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Posey v. Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

March 22, 2017

DANIEL POSEY, Plaintiff,
v.
HYUNDAI MOTOR MANUFACTURING ALABAMA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          W. KEITH WATKINS CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Daniel Posey brings this employment discrimination action against his former employer, Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama (HMMA), under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Posey alleges that HMMA punished and eventually fired him, at least in part, because of his disability: Crohn's Disease. His complaint articulates two ADA theories under which he alleges HMMA is liable for its past conduct: (1) failure to accommodate Plaintiff's disability; and (2) intentional discrimination via wrongful termination. (Doc. # 37, at 10-13.)

         Plaintiff originally brought this claim against both HMMA and The Hartford Comprehensive Employee Benefit Services Company (Hartford), the third-party administrator responsible for managing FMLA leave requests for HMMA. (Doc. # 1.) However, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed his claims against Hartford before the filing of the instant motion.[1] (Doc. # 31) Before the court now is HMMA's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. (Doc. # 40.) The motion was fully briefed for the Magistrate Judge, who recommended that the court grant the motion as to Plaintiff's failure-to-accommodate claim and deny it as to his intentional discrimination claim. (Doc. # 46.) Both parties objected to that assessment--Plaintiff arguing the motion should be denied in full (Doc. # 47) and Defendant arguing it should be granted in full (Doc. # 48). After a thorough review of the record, the objections are due to be overruled; the Magistrate Judge's Recommendation is due to be adopted; and Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is due to be granted in part and denied in part for the reasons set forth below.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A. For the Recommendation of a Magistrate Judge

         The court reviews de novo a Magistrate Judge's recommendation to which objections have been filed. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         B. For a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings

         “Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate where there are no material facts in dispute and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Perez v. Wells Fargo N.A., 774 F.3d 1329, 1335 (11th Cir. 2014) (quoting Cannon v. City of W. Palm Beach, 250 F.3d 1299, 1301 (11th Cir. 2001)). When ruling on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the court “accept[s] as true all material facts alleged in the non-moving party's pleading” and views those facts “in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Perez, 774 F.3d at 1335. The “pleadings” include both the complaint and the answer, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 7(a), and “[a] copy of any written instrument which is an exhibit to a pleading, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c).[2] If the pleadings admit of any material dispute of fact, judgment on the pleadings must be denied. Id.

         III. FACTS

         Plaintiff began working for Defendant on June 20, 2005, and in 2013 was diagnosed with Crohn's disease-a condition that causes chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. The symptoms of Crohn's disease-which include abdominal cramping and pain, diarrhea, nausea, fever, and loss of appetite, among other things-can be severe enough to require time off work. On at least five occasions between May 2013 and May 2014, Plaintiff applied for medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) because of Crohn's-related symptoms. On “at least four of these occasions, ” Hartford denied his leave requests for his failure to qualify under FMLA. (Doc. # 37, at 9.) Plaintiff contends that his requests for FMLA leave also constituted requests for reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

         On May 27, 2014, due to poor attendance, management placed Plaintiff in HMMA's “Formal Discussion” phase of corrective action-the second step of the disciplinary procedure HMMA administers to absentee employees. It is used for “more serious performance issues” or “if a Team Member fails to correct an existing performance issue after receiving an Informal Discussion.” (Doc. # 38, Exh. 3.) On June 3, 2014, after missing more work, management placed Plaintiff in the “Commitment Discussion” phase of corrective action, which is the third step of HMMA's disciplinary procedure. Plaintiff alleges that his absences, i.e., the basis for the corrective action, were the result of his Crohn's disease.

         Plaintiff soon found himself, after yet another Crohn's-related absence, in the third and final step of HMMA's corrective action program, which requires employees to write a “commitment letter” stating how they plan to fix whatever behavioral issues have landed them there. Plaintiff's commitment letter went above the call, containing not only a declaration of his commitment to improve his behavior but also a bit of additional commentary that will become relevant later. The letter from June 3, 2014, in full, reads:

I was diagnose[d] with [Crohn's] disease about a year ago. Through this time of illness[, ] I was hospitalized for internal bleeding for the period of one week. I almost died. I was out of work for 1 month. Julie Pitts, Jay Burns and Hartford [were] notified and sent documentation to back this. After I return[ed] to work[, ] I was notified that I was approved. November-December came, then I was told I was denied by Hartford and it was to[o] late to get paperwork filled out correctly. I was put in Phase I by Jay Burns/Team Relations. Around mid-May I had a flare up and complications again. My [doctor did a] procedure to make sure I wasn't bleeding again and corrected my medicine. Julie Pitts, Rick Henley and Hartford [were] contacted. FMLA was approved. I was notified one week ago that it was denied because paperwork hasn't been received. But it was to[o] late to turn in after I sent it in personally after I was notified. I was put into Phase II for attendance. I have been on time, and committed to my job for 9 years. I am going to do and make extra effort to show up to my job as I have been. And I give 150% to my team daily. But ...

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