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Sims v. Alabama Department of Human Resources

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

October 16, 2017

BRAD SIMS, Plaintiff,
v.
ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN RESOURCES, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. MICHAEL PUTNAM, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This cause is before the court on the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by defendants Alabama Department of Human Resources (“ADHR”) and Blount County Department of Human Resources (“Blount County DHR”) (together “Defendants”). (Doc. 47). The matter has been fully briefed, and oral argument was heard on the motion on May 22, 2017. The parties have consented to the exercise of dispositive jurisdiction by the undersigned magistrate judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 25). Accordingly, the court issues the following memorandum opinion and order.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), summary judgment is proper “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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The party asking for 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 Corp. v. Catrett, 47 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). The movant can meet this burden by presenting evidence showing there is no dispute of material fact or by showing that the nonmoving party has failed to present evidence in support of some element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. There is no requirement, however, “that the moving party support its motion with affidavits or other similar materials negating the opponent's claim.” Id. at 323.

         Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56 “requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the ‘depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions of file, ' designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 324 (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The nonmoving party need not present evidence in a form necessary for admission at trial; however, he may not merely rest on his pleadings. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. “[T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, 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.” Id. at 322.

         After the plaintiff has properly responded to a proper motion for summary judgment, the court “shall” grant the motion if there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 248. “[T]he judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 249. His guide is the same standard necessary to direct a verdict: “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 251-52; see also Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 461 U.S. 731, 745 n. 11 (1983).

         However, the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). The evidence supporting a claim must be “substantial, ” Marcus v. St. Paul Fire and Marine Ins. Co., 651 F.2d 379 (5th Cir., Unit B, 1981); a mere scintilla of evidence is not enough to create a genuine issue of fact. Young v. City of Palm Bay, 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004); Kesinger ex rel. Estate of Kesinger v. Herrington, 381 F.3d 1243, 1249-50 (11th Cir. 2004). If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249 (citations omitted); accord Spence v. Zimmerman, 873 F.2d 256 (11th Cir. 1989). Furthermore, the court must “view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden, ” so there must be sufficient evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 254; Cottle v. Storer Communications, Inc., 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir. 1988). Nevertheless, credibility determinations, the weighing of evidence, and the drawing of inferences from the facts are the function of the jury, and therefore the evidence of the non-movant is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The non-movant need not be given the benefit of every inference but only of every reasonable inference. Brown v. City of Clewiston, 848 F.2d 1534, 1540 n. 12 (11th Cir. 1988).

         II. FACTS

         Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving plaintiff, the following facts are relevant to the instant Motion for Summary Judgment.

         Brad Sims (the “plaintiff”) began working with Blount County DHR as a Social Services Caseworker in the Child Protective Services Division on April 1, 1996. As a Caseworker, the plaintiff performed field work, including home visits to evaluate the home-life situations of at-risk children. In April of 2008, the plaintiff began suffering from myopathy and neuropathy, the wasting of muscle and nerves, respectively. He submitted a Disability Accommodation Request to his supervisor stating that he was suffering from an “undiagnosed degenerative muscle problem” and detailing his restricted mobility and difficulty with walking and climbing steps.[1] He stated that it was becoming more difficult to enter residences that had steps without handrails or “higher unstable steps.” (Doc. 53-2, p. 3). He also noted that he was concerned for his safety should he need to leave an area quickly, as his disorder made it more difficult to do so. (Id.)

         Sims testified that, following his request for accommodation, he discussed the request with his direct supervisor, Cheryl Helton, and the Director of Blount County DHR, Marcia Parker. According to the plaintiff, he was offered the choice between disability retirement and a transfer to the child support division. (Sims Depo., Doc. 53-16, pp. 22-25). The plaintiff declined the offer of transfer and did not retire. (Id. at 25). On May 7, 2008, the Director of Civil Rights/Equal Employment for ADHR, Desiree Jackson, sent the plaintiff a letter informing him that specific information was needed regarding his disability from his treating physician. On July 23, 2008, the plaintiff wrote a letter to Blount County Director Marcia Parker and Program Supervisor Cheryl Helton, stating that his doctor was still attempting to diagnose his illness, but that his doctor agreed that he should not go up steps when entering homes and that his condition essentially prevents him from conducting home visits. (Doc. 53-3, p. 2). The plaintiff asked that he be relieved of home-visit duties. (Id.) On October 2, 2008, the plaintiff e-mailed Helton to inform her that he had fallen while walking down the steps of a porch during a home visit. (Doc. 53-4). Ultimately, the plaintiff was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth Syndrome, which is a hereditary disorder that causes nerve damage to the legs and results in smaller and weaker muscles.[2]

         On the same day, October 2, 2008, the plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Blount County DHR, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). He asserted then that he had been placed on restrictions by his doctor, including no climbing of stairs. According to the plaintiff, his supervisors continued to assign him cases requiring stair climbing and “harassed” him about the process of diagnosing his illness. He wrote that his doctor informed him of his diagnosis on September 16, 2008. He claims that Parker and Helton “offered me a demotion and disability retirement, ” and told him that no accommodations could be made for him. (Doc. 53-5). The plaintiff alleges that no attempts were made to accommodate his disability.

         Following the 2008 charge of discrimination, the plaintiff and Blount County DHR reached an agreement and entered into a Mediation Settlement Agreement regarding Charge No. 420-2008-03662 (the “Agreement”) on June 29, 2009. (Doc. 53-9). In the Agreement, the plaintiff agreed to submit an official request for accommodation along with a physician's diagnosis, and Blount County DHR agreed to transfer the plaintiff to an Intake Worker position at the Blount County office. (Id.) On June 18, 2009, the plaintiff submitted the Reasonable Accommodation Request contemplated in the Agreement, requesting a job transfer. The request was accompanied by a letter from Dr. Marla Black Morgan, which stated:

Mr. Brad Sims was seen for evaluation in the Neurology Clinic at the Kirklin Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. As a result of his evaluation, he was found to have evidence of widespread active and chronic denervation consistent with a neuropathy by electrophysiological testing. His symptoms historically have been progressive. Due to his condition, he has weakness and is limited in his ability to lift items and ambulate. He was advised to limit his walking and take frequent breaks. He is not to climb stairs, reach overhead or carry items over five pounds in weight.

(Doc. 53-7, p. 3). Parker recommended approval of the request, which would accommodate the plaintiff by allowing him to work primarily in the DHR office. Following the plaintiff's transfer to the position of “Intake Worker, ” however, DHR continued to require the plaintiff to perform “on-call” home visits.[3] He continued to perform the on-call home visits without complaint, as he only did so infrequently and only was “on-call” four to five weeks a year. (Sims Depo., doc. 53-16, pp. 80-81).

         The plaintiff's disease continued to worsen and, on July 11, 2013, he submitted another Reasonable Accommodation Request to Blount County DHR, requesting to be taken off all field-work duties requiring him to make home visits that required walking. (Doc. 53-8, p. 2). The plaintiff further stated that, although he had been transferred to Intake, he still was being required to do “on-call” duty, which involved field-work. (Doc. 53-8, p. 3). The plaintiff said that the failure to remove him from “on-call” lists was an “oversight” that did not abide by the spirit of the Mediation Agreement, and that, due to his worsening condition, he no longer was able to perform “on-call” duties, even though he was “on-call” infrequently. (Id.) The request also included statements from Dr. Zakir Kahn, a copy of the 2009 letter from Dr. Morgan, Dr. Morgan's notes, and a copy of both the Agreement and the plaintiff's request for accommodation from June 2009. (Doc. 53-8). Maria Dresser, Director of Blount County DHR at the time, discussed with the plaintiff his request when he brought the completed request form to her. (Dresser Depo., doc. 53-17, p. 38). She also conducted independent research about the symptoms of Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome. (Id. at 54).

         Ultimately, Dresser marked “recommended approval” on the request for reasonable accommodation. (Id. at 56). Dresser submitted her recommendation of approval to Desiree Jackson, the statewide Coordinator of the DHR Equal Employment Office, who, in turn, provided her recommendation to the DHR Commissioner, Nancy Buckner, that it be approved. The DHR Commissioner is the final decision-maker. Following Dresser's recommendation of approval, Jackson contacted the legal department to prepare an agreement to memorialize the accommodation. A Modified Settlement Agreement (the “Modified Agreement”) was created, and Dresser e-mailed a copy of the agreement to the plaintiff for his review on August 26, 2013. (Doc. 53-9, pp. 3-5). The Modified Agreement states that “Brad D. Sims is not required to perform on-call duties at BCDHR.” (Doc. 53-9, p. 4). The plaintiff replied, and, after making some modifications, Dresser replied to the plaintiff via e-mail that she would return the amended agreement to him when she received it. (Doc. 53-9, p. 2). Dresser made the modifications discussed and returned the agreement to the legal department for approval. After making the modifications, but prior to receiving a final document from the legal department or signing any agreement, Dresser was transferred to Calhoun County DHR. Prior to her departure and because she had not yet received the modified amended agreement, Dresser offered the plaintiff a transfer to the Food Assistance department at the same rate of pay. The plaintiff refused the transfer, as he believed that his request for accommodation was approved and all that was left to do was to sign the Modified Agreement and taking the transfer would cause him to lose seventeen years of seniority. (Sims Depo., doc. 53-16, pp. 131-133).

         Dresser was replaced as Director of Blount County DHR by Catherine Denard. When Denard began working as Director, Cheryl Helton, Sims' supervisor, disclosed to Denard that Sims had filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC against Blount County DHR in 2008 and that the EEOC charge was located in a “sealed” file marked “confidential.” (Denard Depo., doc. 53-18, pp. 108-109). Helton informed Denard that the plaintiff had received his Intake position following the 2008 EEOC charge and that Helton “didn't like” that the plaintiff had filed an EEOC charge against Blount County DHR. (Id. at pp. 114-116). On September 21, 2013, Denard wrote a letter to Desiree Jackson at ADHR, stating that she did not recommend the approval of the plaintiff's request to be taken off of “on-call” duty. (Doc. 53-10). Denard noted in her letter that on September 13, 2013, Dresser had offered the plaintiff a lateral transfer to the Food Assistance Program which would not have resulted in a pay decrease and would not have required field work and that the plaintiff refused the transfer. (Doc. 53-10, p. 3).

         The plaintiff received a letter, dated October 15, 2013, from K.C. Hendrix, Civil Rights Analyst for ADHR Office of Civil Rights/Equal Employment. (Doc. 53-12). The letter was signed and approved by Desiree Jackson, Director of ADHR Office of Civil Rights/Equal Employment. In the letter, Hendrix informed the plaintiff that his request for accommodation was denied because he had not established himself as a person with a disability and, assuming he did have a disability, home visits are essential job functions[4] that he must be able to perform with a reasonable accommodation to be considered a “qualified” person under the ADA. The plaintiff received a letter from Catherine Denard, Interim Director of Blount County DHR, dated November 26, 2013, stating that, in light of the denial of the plaintiff's request for accommodation, he had the option to take a voluntary demotion to a Financial Support Worker position at Blount County DHR, with a reduction in pay. Further, the plaintiff was given until December 6, 2013, to request the demotion, after which time an Administrative Hearing would be scheduled “to determine [the plaintiff's] continued employment with the agency.” (Doc. 53-13, p. 2). Alternatively, the plaintiff was told that he could resign. (Id.) On December 6, 2013, the plaintiff accepted the offered demotion, stating that he would be “filing for Disability Retirement from the Agency, effective February 1, 2014.” (Doc. 53-15). He stated in his letter that, based on Dennard's November 26 letter to him, he “had no choice” but to accept the demotion, but that he did so “reluctantly.” (Id.)

         On January 17, 2014, the plaintiff wrote a letter to Denard stating that he had applied and been approved for retirement from Blount County DHR on February 1, 2014. On February 18, 2014, the plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination against Blount County DHR with the EEOC, alleging violations of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

         The plaintiff's performance appraisals from 2008 were included in the plaintiff's evidentiary materials. In his Employee Performance Appraisal for August 1, 2008, to August 1, 2009, the plaintiff was rated as “exceeds standards, ” with a performance score of 34.33. The plaintiff was evaluated as a Social Service Caseworker. He was rated as “exceeds standards” again in his Employee Performance Appraisal from August 1, 2009, to August 1, 2010, with a performance score of 29. On August 17, 2010, the plaintiff received a Reprimand from Marcia Parker for campaigning on a social networking site during work hours and disclosing confidential DHR information. The plaintiff disputes that these actions occurred. The plaintiff again was rated as “exceeds standards” for the year of August 1, 2010, to August 1, 2011, with a performance score of 28.8. The following year, the plaintiff again was ranked as “exceeds standards, ” with the same performance score. The plaintiff received another reprimand, this time from Alicia Tolbert, on September 14, 2012, for referring a DHR client to an attorney and inquiring about payment arrangements for the client. The plaintiff again disputes that the actions occurred. The plaintiff's Rating Supervisor for his appraisal was Alicia Tolbert, and his Reviewing Supervisor was Cheryl Helton between 2008 and 2012. The plaintiff was rated as “exceeds standards” once again on his Employee Performance Appraisal for the year of August 1, 2012, to August 1, 2013, with a performance score of 28. His Rating Supervisor again was Alicia Tolbert, and his Reviewing Supervisor was Maria Dresser. The plaintiff was evaluated as a Social Service Caseworker for each year's appraisal.

         On March 19, 2014, Robin McNeal was “demoted, ” at her request, from Social Service Caseworker to Financial Support Worker. (Doc. 53-14). Her salary, however, remained the same. (Id.) According to the plaintiff, three other employees in the CPS division did not perform on-call home visits: Sue Smith, a caseworker; Debby Ethereidge, a caseworker; and Robert Burrough, a service supervisor. Denard stated in her deposition that, for a time after she became director of Blount County DHR, Burrough was not on the “on-call” rotation but that he “should have been” and was added back to the rotation.

         III. DISCUSSION

         In his Third Amended Complaint, the plaintiff raised the following claims:

I. Disability Discrimination in Violation of the Rehabilitation Act;
II. Failure to Provide Reasonable Accommodation in Violation of the ...

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