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Robinson v. Michelin North America, Inc.

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

December 4, 2018

REBECCA J. ROBINSON, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHELIN NORTH AMERICA, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER [1]

          SUSAN RUSS WALKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Rebecca J. Robinson brings this action against defendant Michelin North America, Inc. (“Michelin”), alleging employment discrimination and retaliation pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (“ADA”), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 42 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (“ADEA”). See Doc. 8.

         Defendant Michelin is a tire manufacturer. Plaintiff was employed by Michelin from July 27, 1998 until August 27, 2013. Doc. 24-4 at ¶ 14. She was hired to the position of “production operator, ” a tire builder position. Id. ¶ 16. Plaintiff was a tire builder and machine operator throughout her time as defendant's employee and held the “confection/finishing operator” job title from approximately 2003 until her termination from employment. Id. ¶¶ 17-18. This lawsuit concerns allegations of discrimination under the ADA for defendant's failure to accommodate plaintiff's disability and her wrongful termination, and allegations of retaliatory termination under the ADA, ADEA, and Title VII for plaintiff's bringing a discrimination charge against defendant with the EEOC. Doc. 8 ¶¶ 30-33, 38-41, 56-62.

         This action is presently before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment. See Doc. 22. Plaintiff filed an opposition to the motion for summary judgment, see Doc. 28, and defendant replied, see Doc. 29. Upon review of the motion and the record, the court concludes that defendant's motion for summary judgment is due to be granted.

         SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         A movant is entitled to summary judgment if it “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). For summary judgment purposes, an issue of fact is “material” if, under the substantive law governing the claim, its presence or absence might affect the outcome of the suit. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). If the movant fails to satisfy its initial burden, the motion for summary judgment will be denied. Kernel Records Oy v. Mosley, 694 F.3d 1294, 1300 (11th Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S.Ct. 1810 (2013). If the movant adequately supports its motion, the burden shifts to the opposing party to establish - “by producing affidavits or other relevant and admissible evidence beyond the pleadings” - specific facts raising a genuine issue for trial. Josendis v. Wall to Wall Residence Repairs, Inc., 662 F.3d 1292, 1315 (11th Cir. 2011); Dietz v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., 598 F.3d 812, 815 (11th Cir. 2010); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). “All affidavits [and declarations] must be based on personal knowledge and must set forth facts that would be admissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence[.]” Josendis, 662 F.3d at 1315; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(4). The court views the evidence and all reasonable factual inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Miller's Ale House, Inc. v. Boynton Carolina Ale House, LLC, 702 F.3d at 1315; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(4). However, “the nonmoving party ‘must do more than show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” and “[i]f the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Graham v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., 193 F.3d 1274, 1282 (11th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted). “If no reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue of material fact and summary judgment will be granted.” Morton v. Kirkwood, 707 F.3d 1276, 1284 (11th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         BACKGROUND AND UNDISPUTED FACTS[2]

         I. Material Facts Regarding Plaintiff's Employment

         Plaintiff was employed by Defendant from July 27, 1998 to August 27, 2013. Doc. 24-4 at ¶ 14. She worked as a machine operator and tire builder[3] during the entirety of her employment with Michelin. Doc. 24-1 at 8; Doc. 24-4 ¶ 17. Machine operator and tire builder jobs at the defendant's facility are labor-intensive and physically demanding. Doc. 24-4 ¶ ¶ 3, 6. Plaintiff's specific job title from 2003 until the termination of her employment was “confection/finishing operator, ” a position which involves significant lifting, pushing, and pulling, and frequent use of arms and hands to complete the job duties of the position. See Doc. 24-1 at 11, 22; Doc. 24-4 ¶¶ 17, 18. From approximately January 2012 to July 2012, plaintiff was placed on a temporary data entry assignment due to work restrictions resulting from an injury. Doc. 24-1 at 16; Doc. 24-4 ¶ 19. This temporary data assignment was not a formal position.[4] Doc. 24-4 ¶ 19. Plaintiff's employment was terminated on August 27, 2013, following a 12-month medical leave of absence, based on her inability to return to work as, or perform the essential job functions of, a confection finishing operator, an open and available machine operator and tire builder position, or any other comparable position. See Doc. 24-1 at 24-25; Doc. 24-4 ¶ 23; Doc. 24-5 ¶¶ 7, 9, 24, 25.

         II. Material Facts Regarding Plaintiff's Injury

         Plaintiff was injured on the job on June 27, 2011, which permanently limited her ability to carry large weights and lift objects. Doc 28-1 ¶ 3; Doc. 24-4 ¶ 23; Doc. 24-5 ¶¶ 5, 24. After her injury, Plaintiff was unable to perform the machine operator job and was immediately placed on work restriction. Doc. 24-1 at 14; Doc. 24-5 ¶ 7. Between June 2011 and July 2012, plaintiff experienced no improvement in her condition, and she had elbow surgery in July 2012. Doc. 24-1 at 15. She underwent a second elbow surgery in November 2012. Id. Plaintiff continued to experience pain, and her work restrictions remained the same after both surgeries. Id. at 17. Between August 2012 and January 2013, plaintiff had a significant amount of pain, regularly visited the doctor, and was unable to work as a tire builder/machine operator. Id. at 19-20. She did not experience any improvement in her medical condition between January and March 2013. Id. at 20. Although plaintiff had some improvement in April and May of 2013, she continued to have significant pain through August 2013, when her employment with defendant was terminated. See Id. at 23-24.

         III. Material Facts Regarding Plaintiff's Ability to Perform the Essential Functions of the Confection/Finishing Operator Position

         As a confection/finishing operator, otherwise known as a machine operator and tire builder, plaintiff “was responsible for operating a tire building machine, and loading and assembling various ‘input' products into tires that were being manufactured.” Doc. 24-4 ¶ 18. Plaintiff's June 2011 injury resulted in her being unable to perform her job duties as a machine operator and tire builder. Doc. 24-1 at 14, 17, 19; Doc. 24-5 ¶ 7. A Functional Capacity Evaluation (“FCE”) conducted on March 7, 2013 determined that Plaintiff did not meet the identified strength classification needed to fulfill the physical demands of the machine operator position. Doc 24-1 at 21-22, 54-55. At all times between her injury and termination, plaintiff remained on work restriction and was not able to perform the job requirements of a machine operator or tire builder. Doc. 24-1 at 24-25; Doc. 24-5 ¶ 24; Doc. 24-4 ¶ 23.

         IV. Material Facts Regarding Defendant's 12-Month Leave of Absence

         The relevant section of defendant's medical leave of absence policy states that:

Employees on leave for longer than twelve (12) weeks may be permanently replaced and reassigned depending on business necessity (i.e., the nature of their current job, required training period, etc.) and applicable legal requirements. If the Company protects an employee's job during a Medical Leave that exceeds or is otherwise not covered by FLA, the Company is doing so as an accommodation under applicable law. … The maximum duration of any Medical Leave of Absence for regular, full-time employees is typically twelve (12) months. … [i]f a regular, full-time employee is unable to return to a full-time, regular job at the end of a twelve month period, employment may be terminated.

Doc. 24-1 at 44-45.

         Plaintiff applied for and was approved for a medical leave of absence on August 21, 2012. Doc. 24-1 at 53; Doc. 24-5 ¶ 7; Doc. 24-4 ¶ 21. When plaintiff applied for leave, she understood that her employment could be terminated if she was unable to return to work after 12 months. Doc. 24-1 at 18, 19, 25. Between August 2012 and August 2013, while plaintiff was on leave, plaintiff neither contacted defendant to ask to return to work in any capacity, nor did she inform defendant that she would be able to return to work at any point. Doc. 24-1 at 20-25; Doc. 24-5 ¶ 9. Plaintiff testified that she was not able to return to work as a tire builder or otherwise at the conclusion of her medical leave of absence, consistent with the medical evaluations she had received. Doc. 24-1 at 25. When plaintiff spoke with Roy Speights, area personnel manager for defendant, at the end of her medical leave, plaintiff stated that her condition was worsening. Id.; Doc. 24-5 ¶¶ 21, 25. Plaintiff did not request additional leave, and did not indicate that she would be able to return to work in the future. Id. at ¶ 9.

         During plaintiff's medical leave of absence, she never asked to return to work in any capacity and did not request any accommodations in order to allow her to return to work or perform her essential job functions. Id. at ¶ 9. Yet, over the course of plaintiff's leave of absence period, defendant continued to evaluate plaintiff's suitability for open and available machine operator and tire builder positions.

         In March 2013, defendant asked plaintiff's treating physician to evaluate her for her suitability for three open positions based on her work restrictions and FCE results: the Fischer Windup operator position, the FE Complexor operator position, and the confection/finishing operator position.[5] Doc. 24-5 ¶¶ 10, 11. See also Doc. 24-1 at 22-23. Upon evaluation of the work requirements, plaintiff's physician determined that plaintiff would not be able to perform the FE Complexor operator or confection/finishing operator roles, and plaintiff may be able to perform the Fischer Windup operator position with some modification and additional equipment. Doc. 24-5 at ¶ 12. However, by the time defendant received the physician's determination, the Fischer Windup operator position had been filled due to business necessity and was no longer available. Id. ΒΆΒΆ 13-14. In May 2013, ...


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