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Tuck v. Esper

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

August 7, 2018

DEMETRIUS TUCK, Plaintiff,
v.
MARK T. ESPER, Secretary of the Army, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This employment discrimination matter is before the court on Defendant Mark T. Esper's (the “Army”) motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 20). Plaintiff Demetrius Tuck, a former mechanic at the Army Depot in Anniston, Alabama, asserts that a mid-level manager at the Depot, who harbored a dislike for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, devised a conspiracy to strip him of his employment. Mr. Tuck brings his claims primarily under the Rehabilitation Act, and he specifically alleges disparate treatment, failure to accommodate, retaliation, and hostile work environment. The Army moves for summary judgment on all of Mr. Tuck's claims.

         Accused by coworkers of making violent threats and of sexual harassment, Mr. Tuck fails to bring forward the necessary evidence to substantiate his broad allegations. As to his failure-to-accommodate claim, Mr. Tuck failed to show that he requested a reasonable accommodation for his disability. The court will GRANT the Army's motion for summary judgment in all respects. The court discusses the specific factual and legal reasons for its conclusion in more detail below.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Mr. Tuck filed this employment discrimination lawsuit on January 3, 2017, alleging disparate treatment based on disability (Count 1); failure to accommodate a disability (Count 2); retaliation for complaining about disability and racial discrimination (Count 3); interference with leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (Count 4); hostile work environment (Count 5); and violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count 6). Mr. Tuck premised his claims on violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 706, et seq, and the FMLA, 26 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1). Mr. Tuck based his retaliation claim on his complaints to the EEOC, which included racial discrimination claims alongside his disability discrimination claims. Mr. Tuck's retaliation claim thus implicates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, as well as the Rehabilitation Act.

         The Army moved to dismiss many of Mr. Tuck's claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Specifically, the Army moved to dismiss all of Mr. Tuck's claims brought under the ADA, the FMLA, § 1983, and certain sections of the Rehabilitation Act.

         This court granted the Army's motion, leaving Mr. Tuck's claim in Count 1 for disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act; his claim in Count 2 for failure to accommodate a disability under the Rehabilitation Act; his claim in Count 3 for retaliation under Title VII and the Rehabilitation Act; and his claim in Count 5 for constructive discharge under the Rehabilitation Act. (Doc. 11). The Army now moves for summary judgment on those remaining claims.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is an integral part of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Summary judgment allows a trial court to decide cases when no genuine issues of material fact are present and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. When a district court reviews a motion for summary judgment, it must determine two things: (1) whether any genuine issues of material fact exist; and if not, (2) whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

         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.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56). The moving party can meet this burden by offering evidence showing no dispute of material fact or by showing that the non-moving party's evidence fails to prove an essential element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Id. at 322-23.

         Once the moving party meets its burden of showing the district court that no genuine issues of material fact exist, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party “to demonstrate that there is indeed a material issue of fact that precludes summary judgment.” Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). In reviewing the evidence submitted, the court must “view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden, ” to determine whether the nonmoving party presented sufficient evidence on which a jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 254 (1986); Cottle v. Storer Commc'n, Inc., 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir. 1988). Furthermore, the court must view all evidence and inferences drawn from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Graham v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., 193 F.3d 1274, 1282 (11th Cir. 1999).

         FACTS

         In June 2006, the Army hired Demetrius Tuck, a veteran, as a “General Equipment Helper” at the Anniston Army Depot, which provides maintenance services for various military vehicles. Mr. Tuck's final position with the Army was “heavy mobile mechanic, ” with his primary task being mechanical work on various parts of the Stryker armored personnel carrier.

         In March 2012, a Veterans Affairs physician diagnosed Mr. Tuck with depression and possible post-traumatic stress disorder. (Doc. 29 ¶ 5). Two years later, in May 2014, Mr. Tuck underwent a “formal” test for PTSD, and a month after that, in June 2014, a doctor “formally” diagnosed Mr. Tuck with PTSD. Although the parties dispute whether and when Mr. Tuck's supervisors knew he had PTSD, the court assumes in this Opinion that Mr. Tuck's supervisors were aware that Mr. Tuck had PTSD-or regarded Mr. Tuck as having PTSD-at all relevant times.

         Until his 2015 retirement, Mr. Tuck worked as a rank-and-file member of four- or five-person teams maintaining vehicles or specific components of vehicles. A supervisor directly managed several teams and a “Division Chief” managed those supervisors. In addition, each team had a “lead, ” who acted essentially as the foreperson of the team.

         Mr. Tuck's allegations begin in 2012, when the Army assigned David Funderberg as Division Chief for the teams working on the Stryker vehicle during Mr. Tuck's shift. Mr. Funderberg began overseeing the supervisors who oversaw Mr. Tuck. Mr. Tuck offers disjointed evidence about a multitude of alleged events between 2012 and 2015 that ultimately led to his retirement. The court next sets out only the most relevant of these events in chronological order.

         1. Improper Use of Leave

         On April 19, 2012, the Army issued to Mr. Tuck a “letter” instructing him on the proper use of leave. (Doc. 20-2 at 20). The letter stated that Mr. Tuck had used leave excessively and in a way that suggested he required counseling on the proper use of leave. The letter also imposed additional requirements on Mr. Tuck in requesting leave. Mr. Tuck testified that he received “two” or “three” of these letters during his time with the Army, although he did not say at what point in his career the other counseling letters came.

         In his deposition, Mr. Tuck acknowledged that he did not always follow the proper procedure for requesting leave, which required that the employee submit a written form and request. Mr. Tuck maintained, however, that the regular practice at the Depot was to orally request and receive time off from supervisors, and he asserted that only Mr. Funderberg saw his use of leave as a problem. However, Mr. Tuck's supervisors testified that Mr. Tuck was unable to consistently arrive at work on time.

         2. 2012 & 2013 Performance Evaluations

         In August 2012, Mr. Tuck received a “4” on his yearly work-performance evaluation, which uses an inverted scale with “1” being the highest rating and “5” being the lowest rating. At the Depot, a “4” rating was not satisfactory and required counseling and correction. Mr. Tuck's performance review specifically noted that Mr. Tuck needed to improve coming to work on time and scheduling leave. (Doc. 20-23 at 2). Mr. Tuck corrected his leave and absenteeism issues over the next year and received a “2” on his 2013 evaluation. (Doc. 29 ¶ 30). Mr. Funderberg approved both ratings.

         3. Insubordination Incident

         In April 2014, a team “lead, ” Jeff Phillips, accused Mr. Tuck of insubordination. Mr. Phillips ordered Mr. Tuck to place tarps on some vehicles. Mr. Tuck refused because a supervisor had directed him to perform another task.

         Mr. Tuck incorrectly believed that team “leads” lacked authority to give commands to rank-and-file employees, describing them in his deposition as “assistant[s] to the supervisor.” (Doc. 20-2 at 39) (emphasis added). Because, in Mr. Tuck's mind, Mr. Phillips was merely an assistant to the supervisor, Mr. Tuck did not believe that Mr. Phillips could give him commands.

         Mr. Phillips, who, in fact, did have the authority to give commands to subordinates, did not just accuse Mr. Tuck of insubordination. In addition, Mr. Phillips reported that Mr. Tuck suggested a physical fight in addition to refusing the order. Mr. Tuck denied that allegation.

         4. Sexual Harassment Allegation

         In May 2014, [1] Teresa Bradford, another coworker, accused Mr. Tuck of two incidents of sexual harassment occurring on or around the same day. (See Doc. 20-13). First, Ms. Bradford stated that Mr. Tuck had asked her whether her husband was around at night with the implication that Mr. Tuck would be available in a romantic capacity for Ms. Bradford in her husband's absence. Second, Ms. Bradford asserted that Mr. Tuck had asked about her preferences in “nuts, ” a statement taken by Ms. Bradford as sexual innuendo.

         Mr. Tuck did not deny making the statements, but rather denied that either statement constituted sexual harassment. In his deposition, for example, Mr. Tuck testified that could not have meant either statement as sexual innuendo because Ms. Bradford, who was in her 50s, was “elderly.” (Doc. 20-2 at 32). Mr. Tuck further testified that he thought Ms. Bradford fabricated her outrage to extend her temporary employment to permanent employment and to please her husband, who also worked at the Anniston Army Depot and who, according to Mr. Tuck, had a “great relationship” with Mr. Funderberg. (Doc. 20-2 at 33).

         While the Army investigated Ms. Bradford's allegations, Mr. Funderberg moved Mr. Tuck to a different team in a different building on the Anniston Army Depot campus.

         5. Alleged Death Threat

         In early June 2014, another coworker, Corey Murphy, accused Mr. Tuck of threatening to kill him and his family during a phone call after hours and off the Depot's premises. The testimony on how and why the incident arose was unclear and lacked context meaningful to the court. In any event, Mr. Tuck felt it necessary to speak to Mr. Murphy on the phone after work. Mr. Murphy, however, did not want to talk to or meet with Mr. Tuck about their unstated issue. Mr. Tuck nevertheless continued to try to talk with Mr. Murphy, and, during one phone call, allegedly threatened to kill Mr. Murphy and his family.

         Mr. Murphy contacted the police about the incident, but told police that he only wanted the incident documented. (See doc. 21-2 at 2). When informed about the alleged death threat, Depot security officers escorted Mr. Tuck from his work site to the Depot's counselor, Boyd Scoggins, who questioned Mr. Tuck about the allegations. Satisfied that Mr. Tuck did not present a threat to himself or others, Mr. Scoggins allowed Mr. Tuck to leave and return to his job.

         Mr. Tuck maintained that he did not threaten to kill Mr. Murphy or his family during the phone call. In his deposition, Mr. Tuck testified that he believed Mr. Murphy fabricated the allegation because of his supposed familial relation to Mr. Funderberg, although Mr. Tuck also said that he understood that Mr. Murphy and Mr. Funderberg were not friendly with each other. Mr. Tuck further added his belief that “jealously” and “hate” could have motivated Mr. Murphy to accuse him, and he agreed that Mr. Murphy's complaint may have been “just personal.” (Doc. 20-2 at 39).

         6. Initial EEOC Contact & Union Representative's Meeting ...


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