Godwin v. Metro RTA

Decision Date28 July 2020
Docket NumberCASE NO. 5:17-cv-1133
CourtUnited States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Ohio
PartiesDONNA GODWIN, Individually and as Executrix of the Estate of Denise Morataya, Deceased, PLAINTIFF, v. METRO RTA, et al., DEFENDANTS.

JUDGE SARA LIOI

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF REMAND

This is a civil action for disability discrimination and negligence arising out of an accident in Akron, Ohio, involving a disabled passenger on a bus owned by defendant Metro Regional Transit Authority ("Metro RTA"). On May 7, 2015, Denise Morataya ("Morataya") was disembarking a handicap-accessible bus operated by defendant Corey Jones ("Jones") when she stepped into the breach between the bus' ramp and the floor and suffered serious injuries. Morataya passed away on March 1, 2020. (See Doc. No. 106 (Notice of Suggestion of Death ["Notice"]).) The amended complaint alleges violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12132, § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ("Rehabilitation Act"), 29 U.S.C. § 794(a), and state law. (Doc. No. 27 ["Am. Compl."].)

Metro RTA has moved for summary judgment on plaintiff's ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims, and Jones seeks summary dismissal of plaintiff's state law claims on the ground of immunity. (Doc. No. 94 ["MSJ"].) Plaintiff opposes the motion (Doc. No. 99 ["MSJ Opp'n"]), and Metro RTA and Jones have filed a reply (Doc. No. 102 ["MSJ Reply"]). For the reasons that follow, summary judgment is granted in part. Plaintiff's ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims are dismissed, and the state law claims are remanded to state court.

I. BACKGROUND

At the time of the accident, Morataya was a 56-year-old woman who suffered from diabetes which had caused peripheral neuropathy in her legs and feet, gastroparesis and retinopathy and cataracts in both eyes. (Doc. No. 97-1 (Deposition of Denise Morataya ["Morataya Dep."]) at 7, 35, 51, 52, 53, 54, 78.)1 For purposes of the present motion, the parties do not dispute that Morataya's medical conditions, separately or in combination, constituted "disabilities" as defined by the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.

Metro RTA is a regional transit authority created pursuant to Ohio Rev. Code Chapter 306 and is located in Akron, Ohio. It provides public transportation service throughout and beyond Summit County through regular fixed route service, as well as on-demand response services for persons over the age of 62 and those with disabilities. (Doc. No. 95-1 (Deposition of David Sanzone ["Sanzone Dep."]) at 9, 13, 14.) Sanzone, a trainer with Metro RTA, testified that Metro RTA relies on large traditional buses to service its fixed routes and utilizes smaller vehicles—SCATs and M4s—to provide on-demand transportation. (Id. at 9-10; see Doc. No. 98-1 (Deposition of Corey Jones ["Jones Dep."]) at 16.) The SCAT is comparable to a small van, approximately 28 feet in length, that is equipped with a lift on the side of the vehicle that can be lowered to assist those with mobility issues to embark and disembark the vehicle.2 (SanzoneDep. at 10-11; see Jones Dep. at 16-17.) As a result of her disabilities, Morataya had been approved in 2014 by Metro RTA to ride the SCAT and had successfully utilized such transportation on numerous occasions prior to the accident. (Morataya Dep. at 78-84.)

Jones had been employed by Metro RTA as an operator since August 2012. (Jones Dep. at 9.) Following his hire, and prior to Morataya's accident, Jones received training in the operation of Metro RTA vehicles (including the SCAT) and the lifts, as well as the requirements of the ADA as they relate to disabled passengers. (Sanzone Dep. at 34, 56-61; Jones Dep. at 26, 38.) Metro RTA operators, including Jones, are also required to shadow other drivers before they are permitted to operate Metro RTA vehicles on their own. (Jones Dep. at 38.)

On May 7, 2015, Jones was assigned to drive a SCAT, and his vehicle was equipped with a Braun Series 600 lift which must be lowered and raised by the operator. (Sanzone Dep. at 11, 23-25.) When not in use, the lift folds into an upright position and is stored on the vehicle. (Sanzone Dep. at 23.) When the operator must deploy the lift, he deboards the vehicle to open the outside doors where the ramp is stored. (Sanzone Dep. at 24; Jones Dep. at 31.) He then utilizes a hand control that first allows the lift to "unfold" and raise or lower to a stable point so that the passenger may board or deboard the vehicle. (Sanzone Dep. at 23-25.) A warning buzzer signals the passenger when the lift is in motion. (Sanzone Dep. at 11, 21-22; Jones Dep. at 43, 111, 140.)

The parties agree that the Braun lift had what plaintiff's expert referred to a "common characteristic" that sometimes prevented the lift from fully unfolding to 90°, resulting from the fact that the lift is "jostled around during transport[.]" (Doc. No. 98-7 (Deposition of John Cleveland ["Cleveland Dep."]) at 37-38.) Jones characterized this as a "glitch." (Jones Dep. at104.) When the "glitch" occurs, it is necessary to hit the unfold button again to ensure that the lift is fully unfolded. (Cleveland Dep. at 37-38; Jones Dep. at 104, 108; Sanzone Dep. at 45, 49.) This technique has been incorporated into the training that Metro RTA operators receive on operating the SCAT lifts. (Sanzone Dep. at 49-50.)

Upon arriving for his shift on May 7, 2015, Jones located his SCAT and performed the necessary vehicle inspection to ensure that the equipment, such as the lights and the lift, were operating properly, which he found them to be. (See Jones Dep. at 24.) Inside the vehicle was a tablet that contained the itinerary for the day. (Jones Dep. at 74; see id. at 24.) Morataya was scheduled to be transported that morning from her house to a facility close by where she had a medical appointment. (See Jones Dep at 76.) Jones pulled his vehicle into Morataya's driveway as Morataya, assisted by an unknown male, exited her home. (Jones Dep. at 76-78, 79, 83-84, 86.) While Morataya was not utilizing a mobility device, Jones could see that she was not steady on her feet, that she was at a high risk of falling, and that she would require the use of the lift to board the SCAT. (Jones Dep. at 84-85.) The man assisting Morataya eventually let go of her arm, and Morataya walked the remaining 10 to 15 feet to the SCAT unassisted at which point Jones exited the SCAT and began lowering the lift. (Jones Dep. at 84.)3 Morataya boarded the SCAT without incident and took her seat. (Jones Dep. at 87-88, 89.)

The trip to the medical facility took fewer than five minutes, and Jones pulled the SCAT up to the building entrance to park, lowered the ramp, and allow Morataya to deboard.(Jones Dep. at 91.) The building entrance had a pedestrian bridge in front of it that the SCAT would not fit under, so Jones looked for a place on the street to park. (Jones Dep. at 91-92, 93, 95.) It was a "very busy day for traffic," but Jones eventually located a side street adjacent to the building entrance where he could park his vehicle. (Jones Dep. at 92-93, 95.)

Jones exited his vehicle and began deploying the ramp so that Morataya could deboard. Jones testified that there was considerable traffic all around the SCAT and he was constantly looking for cars and other obstructions. (Jones Dep. at 97, 99, 100, 101.) Jones testified that he may have greeted a woman who was walking on a nearby sidewalk, and he admits that he was distracted by the surrounding traffic. (Jones Dep. at 91-96, 114.) While Jones was testing4 the lift by lowering it to make sure that it fully unfolded to a horizontal position, Morataya, who was outside of Jones' view, stepped onto the ramp.5 (Jones Dep. at 113, 115-16.) What followed happened quickly, and the results were tragic. (Jones Dep. at 116.) Jones tried to yell "no" to Morataya as she stepped into the gap between the ramp and vehicle and fell. (Jones Dep. at 116.) There is no dispute that Jones did not instruct Morataya to wait until the ramp was fully unfolded before alighting it, and he did not otherwise inform Morataya of the process for deboarding the SCAT.6 (See Jones Dep. at 110, 111.)

As a result of the fall, Morataya sustained a fractured left shoulder and a compression fracture of the T-12 vertebrae. (Morataya Dep. at 105.) For purposes of the present motion, it hasbeen represented that the compression fracture progressed to a burst fracture resulting in a catastrophic spinal cord injury which left Morataya paralyzed and incontinent, and substantially aggravated her pre-existing gastroparesis. (MSJ Opp'n at 1883.) From May 2019 through February 2020, Morataya was a patient at a long-term acute care facility. On or about February 20, 2020, she made the decision to forego further treatment and receive only comfort care. She died ten days later, and, upon the filing of the suggestion of her death, Morataya's executrix, Donna Godwin (hereinafter, "plaintiff"), was replaced as the party plaintiff. (Id.; see Notice.)

On May 5, 2017, Morataya filed suit in state court against Metro RTA and Jones. (Doc. No. 1-1 (Complaint).) On May 31, 2017, Metro RTA and Jones removed the action to federal court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. (Doc. No. 1 (Notice of Removal), citing the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims as the basis for removal.) On November 22, 2017, Morataya filed an amended complaint that added additional state law claims and defendants related to the medical care she received following the accident. As amended, the complaint raises claims for disability discrimination under and/or deprivation of benefits guaranteed by the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, negligence, and loss of consortium.7 Currently, trial is set in this matter for September 14, 2020. (See generally Am. Compl.; Doc. No. 103 (Fourth Amended Case Management Plan and Trial Order) at 2353.)8

On June 14, 2020, after summary judgment was fully briefed, plaintiff moved for...

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