1981). Schoenfeld, 168 F.3d at 1267;see Cremeens v. City of Montgomery, Ala., 427 Fed.Appx. 855, 857 (11th Cir.2011) (We evaluate ADA discrimination claims under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis.”).

Under this framework, the plaintiff has the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination. If he meets that burden, then an inference arises that the challenged action was motivated by a discriminatory intent. The burden then shifts to the employer to “articulate” a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its action. If the employer successfully articulates such a reason, then the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the proffered reason is really pretext for unlawful discrimination.

Schoenfeld, 168 F.3d at 1267 (internal citations omitted).

To establish a prima facie case of ADA discrimination, Corning must show that he: (1) is disabled; (2) is a qualified individual; and (3) was subjected to unlawful discrimination because of his disability. Greenberg, 498 F.3d at 1263;Cleveland v. Home Shopping Network, Inc., 369 F.3d 1189, 1193 (11th Cir.2004); Hilburn v. Murata Elecs. N. Am., Inc., 181 F.3d 1220, 1226 (11th Cir.1999). The ADA defines a “disability” as: (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2) (2008). 4

[T]he term “substantially limits” means [u]nable to perform a major life activity that the average person in the general population can perform” or [s]ignificantly restricted as to the condition, manner or duration under which an individual can perform a particular major life activity as compared to the condition, manner, or duration under which the average person in the general population can perform that same major life activity.” 29 C.F.R. §§ 1630.2(j)(1)(i), (ii) (1997). Major life activities are defined in the regulations as “functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(i) (1997). With respect to the major life activity of working, the regulations explain that the term “substantially limits” means “significantly restricted in the ability to perform either a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs in various classes as compared to the average person having comparabletraining, skills and abilities. The inability to perform a single, particular job does not constitute a substantial limitation in the major life activity of working.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(3)(i) (1997).

Hilburn, 181 F.3d at 1226–27;see Standard v. A.B.E.L. Servs., Inc., 161 F.3d 1318, 1328 (11th Cir.1998) ([T]he mere existence of a physical impairment does not constitute a disability under the ADA; the impairment must substantially limit a major life activity.”).

Corning asserts that he (1) suffers from physical impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities; (2) has a record of a disability; and (3) was regarded as having a disability. (Doc. 99 at 7–9.) Corning claims that he is disabled under the ADA because he “has been prescribed a variety of immune suppressant medications” that have significant side effects affecting his daily life. ( Id. at 7; Doc. 100 at 2.) He further asserts that because his “immune system is weakened, he has been advised to avoid large crowds and moldy or...

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