Schwarz v. Northwest Iowa Community College

Decision Date15 March 1995
Docket NumberNo. C 93-4077.,C 93-4077.
Citation881 F. Supp. 1323
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of West Virginia
PartiesRuth SCHWARZ, Plaintiff, v. NORTHWEST IOWA COMMUNITY COLLEGE, f/k/a Northwest Iowa Technical College, Defendant.

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Jeffrey A. Neary, O'Brien, Galvin, Moeller & Neary, LeMars, IA, for plaintiff.

Thomas W. Foley, Nyemaster, Goode, McLaughlin, Voigts, West, Hansell & O'Brien, P.C., Des Moines, IA, Thomas J. Whorley and Keith G. Thompson, Wolff, Whorley, De Hoogh & Thompson, Sheldon, IA, for defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

BENNETT, District Judge.

                                             TABLE OF CONTENTS
                   I INTRODUCTION AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND ............................... 1328
                 II. STANDARDS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ....................................... 1329
                III. FINDINGS OF FACT ..................................................... 1332
                     A. Undisputed Facts .................................................. 1332
                     B. Disputed Facts .................................................... 1333
                 IV. LEGAL ANALYSIS ....................................................... 1334
                     A. The ADEA Claim .................................................... 1334
                        1. Administrative prerequisites to suit under the ADEA ............ 1334
                        2. The analytical framework for claims of age discrimination ...... 1335
                        3. Analysis of Schwarz's ADEA claim ............................... 1337
                           a. Schwarz's prima facie case .................................. 1337
                           b. Constructive discharge or voluntary termination ............. 1338
                                i. Intolerable conditions ................................. 1338
                               ii. Shift changes .......................................... 1339
                              iii. Personal circumstances ................................. 1339
                           c. The proffered legitimate reason for the College's action .... 1340
                    B. The Disability Claim ............................................... 1341
                       1. Elements Of A Disability Discrimination Claim Under Iowa Law .... 1341
                       2. Analysis of Schwarz's disability claim .......................... 1342
                           a. Protected disability ........................................ 1342
                               i. Schwarz's asserted disability ........................... 1342
                              ii. Vision impairments generally ............................ 1343
                
                              iii. The limitation imposed by the impairment ............... 1343
                           b. Qualified for the position .................................. 1344
                           c. Remaining elements of the prima facie case .................. 1346
                  V. CONCLUSION ........................................................... 1346
                

This apparently garden variety employment discrimination case has yielded some issues of surprising novelty. The first unusual issue to blossom in this case is whether an employee has alleged a constructive discharge where the employer allegedly knew of and exploited the employee's physical impairment to force the employee to quit. The second novel issue to bloom from the record is whether an unusual vision problem, described as "night blindness," constitutes a protected disability under Iowa law in the circumstances of this case.

A community college has moved for summary judgment in its favor on a former employee's claims of age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and disability discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act, Iowa Code Ch. 216. The former employee claims that she was constructively discharged from her position as a library clerk when her employment schedule was changed to a shift running from 12:30 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. The former employee asserts that she suffers from "night blindness," which made it impossible for her to commute home after a work day ending in the evening. She asserts that, in addition to discriminating against her on the basis of her "night blindness" disability, the community college used the shift change to force her to quit her position because she had been reluctant to retire, thus discriminating against her on the basis of age. The community college has moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the former employee cannot establish a prima facie case of either age or disability discrimination, and that even if she can, she cannot establish a genuine issue of material fact that the community college's proffered reason for changing her employment hours was a pretext for discrimination.

I. INTRODUCTION AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Ruth Schwarz filed her complaint in this matter on September 9, 1993, against her former employer, the Northwest Iowa Community College (the College), formerly known as Northwest Iowa Technical College, located in Sheldon, Iowa. The complaint alleges that Schwarz, who was 63 years old at the time, was constructively discharged on September 9, 1991, from her position as a library clerk at the College's central library as the result of a change in her work schedule which required her to work weekdays from 12:30 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. instead of from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.

The complaint is in two counts. Count I alleges that Schwarz was constructively discharged in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., asserting that the reason for the shift change was to compel Schwarz to resign, because defendant allegedly knew that Schwarz would be unable to drive safely after dark in order to commute to her home. Count II alleges that Schwarz's constructive discharge was also because of a disability, namely "night-blindness," in violation of Iowa Code Ch. 216. This count alleges that the College failed to make reasonable accommodations for Schwarz's disability.

Following her alleged constructive discharge, Schwarz filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on November 19, 1991. On December 11, 1992, Schwarz received a notice from the ICRC informing her that it had found that probable cause existed on her claim of age discrimination, but Schwarz did not pursue the administrative proceedings or file suit in an Iowa state court.

Instead, Schwarz filed this federal complaint on September 9, 1993. The College answered the complaint on November 23, 1993. Schwarz moved for partial summary judgment on October 3, 1994, asserting that the state agency proceedings had res judicata effect in these federal proceedings. The motion was denied on October 11, 1994, on the ground that the Supreme Court's decision in Astoria Fed. Sav. and Loan Ass'n v. Solimino, 501 U.S. 104, 113, 111 S.Ct. 2166, 2172, 115 L.Ed.2d 96 (1991), held that Congress did not intend to give estoppel effect to findings of state administrative agencies concerning claims under the ADEA. On January 12, 1995, the court granted the parties' joint motion to extend the deadlines for discovery and to file dispositive motions in this case. On February 15, 1995, the extended deadline for filing dispositive motions, the College moved for summary judgment on the entirety of Schwarz's complaint. Schwarz resisted the motion on March 1, 1995.

The College has moved for summary judgment on Schwarz's disability claim, first, on the ground that Schwarz cannot establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination because "night blindness" is not a protected disability. The College argues further that even if "night blindness" is a protected disability, Schwarz can neither establish the other elements of a prima facie case, nor establish a genuine issue of material fact that the College's proffered reason for changing Schwarz's work schedule is a pretext for discrimination. The College argues for summary judgment on Schwarz's age discrimination claim on similar grounds: inability to establish a prima facie case of age discrimination or to establish a genuine issue of material fact that the proffered reason for changing Schwarz's work schedule is a pretext for age discrimination.

Schwarz asserts that there is at least a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of whether "night blindness" is a protected disability and on the elements of her prima facie claim of either disability or age discrimination. She argues further that there is at least a genuine issue of material fact that the College's proffered non-discriminatory reason for its action is a pretext for discrimination. Schwarz contends that the College has proffered inconsistent reasons for its actions in the administrative proceedings and in these proceedings, and, further, contends that she was pressured to resign by repetitive inquiries into her likely retirement date when she had made clear she had no present intention to retire.

The court held oral arguments on the motion for summary judgment on March 13, 1995, in Sioux City, Iowa. Plaintiff was represented at the oral arguments by counsel Jeffrey A. Neary of O'Brien, Galvin, Moeller & Neary, in LeMars, Iowa. Defendant was represented by Thomas W. Foley of Nyemaster, Goode, McLaughlin, Voigts, West, Hansell & O'Brien, P.C., in Des Moines, Iowa, and by Thomas J. Whorley and Keith G. Thompson of Wolff, Whorley, De Hoogh & Thompson, in Sheldon, Iowa. The matter is now fully submitted. Counsel for both parties ably argued their positions and the oral arguments were of considerable assistance to the court in disposing of this motion for summary judgment.

II. STANDARDS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

The Eighth Circuit recognizes "that summary judgment is a drastic remedy and must be exercised with extreme care to prevent taking genuine issues of fact away from juries." Wabun-Inini v. Sessions, 900 F.2d 1234, 1238 (8th Cir.1990). On the other hand, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have...

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