Morris v. Roche

Decision Date30 January 2002
Docket NumberNo. 5:95-CV-450-2 (DF).,5:95-CV-450-2 (DF).
Citation182 F.Supp.2d 1260
PartiesTommy L. MORRIS, Plaintiff, v. James G. ROCHE, Secretary of the Air Force, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Georgia

Robert E. Bergman, Warner Robins, GA, for plaintiff.

Melanie D. Wilson, Asst. U.S. Atty., Macon, GA, for defendant.

OPINION

FITZPATRICK, District Judge.

This case involves a claim brought under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by Tommy L. Morris against James G. Roche, Secretary of the Air Force, in his official capacity only.1 Specifically, Plaintiff claims that he was discriminated against on the basis of a disability that was caused by a work-related injury to his right knee in 1991. Plaintiff is seeking (1) reinstatement; (2) back pay and front pay (including prejudgment interest and the value of lost employment benefits, such as pension and other fringe benefits, step increases, seniority, and retirement benefits); (3) an injunction prohibiting any disability discrimination against Plaintiff; (4) compensatory damages for physical and emotional pain and suffering; (5) punitive damages; (6) attorney fees, costs, and expenses; and (7) disciplinary action against the employees who discriminated against him. Before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment (tab # 16).

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Supreme Court has observed, "One of the principal purposes of the summary judgment rule is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses, and we think it should be interpreted in a way that allows it to accomplish this purpose." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Under Rule 56, summary judgment must be granted if "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548. Thus, summary judgment is proper if there is insufficient evidence for a jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party or, in other words, if a factual dispute could not be reasonably resolved in favor of either party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-52, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the evidence and all justifiable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, but the court may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. See id. at 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505.

The moving party "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" and that entitle it to a judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (internal quotation marks omitted). If the moving party discharges this burden, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and present specific evidence showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact or that the moving party is not entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); see also Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324-26, 106 S.Ct. 2548. This evidence must consist of more than mere conclusory allegations or legal conclusions. See Avirgan v. Hull, 932 F.2d 1572, 1577 (11th Cir.1991). Under this scheme, summary judgment must be entered "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., 477 U.S. at 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was, and is now again, a preference-eligible, competitive-service employee working as an auditor with the Air Force Audit Agency at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgia. On September 17, 1991, Plaintiff suffered a work-related injury to his right knee for which he received benefits, including medical benefits and wage loss compensation, under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act. On October 11, 1991, Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Steve Barnes, prescribed certain restrictions on his work-related activities, including prohibitions on bending, stooping, climbing, and crawling, as well as limitations on prolonged standing and walking. When Plaintiff returned to work, these restrictions inhibited his ability to perform his regular duties as an auditor because he was often required to perform physical tasks that exceeded his limitations. Plaintiff underwent surgery on his knee on December 5, 1991, and returned to work on March 16, 1992. To accommodate him upon his return to work, Plaintiff was assigned "light duty" work and was given a part-time assistant to help him gather information.

On May 29, 1992, Plaintiff temporarily left his job in anticipation of a second knee surgery, which occurred on June 25, 1992. Plaintiff was not released to return to work until November 12, 1992. Upon his return to work, Plaintiff was expected to perform the essential functions of his job with a few limitations. Although Plaintiff claims that he was able to perform the essential functions of his job, he admits that he was unable to perform all the physical tasks associated with gathering information and documentation needed to implement the survey and audit programs. Plaintiff's physical limitations were accommodated insofar as his desk was moved to the building where he performed audits, he was excused from staff meetings held on the third floor of that building, and he was given a handicapped parking permit. Plaintiff responds that the new building was so large that he was still required to walk up to three miles per day, that attendance at the meetings from which he was excused was not an essential function of his job, that he was physically unable to attend those meetings because they were held on the third floor of a building that did not have an elevator and he was prohibited from climbing stairs, and that he was given a handicapped parking permit only after he initiated the process. Defendant claims that Plaintiff was granted extra time to complete his audits, but Plaintiff contends that his time was never actually increased.

After Plaintiff's second surgery, he was not provided with an assistant to help him complete his work. Plaintiff claims that the agency refused to accommodate him further because it revised its previous position concerning the physical requirements of Plaintiff's job such that the job was described as "sedentary in nature." Between November 13, 1992, and April 1993, Plaintiff completed only one audit (though he started a second assignment in late March or early April), and he often complained to his supervisor that he was physically unable to perform certain aspects of his job. During this time, Plaintiff received a scheduled award for 10% permanent, partial impairment of his right knee, which covered the period from November 12, 1992, to June 1, 1993.

On April 13, 1993, Dr. Barnes examined Plaintiff again and modified his medical restrictions to limit his walking to between the parking lot and his desk. Dr. Barnes also told him that he needed to have somebody else bring him the information and documentation needed for his audits. In a memorandum dated May 4, 1993, an Air Force physician, Dr. Gary Lebow, disagreed with the restrictions recommended by Dr. Barnes the previous month. Initially, the agency made no changes to Plaintiff's duties in response to Dr. Barnes's recommendation; instead, Plaintiff was required to submit to an examination by Dr. Lebow. Dr. Lebow examined Plaintiff on September 16, 1993, and concluded that he satisfied the medical requirements of his job. Because of the contradictory conclusions reached by Dr. Barnes and Dr. Lebow, the agency requested that Dr. Barnes re-examine Plaintiff to determine whether his April 13, 1993 recommendation still applied. After Dr. Barnes reaffirmed his original conclusion in February 1994, the agency requested that another Air Force physician, Dr. John R. Marsh, re-examine Plaintiff (Dr. Lebow had left the Air Force by that time). Dr. Marsh examined Plaintiff on March 10, 1994, and concurred with Dr. Barnes's assessment that Plaintiff did not satisfy the medical requirements of his job. Based on the agreement between Dr. Barnes and Dr. Marsh, the agency altered Plaintiff's responsibilities so that he was conducting only referencing assignments, which required less mobility than other assignments.

Thereafter, Plaintiff requested that the agency accommodate him by providing him with an assistant to help him complete his work, as he was following his first surgery. The agency rejected Plaintiff's request as unreasonable because it considered field work and mobility to be essential functions of the job and because employing two people to perform one job was an undue hardship. Instead, Defendant claims that the agency offered to accommodate Plaintiff by providing him with a mobility device, such as a wheelchair, so he could perform field work. However, Plaintiff disputes Defendant's assertion that assigning two people to perform one job was an undue hardship because that was not an unusual practice for the agency. Moreover, Plaintiff disputes Defendant's assertion that the agency offered him the use of a mobility device. In fact, Plaintiff claims that medical personnel at RAFB wrote a letter indicating that Plaintiff would not be qualified to perform his job even with a wheelchair.

On February 17, 1995, the agency notified Plaintiff of a proposal to terminate him on the ground that he was unable to perform the essential functions of his job. Plaintiff responded to...

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