Miller v. Erie Cnty. Office of Children & Youth

Decision Date10 July 2018
Docket NumberC.A. No. 16-256 Erie
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Pennsylvania

Magistrate Judge Baxter


United States Magistrate Judge Susan Paradise Baxter

A. Relevant Procedural History

On October 25, 2016, Plaintiff Gerard J. Miller filed a complaint against Defendant Erie County Office of Children and Youth ("OCY"), asserting claims of disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12133, et seq., and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ("Rehab Act"), 29 U.S.C. § 794(a)(2), as well as a claim of retaliation under the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a). Plaintiff subsequently filed an amended complaint [ECF No. 33], adding a claim of disability discrimination under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 P.S. § 951, et seq. As relief for his claims, Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, lost wages and benefits, reinstatement of employment, and attorneys' fees and costs.

Defendant filed an answer to Plaintiff's amended complaint on June 20, 2017 [ECF No. 39], and the parties have since completed discovery. Presently pending before the Court isDefendant's motion for summary judgment [ECF No. 41], in which Defendant contends that (i) Plaintiff cannot meet his burden of proving a prima facie case of disability discrimination because his disability prevents him from driving a vehicle, which, Defendant argues, is an essential function of his job as a caseworker; and, (ii) Plaintiff cannot meet his burden of proving a prima facie case of retaliation under the ADA because he cannot establish a causal connection between the alleged protected activity and the adverse employment action at issue. Plaintiff has filed a brief in opposition to Defendant's motion [ECF No. 47], arguing that (i) driving a vehicle is not an essential function of the caseworker job and, thus, Defendant is required to provide an accommodation for his disability; and (ii) a causal connection exists between his request for accommodation and Defendant's adverse employment action because the adverse action occurred at Defendant's first actual opportunity to retaliate. This matter is now ripe for consideration.

B. Relevant Factual History2

At all times relevant hereto, Plaintiff was employed as a caseworker with OCY since approximately July 20, 2009. (ECF No. 43, Defendant's Concise Statement of Material Facts, at ¶ 1). As a caseworker, Plaintiff supervised the home environment and well-being of at-risk children in the community to make sure they were provided with proper social services. (Id. at ¶ 2). In particular, Plaintiff's job description included the following duties and responsibilities:

1. Interaction with family members and community professionals;
2. Assessing the well-being of children through direct contact;3. Transporting children to medical, mental health and other appointments if foster/kinship/parents or county social service aides were unable to do so;
4. Intervening when environmental, parent-child or family crisis suggested possible harm to the child;
5. Monitoring a child's out-of-home placements by meeting with the child and caretaker at least monthly;
6. Arranging visitation to occur on a regular basis (minimum every other week unless otherwise ordered by Court) between parent and child to facilitate child's return home;
7. Arranging for sibling visitation to occur a minimum of every other week unless otherwise order by the court.

(Id. at ¶ 5).

In or around 1993, Plaintiff was diagnosed with focal epilepsy, which causes seizures that Plaintiff describes as an "aura" that creates confusion and a brief loss of awareness as to circumstances and surroundings. (Id. at ¶¶ 18-19). Such seizures led to the suspension of his Pennsylvania driver's license for a period of six months on two separate occasions, in 1994 and 1999. (Id. at ¶¶ 17, 19).

On October 28, 2014, Plaintiff experienced a seizure while meeting with his supervisor, Mary Jo Cline ("Cline"), and his union representative in Cline's office. (ECF No. 49, Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts, at ¶ 1). Later the same day, Plaintiff experienced another seizure in front of a supervisor and a nurse while visiting a client. (Id.). At no time before October 28, 2014, did Plaintiff inform any of his supervisors that he had a history of seizures or seizure-related symptoms. (ECF No. 43, at ¶ 52). As a result of these episodes, Defendant suspended Plaintiff without pay on October 30, 2014, informing him that he would be precluded from returning to work until he obtained written certifications from both a medical doctor and a licensed psychologist that he was "fit for duty." (ECF No. 49, at ¶ 2). The next day, Plaintiff sawhis physician, Dr. John Jageman, who provided a note advising that Plaintiff would be unable to return to work through November 11, 2014, but failed to provide a diagnosis of Plaintiff's condition. (ECF No. 43, at ¶ 53). As a result, Cline wrote to Dr. Jageman requesting clarification as to Plaintiff's work status and limitations, to which Dr. Jageman responded that Plaintiff's return to work was "unknown." (Id. at ¶¶ 54-55).

On January 8, 2015, Plaintiff met with OCY's director, Lana Rees ("Rees"), and submitted a letter dated December 1, 2014, from Dr. Norman So, a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic who had been treating Plaintiff's seizure disorder. (Id. at ¶ 58). In the letter, Dr. So reported that Plaintiff suffered from "focal epilepsy, with aura (warning sensations)" and was, thus, unable to drive, but was "capable of performing all other case management duties." (Id.; ECF No. 50-2). At or around the time Plaintiff submitted Dr. So's letter to Rees, Plaintiff requested, as an accommodation for his seizure disorder, that Defendant permit him to return to work and either allow him to use alternative means of transportation, such as a taxi or public transportation, to visit clients, or provide transportation by a supervisor or co-worker to attend meetings outside the office. (Id. at ¶¶ 65, 67; ECF No. 49, at ¶ 8). Defendant refused, informing Plaintiff that he needed to be able to drive to perform the job duties of a full-time caseworker. (ECF No. 43, at ¶ 64; ECF No. 49, at ¶ 9). Thus, Plaintiff was encouraged to seek other positions within Erie County that did not require driving. (ECF No. 43, at ¶ 74).

On or about March 10, 2015, Rees and others met with Plaintiff about his status and fashioned a plan for allowing Plaintiff to return to temporary light duty work performing non-casework, administrative duties in anticipation of the possibility that Plaintiff would regain his driving status after an upcoming doctor's appointment. (Id. at ¶ 76). Accordingly, on April 27, 2015, Plaintiff returned to work in a temporary light duty position for a period of 90 days,pending the outcome of Plaintiff's doctor visit; however, on May 22, 2015, Plaintiff's no-driving restriction was re-affirmed by Dr. Jageman. (Id. at ¶¶ 78, 79).3 Thus, after the 90 period for the temporary light duty position expired, Plaintiff was placed on an unpaid medical leave of absence, which continued until late May 2017, when Plaintiff was ultimately discharged by Defendant. (Id. at ¶ 81).4

C. Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that summary judgment shall be granted if the "movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Under Rule 56, the district court must enter summary judgment against a party "who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Summary judgment may be granted when no "reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (19896). "[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323 quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56.

The moving party has the initial burden of proving to the district court the absence of evidence supporting the non-moving party's claims. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 330. See also Andreoliv. Gates, 482 F.3d 641, 647 (3d Cir. 2007); UPMC Health System v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 391 F.3d 497, 502 (3d Cir. 2004). When a non-moving party would have the burden of proof at trial, the moving party has no burden to negate the opponent's claim. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party need not produce any evidence showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 325. "Instead, ... the burden on the moving party may be discharged by 'showing' - that is, pointing out to the district court - that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Id. After the moving party has satisfied this low burden, the nonmoving party must provide facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial to avoid summary judgment. Id. at 324. "Rule 56(e) permits a proper summary judgment motion to be opposed by any of the kinds of evidentiary materials listed in Rule 56(c), except the mere pleadings themselves." Id. See also Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001); Garcia v. Kimmell, 2010 WL 2089639, at * 1 (3d Cir. 2010) quoting Podobnik v. U.S. Postal Serv., 409 F.3d 584, 594 (3d Cir. 2005) (the non-moving party "must present more than just bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions to show the existence of a genuine issue.").

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