Fuller v. Iowa Dept. of Human Services

Decision Date25 March 1998
Docket NumberNo. 96-1272,96-1272
Citation576 N.W.2d 324
Parties8 A.D. Cases 1855, 12 NDLR P 110 Theresa K. FULLER, Appellant, v. IOWA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, Appellee.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Earl A. Payson, Davenport, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Barbara E.B. Galloway, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

Considered by McGIVERIN, C.J., and HARRIS, LAVORATO, NEUMAN, and TERNUS, JJ.

McGIVERIN, Chief Justice.

In this case, the controlling issue is whether the district court properly dismissed plaintiff-employee's disability discrimination petition based on its finding that plaintiff was not permanently disabled.

We affirm.

I. Background facts.

Plaintiff, Theresa K. Fuller, began working for the Iowa Department of Human Services (hereinafter "DHS" or "Department"), Scott County office, in October 1975. In her position as an income maintenance worker, Fuller was responsible for determining correct welfare benefits, including ADC, Food Stamps and Medicaid for clients. Part of her job duties included maintaining two files for her clients, including a hard-copy paper file and information in the computer. The hard-copy paper files for active cases were stored in each individual employee's office.

During July 1992, Fuller fell behind in completing her files. The DHS provided Fuller with additional time to work on the backlog, but she still had difficulty completing the files. On one of Fuller's days off from work, her supervisor inventoried the files in Fuller's office and found that seven files assigned to Fuller were not in her office.

On August 21, 1992, plaintiff began receiving treatment from a psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph M. Bertroche, who diagnosed her condition as depression. Fuller has experienced depressive episodes in the past. In late 1975, Fuller was hospitalized for depression. In 1989, Fuller was taken to a hospital emergency room after pouring gasoline over herself. In relation to that incident, Fuller began seeing a psychologist for treatment for depression. Her family doctor prescribed Prozac, an antidepressant for two to three months.

In September 1992, Fuller took a leave of absence from work pursuant to Dr. Bertroche's recommendation. Fuller was hospitalized that month for approximately one week to ten days. During her absence, Fuller's cases were distributed to other employees. The DHS ultimately determined that eighty-three of 192 cases assigned to Fuller could not be located within the office. A search was conducted and some of the files were found, but sixty-seven files remained missing. Those files were never found and the DHS had to reconstruct the files which required contacting clients to obtain the necessary information and some signatures.

On November 3, DHS regional administrator Dennis Timmerman wrote to Dr. Bertroche concerning Fuller's ability to perform her job responsibilities. Dr. Bertroche responded with a letter dated November 18, stating that Fuller had been diagnosed as having a major affective disorder, that she had been hospitalized and was being treated for depression, and that she was unable to perform her job responsibilities.

On December 2, Timmerman wrote to Dr. Bertroche for his opinion concerning Fuller's "ability to handle an inquiry on a work-related situation which has the potential to have serious ramifications regarding her employment." The "potentially serious situation" was the subject of the missing files. Timmerman received no response from Dr. Bertroche, but later received a letter on December 21 from William Bribriesco, Fuller's brother and an attorney, stating that he was representing Fuller and that Dr. Bertroche was unsure whether Fuller was medically capable of handling an inquiry on a work-related situation.

Timmerman wrote to Bribriesco on December 30, stating that any discussion concerning the missing files would occur when Fuller was medically released to return to work.

On February 27, 1993, Dr. Bertroche released Fuller to return to work on March 1, 1993, with the condition that she work part-time.

On March 10, the DHS held a meeting with Fuller to discuss the missing files. The meeting lasted approximately twenty minutes. DHS employees present at the meeting included Timmerman and others. Fuller was present along with her husband Kirk Fuller, also a DHS employee, and her brother, Bribriesco.

During the meeting, Timmerman informed Fuller that the DHS believed Fuller might possibly have information that would help them locate the missing files. After Timmerman reviewed this information, Bribriesco interrupted the meeting, stating that he would advise Fuller not to respond to any of the Department's concerns and also requested that Timmerman put into writing the demands for information regarding the sixty-seven missing files. Timmerman agreed this would be done and a brief recess was held. After the recess, however, Bribriesco indicated he would allow Timmerman to ask Fuller a couple of questions. Timmerman asked Fuller whether she had any knowledge regarding the missing case records, and Fuller responded she had no such knowledge. Timmerman then asked Fuller whether she had any information about the records at home, and Fuller answered "no." The meeting ended after Bribriesco stated that he would file a workers' compensation claim if Fuller had a relapse or another depressive episode.

On March 15, Timmerman wrote to Dr. Bertroche requesting an additional statement concerning Fuller's ability to work and stating that the DHS still had to address the "potentially serious situation" with her. Timmerman did not receive any response from Dr. Bertroche. However, Fuller was released to return to work full-time, without any restrictions, on March 17.

Timmerman still had received no response from Dr. Bertroche after one month. On April 20, Timmerman told Fuller that another investigatory meeting about the missing files was scheduled for April 22. Timmerman told Fuller that Bribriesco would not be allowed to participate at the next meeting, but that she would be allowed to have union representation. 1

The next day, Timmerman received a letter from Dr. Bertroche stating that he had seen Fuller in his office that day and that he was not aware of the nature of the "potentially serious situation." In his letter, Dr. Bertroche also for the first time imposed a restriction upon Fuller's release to work full-time, stating that although Fuller was able to handle her normal work activities, she needed the support of a family member when the DHS discussed the "potentially serious situation" with her.

On that same day, Bribriesco sent a letter to Timmerman that threatened legal action and demanded that the meeting be postponed until Fuller was medically capable of handling a discussion regarding the "potentially serious situation," or that he be allowed to attend the meeting scheduled for April 22.

The meeting was postponed, and the DHS placed Fuller on sick leave until it received further clarification from Dr. Bertroche regarding her ability to handle job responsibilities.

In late August 1993, plaintiff requested a ninety-day medical leave without pay which the DHS approved.

Timmerman informed Fuller by letter dated December 3, that her leave period expired on November 29. Fuller responded by requesting reinstatement to her position, again requesting the accommodation of having a family member present during any investigation regarding the previous allegations, and alternatively requesting a ninety-day leave without pay.

In a letter dated December 9, 1993, the DHS rejected Fuller's requested leave and advised her that she would be removed from the DHS payroll effective that date. The letter explained that her request for medical leave of absence was denied because her "position had been nonproductive since September 4, 1992."

II. Background proceedings.

On April 11, 1994, plaintiff filed an administrative complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC), pursuant to Iowa Code section 216.15 (1993), alleging discrimination in employment based on race, color and national origin, sex, mental disability and retaliation. The ICRC issued a right-to-sue letter and plaintiff later filed a petition in district court against defendant DHS alleging a disability discrimination claim.

A bench trial in this law action was held. At trial, Dr. Bertroche testified that plaintiff still suffers from depression and will continue to do so throughout her life. Dr. Bertroche testified that in his opinion, plaintiff's mental condition "was biological in nature and exacerbated by work-related stressors." He explained that between August 21, 1992, to February 27, 1993, Fuller "had severely deteriorated activities of daily life, and was severely depressed and anxious." Dr. Bertroche also testified that as of February 27, 1993, Fuller's depression did not affect her ability to care for herself or to work and that she responded well to medications.

The Department's expert witness, Dr. Taylor, testified that by April 1993, Fuller "was not impaired." He also found no evidence that Fuller's depressive condition adversely affected a major life activity as of April 1993. Dr. Taylor further testified that Fuller might have depressive episodes in the future but that her depression would respond to Prozac.

The district court entered judgment in favor of the defendant DHS and dismissed plaintiff's petition. The district court determined that plaintiff was not permanently disabled because her depression could be controlled with medication and while on medication, her depression did not substantially impact any of her major life activities. The court further determined that Fuller's request to have a family member present during meetings with supervisors was not a reasonable accommodation because the DHS was not required to remove all stress from Fuller's work duties. The court also found that there was no reasonable accommodation that would...

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