Harris v. H & W Contracting Co.

Decision Date31 December 1996
Docket NumberNo. 95-8526,95-8526
Citation102 F.3d 516
Parties, 6 A.D. Cases 460, 19 A.D.D. 1, 9 NDLR P 107, 97 FCDR 333, 10 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. C 608 Ellen T. HARRIS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. H & W CONTRACTING COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

John P. Cross, II, Bette E. Rosenzveig, Decatur, GA, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Mark Richmond Youmans, Columbus, GA, for Defendant-Appellee.

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

Before BIRCH and CARNES, Circuit Judges, and MICHAEL *, Senior District Judge.

CARNES, Circuit Judge:

In this Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") case, Ellen T. Harris appeals from the district court's entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, H & W Contracting Company (the "Company"). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Company on the grounds that Harris, who has been diagnosed with and receives ongoing treatment for Graves' disease, cannot show that she has a "disability" within the meaning of the ADA. We reverse, because we find that genuine issues of material fact do exist about whether Harris has a disability within the meaning of the ADA, and there is no other basis in the record for affirming the grant of summary judgment.

In addition to her ADA claim, Harris brought a state law tort claim against the Company for intentional infliction of emotional distress. We agree with the district court that Harris' emotional distress claim lacks evidentiary support in the record, and we affirm the entry of summary judgment in favor of the Company as to that claim.

I. BACKGROUND FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In 1973, approximately sixteen years before joining the Company, Harris was diagnosed as having active Graves' disease, an endocrine disorder affecting the thyroid gland. Since that time, Harris has continuously taken medication, "Synthroid," to control her condition. In general, the ongoing treatment of Harris' medical condition has been successful. Since 1973, with one notable exception, Harris' thyroid problems have not seriously interfered with her work or other life activities, because her thyroid condition has been fully controlled with medication.

In December 1989, the Company hired Harris as its comptroller, making her responsible for the maintenance of the Company's financial records and for certain other financial activities of the Company. While she was employed there, the Company was entirely satisfied with Harris' performance as comptroller. Although Harris made some "mistakes" as comptroller, the Company considered them to be "minor." When questioned about Harris' performance, the Company's president, Aldric Hayes, stated that up until the time Harris left the Company "[a]s far as I was concerned Ellen had done a real good job," although some additional problems with her work did come to light after that time.

In December 1992, Harris experienced a "panic attack." Thereafter, in January 1993, Harris was hospitalized for eight days in the psychiatric ward. According to Harris, she learned during her hospitalization that she had been overdosed with her thyroid medication, due to a change in the manufacture of the drug. There is no dispute that this overdose caused Harris' panic attack and subsequent illness, and that once her dosage was corrected, Harris' thyroid condition did not limit Harris' ability to work or perform other normal activities. Harris' doctor certified her as able to return to her normal job duties beginning on February 1, 1993.

In January 1993, while Harris was on sick leave, the Company hired another individual, Fred Sanders, to be comptroller. When Harris began to return to work on a gradual basis in January 1993, she was at first unaware that Sanders had assumed her job title. However, on February 12, 1993, Harris questioned Hayes about the status of her responsibilities. In response to those questions, Hayes told Harris that Sanders was "in charge" and was now the comptroller. Moreover, according to Harris, Hayes told her that she would need to seek other employment when she was feeling better or "within the next several months." Upon learning that she had been removed from her position as comptroller, and that Sanders had taken her place, Harris left the workplace. Three days later, on February 15, 1993, Hayes wrote Harris a letter in which he denied terminating Harris, but acknowledged that he had removed her from the position of comptroller and that her employment with the Company had come to an end.

In April 1993, Harris filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that the Company had discriminated against her in violation of the ADA. After receiving her right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, Harris filed this lawsuit, alleging a claim for discrimination in violation of the ADA and a pendent Georgia state law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

On April 6, 1995, the district court entered an order granting summary judgment to the Company on both the ADA claim and the state law claim. In granting summary judgment on the ADA claim, the district court held that Harris could not show that she has a "disability" within the meaning of the ADA. Turning to the state law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the district court found that claim to be "completely lacking in evidentiary support." 1 This appeal followed.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review de novo a district court's grant of summary judgment, applying the same standards as the district court. E.g., Jones v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 977 F.2d 527, 535-36 (11th Cir.1992), cert. denied, 508 U.S. 961, 113 S.Ct. 2932, 124 L.Ed.2d 682 (1993). Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, depositions, and affidavits show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). In reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we view all the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. E.g., Pritchard v. Southern Co. Servs., 92 F.3d 1130, 1132 (11th Cir.1996).

III. ANALYSIS
A. The Americans with Disabilities Act

In 1990, Congress enacted the ADA "to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities." 42 U.S.C.A. § 12101(b)(1) (West 1995). To accomplish that purpose, the ADA provides that "[n]o covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." Id. § 12112(a). The statute further operates to create an affirmative duty for employers to reasonably accommodate individuals with disabilities. In ADA parlance, the word "discriminate" is defined broadly to include "not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability ... unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business." Id. § 12112(b)(5)(A). "Disability" is defined as:

(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual;

(B) a record of such impairment; or

(C) being regarded as having such an impairment.

Id. § 12102(2).

In order to establish a prima facie case under the ADA, Harris must show that: (1) she has a disability; (2) she is a qualified individual; and (3) she was discriminated against because of her disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 12132; see also, e.g., Pritchard v. Southern Co. Servs., 92 F.3d 1130, 1132 (11th Cir.1996). In granting summary judgment on Harris' ADA claim, the district court held that Harris had failed to demonstrate that any genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether Harris has a disability within the meaning of the ADA--the first element of her prima facie case. In view of that holding, the district court was not required to, and did not, consider whether Harris had established the second and third elements of her prima facie case--whether she is a qualified individual, and whether she was discriminated against because of her disability.

On appeal, the parties devote the bulk of their attention to whether Harris has a disability within the meaning of the ADA, and so do we. Finding that genuine issues of material fact exist as to that element of Harris' prima facie case, we will also consider whether the record concerning the remaining two elements of Harris' prima facie case nonetheless supports affirming the district court's grant of summary judgment. See, e.g., Jaffke v. Dunham, 352 U.S. 280, 281, 77 S.Ct. 307, 308, 1 L.Ed.2d 314 (1957) ("A successful party in the District Court may sustain its judgment on any ground that finds support in the record.").

B. Whether Harris Has a Disability

Harris contends that her circumstances meet the ADA's definition of disability in two ways. First, she contends that her medical condition fits within the definition of disability provided by 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)(A), in that she has an impairment that substantially limits one or more of her major life activities. Second, she contends that the Company has regarded her as having such an impairment, as provided by § 12102(2)(C), even if she does not have one in fact. Harris does not contend, and we do not address, whether she has a "record of such impairment" sufficient to bring her condition within the alternative definition of disability provided by § 12102(2)(B).

Turning to Harris' first theory, the evidence in the record would be sufficient to permit a jury...

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