Richards v. Farner-Bocken Company, No. C 00-3014-MWB (N.D. Iowa 6/1/2001)

Decision Date01 June 2001
Docket NumberNo. C 00-3014-MWB.,C 00-3014-MWB.
PartiesCAROL RICHARDS, Plaintiff, v. FARNER-BOCKEN COMPANY, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa

Scott L. Bandstra and Christopher Kragnes, Des Moines, IA, for Plaintiff Carol Richards.

Jon C. Sogn of Lynn, Jackson, Schultz & Lebrun, P.C., Sioux Falls, SD, and Michael Giudicessi of Faegre & Benson, L.L.P., Des Moines, IA, for Defendant Farner-Bocken.



Following termination of her employment, plaintiff Carol Richards brought the present action against her former employer, defendant Farner-Bocken Company, alleging age, gender, and disability discrimination in violation of state and federal statutes, and a state common-law claim of retaliatory discharge, in violation of Iowa public policy, for asserting worker's compensation claims. Trial in this matter is set to begin on August 6, 2001. However, Farner-Bocken now seeks summary judgment on all of Richards's claims.

A. Factual Background

Although the disposition of a motion for summary judgment ordinarily depends upon whether or not there are genuine issues of material fact, the present recitation of the factual background to this litigation is not an attempt to provide an exhaustive examination of every pertinent factual dispute. Instead, it attempts to provide only a statement of the nucleus of undisputed facts and sufficient indication of key factual disputes to put in proper context the plaintiff's claims and the defendant's motion for summary judgment.

Plaintiff Carol Richards, who is a white female, contends that she was wrongfully and discriminatorily terminated from her employment at Farner-Bocken in December of 1998 when she was 55 years old. Farner-Bocken supplies food, paper goods, candy, cigarettes, and other goods to independent convenience stores and other retail outlets. During her employment with Farner-Bocken, which began in May of 1997, Richards worked primarily as a "picker," that is, an employee in Farner-Bocken's warehouse who moved up and down the aisles "picking" items in a customer's order from the warehouse shelves or bins and placing them into a plastic box container called a "tote." Pickers used scanners to read bar codes on products and totes so that Farner-Bocken could keep track of each step in the process of filling customers' orders. When a customer's order was complete, the picker would place the tote containing the requested items on a conveyor belt, which transported the tote to a loading area to be loaded onto a truck for delivery to the customer's store. In addition to working as a "picker," Richards worked briefly as a forklift operator in the fall of 1997 in Farner-Bocken's new warehouse during the course of the move of all of Farner-Bocken's warehouse operations from its old warehouse to the new facility.

However, on or about November 1, 1997, Richards returned to her former position as a "picker," and the forklift operators from the old warehouse, all of whom were male, moved to the new warehouse.

On November 18, 1997, Richards filed a worker's compensation "first report of injury" concerning an ankle problem. Her doctor placed her on work release, because of the ankle problem, from November 18, 1997, until early January of 1998. When Richards returned to work in January of 1998, she worked as a "C-store picker"1 for the remainder of the month. However, she was off work again owing to continued ankle problems from the end of January, 1998, until May 19, 1998. During that time, in March of 1998, Richards had surgery on her ankle.

Richards returned to work on May 19, 1998, but subject to various physical restrictions, including a restriction to sedentary, light-duty work and restrictions on lifting. Consequently, she worked in various light-duty tasks for several weeks. In late July or early August, Richards was transferred to a "hand-stamping" job in the area of the warehouse devoted to filling customer orders for cigarettes. "Hand stamping" involved placing tax revenue stamps on packages of cigarettes that were of odd sizes, and so could not be automatically stamped by machine. The hand stamper removed cartons of cigarettes from the totes brought to the hand-stamping area by "cigarette pickers," opened the cartons, placed the correct revenue stamps on the individual cigarette packs, and using an iron, which resembles a household iron, affixed the stamps to the cigarette packs. The hand stamper then replaced the cigarette packs in the cartons, returned the cartons to the tote, scanned the tote, and placed it onto a conveyor belt for transport to the loading area for shipment to the customer's store. The totes used in the cigarette area of the warehouse came in three sizes: small, which held about 7 cartons of cigarettes and weighed approximately 7 pounds when filled; medium, which held about 15 to 20 cartons and weighed about 15 to 20 pounds when filled; and large, which held about 25 to 30 cartons and consequently weighed about 25 pounds when filled.

Richards and Farner-Bocken dispute whether workers in the hand-stamping area rotated between "picking" and "stamping," as Farner-Bocken contends, or whether "cigarette picker" and "hand stamper" were separate and distinct positions, as Richards contends. However, the parties agree that Richards was allowed to work exclusively as a hand stamper, and that the other employees in the area consequently worked exclusively or almost exclusively as pickers at that time. The parties also agree that Richards received some assistance with the lifting part of the hand-stamping job from the picker or pickers in the area. Richards and Farner-Bocken also dispute whether Richards's transfer to the "hand-stamping" position was temporary, light-duty employment, created specifically to accommodate Richards during her recovery, as Farner-Bocken contends, or a permanent transfer to a position that had to be filled, as Richards contends.

The parties agree that, at least initially, Richards's ankle injury was expected to improve and that everyone anticipated that the physical restrictions imposed by that injury would be temporary. However, despite the parties' expectations of improvement, during the fall of 1998, Richards's treating physicians began to have concerns that some degree of disability would be permanent, or at least that the injury would require significant further treatment in the future, and how soon that further treatment was required would depend upon how much strain Richards put on her ankle. Therefore, in late November or early December, Farner-Bocken received doctors' reports that Richards had reached maximum medical improvement as to her ankle injury. At about the same time, on November 27, 1998, Richards filed a "first report of injury" concerning another injury, this time to her shoulder, that occurred during her performance of the hand-stamping job. She was off work from November 27, 1998, to December 9, 1998, owing to this shoulder injury.

On December 8, 1998, Richards and Farner-Bocken settled Richards's worker's compensation claim arising from her earlier ankle injury for $8,000, although Farner-Bocken contends that there was some dispute between the parties as to whether the injury was work-related. In light of reports that Richards had reached maximum medical improvement on her ankle injury, Farner-Bocken officials Paul Francis, Chief Financial Officer, and Dave Crawford, Director of Operations, concluded that Farner-Bocken was no longer willing to allow Richards to work in what they regarded as temporary, light-duty employment in the hand-stamping position. Therefore, on December 9, 1998, Crawford informed Richards, in a telephone call recorded by Richards's answering machine, that the hand-stamping job was no longer available. Richards's physical limitations prevented her from returning to her former position as a "picker" and so she was told not to return to work at Farner-Bocken. Administrative complaints and this litigation ensued.

B. Procedural Background

On November 2, 1998, prior to her discharge, Richards filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC), which was cross-filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in which she alleged age, disability, and sex discrimination, but did not allege retaliation. On December 14, 1998, Richards filed an amended complaint with the ICRC, which alleged that she was laid off and was not being accommodated, but again did not allege retaliation. After she received a "right-to-sue" notice from both the state and federal agencies, Richards filed the present action on February 15, 2000.

In her Complaint, Richards alleges five causes of action. Richards's first three causes of action are premised on violations of federal anti-discrimination statutes. First, in Cause of Action A, Richards alleges gender discrimination in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. In support of this cause of action, Richards alleges that Farner-Bocken "discriminated against [her] by terminating her and retaliating against her for complaining about perceived discrimination with respect to terms and conditions of her employment." Complaint, Cause of Action A, ¶ 31. Next, in Cause of Action B, Richards alleges disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12102 et seq. Specifically, Richards alleges that her "work-related injuries to her left foot and right shoulder and arm substantially limited her in her major life activities," that she was qualified to perform the essential functions of her position at Farner-Bocken with reasonable accommodation, but that "Defendant refused to accommodate [her] disabilities and in terminating [her], Defendant unlawfully discriminated against her based upon her disability or perceived disability." Id. at Cause of Action B, ¶¶ 35-37. In her...

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