Gerdes v. Swift-Eckrich, Inc.

Decision Date02 December 1996
Docket NumberNo. C 95-3068-MWB.,C 95-3068-MWB.
Citation949 F.Supp. 1386
PartiesGeorge GERDES, Plaintiff, v. SWIFT-ECKRICH, INC., d/b/a Armour Swift-Eckrich, Inc., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa

Jay Shriver of Pappajohn, Shriver, Eide & Nicholas, P.C., Mason City, IA, for Plaintiff.

John S. Schauer and Yvette Caizzi of Seyfarther, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson in Chicago, IL, and local counsel Charles W. McManigal of Laird, Heiny, McManigal, Winga, Duffy & Stambaugh in Mason City, IA, for Defendant.

                                       TABLE OF CONTENTS
                  I. INTRODUCTION ................................................1388
                 II. STANDARDS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ..............................1390
                III. FINDINGS OF FACT ............................................1392
                     A. Undisputed Facts .........................................1392
                     B. Disputed Facts ...........................................1394
                 IV. LEGAL ANALYSIS ..............................................1395
                     A. Disability Discrimination Under The ADA ..................1395
                         1. "Regarded as having" a disability ....................1396
                         2. Substantial limitations on major life activities .....1397
                     B. Gerdes's ADA Claim .......................................1398
                         1. Perceived disability in this case ....................1399
                         2. Ability to perform essential functions ...............1401
                         3. Reasonable accommodation and "interactive process" ...1404
                  V. CONCLUSION ..................................................1406
                 
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

BENNETT, District Judge.

In this perceived disability case under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., the plaintiff, a person with coronary artery disease who is employed as a maintenance supervisor at a meat-processing plant, contends that his employer perceived him to be disabled, because of work restrictions imposed by his doctor, and refused to accommodate his work restrictions. The defendant employer has moved for summary judgment on a number of grounds. The employer asserts entitlement to judgment as a matter of law on lack of a disability or perceived disability, the employee's inability to perform essential functions of his job, and the employer's provision of reasonable accommodation in the form of long-term disability benefits. The employer also contends that any breakdown of the interactive process to arrive at a reasonable accommodation of the employee's work restrictions was the employee's fault. Although the plaintiff employee concedes that he is not disabled within the meaning of the ADA, he asserts genuine issues of material fact as to whether his employer perceived him to be disabled, whether he was able to perform the essential functions of his job, and whether the employer's proffered accommodations were reasonable.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff George Gerdes filed his complaint in this matter on September 5, 1995, and an amended and substituted complaint on November 3, 1995, against his employer, Swift-Eckrich, Inc., d/b/a Armour Foods (Armour).1 The amended complaint asserts claims of violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Iowa Civil Rights Act, Iowa Code Ch. 216. Specifically, the amended complaint alleges that Gerdes is a qualified individual with a disability and that Armour failed and refused to provide a reasonable accommodation to Gerdes's known physical limitations resulting from coronary artery disease or otherwise failed to make reasonable effort to continue Gerdes's employment with Armour. Gerdes was, and in fact is again, a maintenance supervisor at Armour's meat-processing plant in Mason City, Iowa. He alleges that he suffers from coronary artery disease and, following medical treatment for that condition and imposition of work restrictions in November of 1994, he was not allowed to return to his job. Gerdes seeks as relief reinstatement,2 backpay, frontpay, compensatory damages, including damages for other lost earnings and benefits and emotional distress, punitive damages, attorney's fees, expert witness fees, litigation expenses and costs associated with bringing and maintaining this action, and such further relief as the court deems just. Armour answered the amended complaint on November 6, 1995, denying Gerdes's allegations.

This case proceeded through discovery without incident and, on October 1, 1996, the deadline for dispositive motions, Armour moved for summary judgment. First, Armour contends that there are no genuine issues of material fact that Gerdes is not disabled and that Armour did not regard Gerdes as disabled. Next, Armour contends that, even if it regarded Gerdes as disabled, Gerdes could not perform the essential functions of his position as a maintenance supervisor at the Armour plant in Mason City, Iowa. Armour contends that restrictions placed on Gerdes by his doctor precluded him from coming into contact with hazardous environments and chemicals at the Armour plant in the course of his employment as a maintenance supervisor. Furthermore, Armour contends that, even if Gerdes is disabled or was perceived to be disabled, it provided reasonable accommodation to Gerdes's work restrictions by placing him on long-term disability until his doctor modified or clarified his work restrictions such that Armour could return Gerdes to work at his maintenance supervisor job. Armour also contends that it made further reasonable efforts to accommodate Gerdes's work restrictions by investigating other possible positions for him at the plant, but no appropriate positions were available. Finally, Armour contends that any breakdown in the interactive process to determine what accommodations would allow Gerdes to perform his job despite his work restrictions was Gerdes's fault, because neither Gerdes, his attorney, or his doctor responded to Armour's repeated requests for more information about or clarification of Gerdes's work restrictions. Armour points out that in April of 1996, when Gerdes's doctor finally provided some clarification or modification of the work restrictions, Armour promptly reinstated Gerdes to a position as a maintenance supervisor at the Mason City plant.

Gerdes resisted the motion for summary judgment on October 15, 1996. Gerdes contends that summary judgment is inappropriate, because there are genuine issues of material fact apparent from the record. Although Gerdes now concedes that he is not disabled within the meaning of the ADA, he contends that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Armour regarded him as disabled, because Armour's literal reading of his work restrictions, or unsupported interpretation of those restrictions, would have barred him from almost any employment. He also contends that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to his ability to perform the essential functions of his maintenance supervisor job with reasonable accommodations. Specifically, he contends that more limited hours and leave to use two-way radios to supervise mechanics working in potentially hazardous environments would have met his work restrictions while allowing him to do his job. He also contends that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to the reasonableness of long-term disability leave as an accommodation, because his benefits were only about sixty percent of his usual income and he lost his life insurance benefits during the disability period. Finally, he contends that, for over a year, Armour did nothing to investigate the true nature of his work restrictions in the face of his doctor's assertion that Gerdes should return to work, thus failing to engage in an interactive process to achieve a reasonable accommodation of his work restrictions.

In a reply brief filed October 24, 1996, Armour notes Gerdes's concession that he is not disabled within the meaning of the ADA, and contends further that Armour did not regard Gerdes as disabled, because it did not "erroneously" regard Gerdes as substantially impaired in the major life activity of working on the basis of stereotypes or myths. Instead, Armour contends that it relied on work restrictions imposed by Gerdes's own physician as barring Gerdes from his specific job at the meat-processing plant. However, even if there is a genuine issue of material fact as to perceived disability, Armour contends that it made every reasonable effort to accommodate Gerdes's work restrictions, but that Gerdes chose not to participate in an interactive process to arrive at an appropriate accommodation. In a supplemental statement of facts, Armour asserts that it made at least nine separate requests for additional medical information or a clarification of Gerdes's work restrictions between October of 1994 and April of 1996, but these requests went unanswered or, when answered, the responses did not suggest that the restrictions would not prevent Gerdes from returning to his job. Armour also points out that Gerdes conceded in depositions that he would not be performing his job if he just communicated with mechanics by two-way radio.

Plaintiff George Gerdes is represented in this matter by counsel Jay Shriver of Pappajohn, Shriver, Eide & Nicholas, P.C., in Mason City, Iowa. Defendant Armour is represented counsel John S. Schauer and Yvette Caizzi of Seyfarther, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson in Chicago, Illinois, and local counsel Charles W. McManigal of Laird, Heiny, McManigal, Winga, Duffy & Stambaugh in Mason City, Iowa. Neither party requested oral arguments on the motion for summary judgment and the court has not deemed such arguments necessary. Furthermore, this matter is set for jury trial on January 6, 1997, so that prompt disposition of the motion for summary judgment is in order.

II. STANDARDS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recognizes ...

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