Eckles v. Consolidated Rail Corp.

Decision Date05 July 1995
Docket NumberNo. IP 93-0684-CH/G.,IP 93-0684-CH/G.
Citation890 F. Supp. 1391
PartiesTerry J. ECKLES, Plaintiff, v. CONSOLIDATED RAIL CORPORATION, United Transportation Union International, United Transportation Union Local 1963, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Indiana



Susan L. Kuss, Kuss & Schneider, Indianapolis, for plaintiff Eckles.

Kevin C. Brodar, Associate General Counsel, United Transp. Union, Cleveland, OH, and Frederick W. Dennerline, III, Fillenwarth Dennerline Groth & Baird, for Union Transp. Union and Union Local 1963, Cynthia L. Wodock, White & Raub, Indianapolis, IN, for Conrail.


HAMILTON, District Judge.

This case raises an important issue about the relationship between an employer's duty of reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and its duty to comply with seniority systems established by collective bargaining. Plaintiff Terry Eckles claims in this case that he is disabled by epilepsy. He also claims that the only reasonable accommodation for his condition is a job and shift assignment that would conflict with the seniority system established by a collective bargaining agreement. He has sued both his employer and his union. The defendants have filed motions for summary judgment raising several issues. Their principal arguments are that the ADA does not require them to accommodate a disabled employee by violating their agreed seniority system, and that Eckles' demand for a special placement under a provision of the collective bargaining agreement that allows waiver of the seniority system is preempted by the Railway Labor Act ("RLA"). The defendants' motions also challenge whether Eckles is an "individual with a disability" under the ADA and whether he was offered another form of reasonable accommodation. Because the court finds that genuine issues of material fact bar summary judgment on those two issues, the court must reach the seniority system issues. The court concludes that the ADA does not require as a "reasonable accommodation" actions that would violate a bona fide seniority system at the expense of other employees' rights under a collective bargaining agreement. The court also finds that Eckles' demand for a waiver under the agreement is preempted by the Railway Labor Act and that Eckles' claims of retaliation are not supported. The court therefore grants both defendants' motions.

Undisputed Facts

For purposes of the defendants' motions, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the following facts are material and not disputed. In 1992, plaintiff Terry Eckles worked for defendant Consolidated Rail Corporation ("Conrail") as a yardmaster at its rail yard in Avon, Indiana. He was a member of defendant United Transportation Union International and its Local 1963 ("the Union") and was covered by the collective bargaining agreement in effect at that time between the Union and Conrail. Eckles held an "extra board" position at Avon that required him to work various shifts to fill in for absent or vacationing yardmasters. As a yardmaster at Avon, he was required to work in an enclosed office at the top of a three or four story tower. The office could be reached only by climbing several flights of open, outdoor metal stairs. Eckles almost always remained alone in the office for his entire shift. He was responsible for "yarding" incoming trains and was in constant radio and telephone communication with train crews and other Conrail employees. However, the communications systems were not set up to be voice activated in case the yardmaster is unable to operate them manually.

Eckles had a seizure in May 1992 and was diagnosed with epilepsy. He was treated for his epilepsy by neurologist Leo D'Ambrosio. On June 25, 1992, Dr. D'Ambrosio found that Eckles could return to work on July 13, 1992, but that he should "not work at heights or operate dangerous equipment," and that it was "preferable that he not work the night shift." Eckles was not to work at heights because of the possibility of having a seizure and falling. He was to avoid the night shift because his condition required a regular sleep schedule. His "extra board" position at Avon did not satisfy either requirement.

On July 7, 1992, Eckles notified Conrail that he wanted to invoke a provision in the Union's collective bargaining agreement, Rule 2-H-1, that would allow him to displace a more senior employee from the extra board position at Conrail's Hawthorne Yard in Indianapolis. At the Hawthorne Yard, the yardmasters' offices are on the ground level and people outside the offices can see inside them easily. Rule 2-H-1 provides that, upon written agreement of Conrail and the Union, a disabled employee may be placed in a position occupied by another employee without regard to seniority, provided the disabled employee is capable of performing the required duties.1

Conrail representatives met with Eckles to discuss the accommodations he needed to return to work. They accepted Eckles' characterization of his restrictions and sent a written request to the Union's local chairman, Ron Clark, for agreement to place Eckles at Hawthorne pursuant to Rule 2-H-1. At first, Clark refused, but he agreed to the special placement after Eckles filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on July 27, 1992. (The employment provisions of the ADA took effect on July 26, 1992.) Conrail and the Union agreed to place Eckles on the second shift at Hawthorne, displacing an employee more than thirty slots ahead of Eckles on the yardmaster seniority roster. (Eckles could not work the extra board position he had originally requested because of the restriction on night shift work.)

Eckles began to work at the Hawthorne Yard on July 30, 1992. Shortly after his return, Dr. D'Ambrosio modified Eckles' restrictions to permit him to work an occasional third shift. By fall 1992, Dr. D'Ambrosio had eased his restriction on operating dangerous equipment to permit Eckles to drive a car to and from work. On October 19, 1992, acting for the Union, Clark asserted that Eckles' restrictions had thus been lifted, and he rescinded the Union's agreement to Eckles' placement at the Hawthorne Yard pursuant to Rule 2-H-1. On November 9, 1992, Conrail advised Clark that a review of Eckles' medical records did not indicate that his status had changed. Conrail asked Clark to reconsider and to allow Eckles' continued placement in the Hawthorne Yard. Clark refused. Effective November 14, 1992, Clark himself "bumped" Eckles from the position and took it himself pursuant to the seniority provisions of the collective bargaining agreement. Eckles went on involuntary sick leave. He did not return to work until April 28, 1993, when he was able to exercise his own seniority to claim a new position at Hawthorne that he believed was compatible with his restrictions.2

Between November 15, 1992, and April 26, 1993, Conrail representatives conferred internally and with Eckles, reviewed Eckles' medical records, requested further information from Dr. D'Ambrosio, and tried to persuade the Union to reconsider the Rule 2-H-1 placement. Eckles refused Conrail's offers that he work at Avon with assistance in climbing stairs and insisted he be placed at Hawthorne pursuant to Rule 2-H-1. Eckles says that the idea of someone accompanying him up and down the stairs at Avon was found to be medically unsound by Dr. D'Ambrosio. Eckles refused that proposed accommodation, and there is a factual dispute as to whether other accommodations were offered and/or rejected.

On April 28, 1993, Eckles was able to exercise his seniority to bid into a newly opened extra board position at the Hawthorne Yard. The job met all of his medical restrictions so no special placement was required. Nevertheless, Eckles continued to request a Rule 2-H-1 placement in that position so that a more senior yardmaster could not bump him. The Union refused to agree to the special placement.

On June 4, 1993, Eckles had a seizure on the job. After his doctor released him to return to work, Eckles underwent a return-to-work physical examination on June 30, 1993. Because the seizure had occurred at work, the decision whether to qualify Eckles for service was deferred to Conrail's medical director, who had disqualified Eckles from any work. Eckles went back on involuntary sick leave and was paid pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. On September 10, 1993, after further review of Eckles' medical records and additional information supplied by Dr. D'Ambrosio, Conrail instructed Eckles to report for another return-to-work physical. On September 27, 1993, Dr. Hawryluk, Conrail's company physician, approved Eckles' return to work with his original restrictions, including no third shift work.

Eckles again requested a Rule 2-H-1 placement because of his restrictions. On behalf of the Union, Clark refused. Because Dr. Hawryluk's interpretation of Eckles' restrictions allowed the climbing of stairs under some circumstances, Conrail instructed Eckles to exercise his seniority to a position at Avon. Eckles refused, continuing to raise concerns about the stairs. Eckles was given an extension of time to bump into a position while the parties continued their dialogue.

On October 26, 1993, Dr. Hawryluk advised Conrail that Eckles' restrictions had been relaxed to permit him to work an occasional third shift. That change allowed him to bid on an extra board position at Hawthorne based on his seniority. Since October 1993, Eckles has held that position without special placement under Rule 2-H-1.

Relevant to Eckles' claims of retaliation, Conrail deducted certain "offset payments" from Eckles' disability pay from November 1992 through January 1995. The deductions were to be made in the event Eckles received payments from the Railroad Retirement...

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