D'Angelo v. Conagra Foods, Inc., 04-10629.

Citation422 F.3d 1220
Decision Date30 August 2005
Docket NumberNo. 04-10629.,04-10629.
PartiesCris D'ANGELO, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CONAGRA FOODS, INC., d.b.a. Singleton Seafood Florida Sea Meridian Products, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
422 F.3d 1220

Christopher David Gray (Court-Appointed), Florin, Roebig, P.A., Palm Harbor, FL, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

John E. Phillips, Jr., Steven L. Brannock, Holland & Knight, LLP, John D. Mullen, Phelps Dunbar, LLP, Tampa, FL, for Defendant-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Before BLACK, MARCUS and FAY, Circuit Judges.

MARCUS, Circuit Judge:

Appellant Cris D'Angelo, who suffers from vertigo, sued her former employer, ConAgra Foods, Inc., ("ConAgra") arguing that she was terminated from her job as a product transporter on the basis of a disability, in violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). D'Angelo maintains that she is disabled under the ADA both because she suffers from an impairment — her vertigo condition — that substantially limits her ability to perform

Page 1222

the major life function of working, and because her employer regarded her as suffering from such an impairment.

The district court granted summary judgment for ConAgra on both issues. We now affirm as to the former, since D'Angelo's vertigo prevents her only from holding a narrow category of jobs and thus does not substantially impair her ability to work. We reverse, however, as to D'Angelo's claim that she was regarded as having such an impairment. There are genuine issues of material fact concerning whether ConAgra regarded D'Angelo as disabled and whether she was able to perform the essential functions of her job in spite of her vertigo condition. Moreover, we conclude that the ADA, by its plain language, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees they regard as disabled. Accordingly, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.

The essential facts are these. Cris D'Angelo began working for ConAgra, in its Singleton Seafood ("Singleton") processing plant, in October 1998. She was hired as a "spreader" — an entry-level position requiring her to stand at a moving conveyor belt (called the "spreader belt") and spread shrimp with her fingers to prevent it from sticking together. She also worked at times as a "packer," packing shrimp into boxes. D'Angelo was promoted twice during her tenure at Singleton. First, in February 1999, she was promoted to the position of "stacker," which required her to take sealed boxes off of a machine and stack them onto a pallet for a forklift operator. D'Angelo was then promoted to the position of "transporter" or "product transporter" in March 2000. As a transporter, she filled boxes with shrimp and transported them around the plant using a pallet jack or by hand. In addition, she performed various other tasks including forming, packing, and stacking boxes.

D'Angelo was initially employed in Singleton's "shrimp division," until she was transferred to the "fish division" around June 2000, where she continued to work as a transporter. Upon transferring to the fish division, D'Angelo told her supervisor that she was a product transporter and explained: "I can do anything except work over the spreader because when I stand there staring at it for any period of time, I start getting sick and dizzy." As a transporter in the fish division, D'Angelo stacked; pulled pallets with a jack; packed; worked in an area above the plant floor called "the triangle" making sure that fish traveling down a chute did not clog the machines; weighed product; and "once or twice" worked on the box-former machine and the saw.

Generally, when D'Angelo came to work she was assigned a particular duty, which she performed throughout her entire shift. On occasion, however, she and other employees were asked to assist with other duties. The employee known as the "line leader" assigned the particular job that an employee was required to perform. The available jobs in the fish division included stacker, product transporter, saw operator, stein operator, checker, forklift driver, area specialist, line leader, machine operator, packer, and spreader. Each job was classified at a particular level between I and V — product transporter, for example, was Level III — and employees were considered qualified to work in any position at or below the level of their own job.

In September 1998, shortly before she began working at Singleton, D'Angelo was diagnosed with vertigo. She awoke one morning and, she explained, "everything

Page 1223

was spinning,. . . I couldn't even lift my head up. I got up and tried to. . . walk, and I was throwing up." She was treated by a doctor, who prescribed the anti-vertigo medication Antivert, a prescription D'Angelo says she did not fill because she started to feel better.

D'Angelo did not mention her condition when she was hired at Singleton. Several months into her job, however, D'Angelo experienced episodes of vertigo at work, and informed her co-workers and supervisor that working over the spreader belt was making her feel sick and dizzy. At times, D'Angelo explained that she suffered from vertigo, and other times she told people only that the work made her dizzy and sick. D'Angelo only became sick working on the spreader belt when she had "to stare at that moving belt." She explained: "If it's a belt where you're not staring at it continuously, you're looking away sometimes, . . . that's not a problem. Or if it's moving near me but I'm not monitoring it, that's not a problem." The only problem for her was when she had to stare at the belt "[c]ontinuously without a break."

D'Angelo's vertigo condition resurfaced in September 2001 — a year and a half into her tenure as a product transporter — when a new supervisor, Hipolito Mendoza, assigned her to monitor a conveyor belt known as the "box-former belt." This job, as D'Angelo described it, entailed "watching the boxes go. . . in a line" to make sure they were formed properly and not mangled. This was a task that D'Angelo had never previously performed, and doing it, she explained:

I start[ed] feeling like I have a fever, and I start[ed] feeling sort of light-headed and off balance and nauseous. . . . I wanted to try to make it work, but I felt myself getting sick, and I thought, "It's not worth it." And I would try to look away, you know. If I can stand over one of these belts and be looking away a lot, its okay, but to stare continuously at it is what gets me sick. And the nature of the boxes coming down the line, you have to stare continuously because if you don't you might miss one.

D'Angelo told her line leader, Darlene, that monitoring the box-former belt was making her sick and dizzy, and asked for a different work assignment. Darlene told D'Angelo to go make boxes, which D'Angelo did until Mendoza instructed her to return to the conveyor belt. D'Angelo explained that the conveyor belt made her sick, and Mendoza asked for "documentation" of her condition.

Approximately a week later, D'Angelo gave Mendoza a copy of her prescription for Antivert. Then, on September 20, 2001, she gave Thomas Cordy, the plant manager, a note from Dr. Arthur E. Heng, which stated:

This patient should not work more than 5 nights a week because of her medical condition. Also, she has a vertigo condition. This affects her when her eyes have to look at moving objects such as belts. She should avoid this situation since it could cause her to fall and sustain injury.

D'Angelo explained in her deposition that the restriction on the number of days she could work was unrelated to her vertigo condition, but rather was a result of a bout with hepatitis and a prolonged case of the flu.

After receiving the doctor's note, Cordy met with Singleton's Vice President of Human Resources, Mark Richard Yates, to discuss whether there were any available positions that would not require D'Angelo to look at and work around moving equipment such as conveyor belts. They determined that no such positions were available.

Page 1224

The next day, D'Angelo was terminated. Cordy gave her a letter of termination, dated September 21, 2001, stating:

Your note from Doctor Heng, presented to me on September 20, 2001, was the first either the Human Resources Department or I was made aware of your medical condition.

We have evaluated your position as it relates to the restrictions that Doctor Heng has placed upon you. Unfortunately, your position as a product transporter requires you to work around moving conveyors and mechanized equipment. This is an integral portion of the position. Additionally, overtime is a requirement requiring work for more than five (5) nights per week; this too is an integral part of the job.

Based upon the restrictions that have been placed upon you by your physician, we are unable to allow you to continue to work at Singleton Seafood because you pose a safety hazard to yourself and your co-workers.

After her discharge, D'Angelo filed a union grievance, alleging unjust termination. She never received a response.1

D'Angelo filed suit against ConAgra in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida on September 16, 2002. D'Angelo alleged that terminating her — rather than reasonably accommodating her by exempting her from working on the spreader belt and the box-former belt — constituted disability-based discrimination, both because she was actually disabled as a result of her vertigo condition and because her employer regarded her as disabled, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., and parallel provisions of the Florida Civil Rights Act, Fla. Stat. § 760.01 et seq.2 Soon thereafter, ConAgra moved for summary judgment, arguing that D'Angelo was neither disabled nor regarded as disabled within the meaning of the...

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