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Horn v. Tuscaloosa County Commission

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

May 22, 2019



          L. Scott Coogler United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Defendant, Tuscaloosa County Commission (the “County's”), motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 24.) The Motion has been briefed and is ripe for review. For the reasons stated below, the County's motion (doc. 24) for summary judgment is due to be granted.

         I. Background [1]

         Plaintiff Jerimiah Van Horn (“Van Horn”) was hired as a Detention Officer at the Tuscaloosa County Jail in September 2014. At the time he was hired, Van Horn had coronary heart disease and two stents in his heart, but had no physical restrictions due to this condition.

         The Detention Officer position at the Tuscaloosa County Jail has the following duties: supervising and keeping order among prisoners; taking periodic counts; maintaining constant watch for and reporting unusual conditions or disturbances; taking required action in emergencies to prevent escapes or suppress disorder; and checking prisoners in the jail. (Van Horn Depo. at Ex. 3.) Due to the nature of these tasks, Detention Officers are required to have the “[a]bility to control inmates individually and in groups. . . [and] [f]reedom from physical defects, particularly in hearing, vision or members to enable quick action and movement in the custody of inmates.” (Id.)

         As part of his job as a Detention Officer, Van Horn had to interact with the inmates he was guarding. For example, in February 2015, Van Horn suffered a shoulder injury when he had to perform a takedown of an inmate. On October 11, 2015, Van Horn experienced chest pains after he was forced to perform a takedown of a combative inmate. Due to these chest pains, Van Horn went to see his doctor. Van Horn's doctor advised him not to work the following two days. On October 16, 2015, Van Horn went to see a cardiologist about his chest pains. Three days later Van Horn underwent a cardiac catheterization with a stenting procedure. Van Horn's doctor released him to return to “light duty” starting on October 26, 2015. The exact terms of Van Horn's “light duty” release is unclear from the record. Van Horn's doctor's note does indicate that side effects from the catheterization procedure included limitations in Van Horn's ability to stand for long periods of time. (Van Horn Depo. at Ex. 4.)Van Horn also testified at his deposition that as part of this “light duty” release he was instructed not to do any lifting, or prolonged walking or standing. (Id. at 77-79.) Van Horn testified that his “light duty” restrictions required him to be put into a position that limited involvement with inmates.

         Although he was cleared for “light duty, ” Van Horn was told by the Sheriff's Office and County Administrator that there was no “light duty” position for a Detention Officer. Van Horn was told that he would need to be released for full duty before he could return to work. According to Van Horn, the County told him that “pretty much the females . . . get the no contact positions.” (Id. at 81-82.) Van Horn asserts that female Detention Officers at the Tuscaloosa County Jail were assigned to duties where there was less likelihood of inmate contact as they switched places with Detention Officers in the control room during inmate counts, and did not have to push laundry carts.[2]

         According to Van Horn an officer in the control room has limited inmate interaction. However, the record does not contain any evidence indicating whether a posting in the control room was a permanent assignment, an assignment that Detention Officers rotated through, or a stand-alone position. According to Van Horn, Detention Officers in the control room do not have to walk for prolonged periods, stand for prolonged periods, or do heavy lifting. During emergencies, Detention Officers who are inside the control room are instructed to remain in the control room. At one time, Chief Deputy Eric Bailey (“Chief Bailey”), who oversees operations at the Tuscaloosa County Jail, acted on his own initiative to place a female Detention Officer in her third trimester of pregnancy in the control room because there was less chance of involvement with inmates in the control room. (Bailey Depo. at 37-38.)

         Due to Van Horn's inability to return to full duty, the County Administrator applied FMLA leave to Van Horn's absences through the remainder of 2015. The County then restarted Van Horn's 12 weeks of FMLA leave on January 1, 2016 because Van Horn was still not cleared to return to full duty. Van Horn had not been cleared to return to full duty when his FMLA leave expired at the end of March 2016. Pursuant to County policy, Van Horn was given an additional three days of leave. When Van Horn was still unable to return to work, he was terminated effective April 4, 2016. On April 18, 2016, the County sent a letter to Van Horn explaining that he had been terminated for exhausting his leave.

         Prior to his termination, Van Horn inquired about other possible positions within the County jail, including a clerk position and process server position. Van Horn was informed that he would have to apply for these positions and sit for a certain tests pursuant to Civil Service Board policies. These Civil Service Board policies prevented the County from unilaterally reassigning Van Horn to the clerk or process server positions. To date, Van Horn has not been released for full duty.

         II. Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate “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). A dispute is genuine if “the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party.” Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., Inc., 357 F.3d 1256, 1260 (11th Cir. 2004). A genuine dispute as to a material fact exists “if the nonmoving party has produced evidence such that a reasonable factfinder could return a verdict in its favor.” Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomms., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Assocs., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001)). The trial judge should not weigh the evidence, but determine whether there are any genuine issues of fact that should be resolved at trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, trial courts must give deference to the non-moving party by “view[ing] the materials presented and all factual inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Animal Legal Def. Fund v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 789 F.3d 1206, 1213-14 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)). However, “unsubstantiated assertions alone are not enough to withstand a motion for summary judgment.” Rollins v. TechSouth, Inc., 833 F.2d 1525, 1529 (11th Cir. 1987). Conclusory allegations and “mere scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party will not suffice to overcome a motion for summary judgment.” Melton v. Abston, 841 F.3d 1207, 1219 (11th Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, Fla., 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004)). In making a motion for summary judgment, “the moving party has the burden of either negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's case or showing that there is no evidence to prove a fact necessary to the nonmoving party's case.” McGee v. Sentinel Offender Servs., LLC, 719 F.3d 1236, 1242 (11th Cir. 2013). Although the trial courts must use caution when granting motions for summary judgment, “[s]ummary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986).

         III. Discussion

         The only claims pending before this Court are Van Horn's disability discrimination claims.[3] Van Horn alleges that the County violated both the ADA and Rehabilitation Act by (1) failing to accommodate him, and (2) terminating him. The County asserts that summary judgment should be granted in its favor because Van Horn is not a qualified individual with a disability.[4] Because the Court agrees that Van Horn is not a qualified individual with a disability, summary judgment is due to be granted.

         The Eleventh Circuit applies “the burden-shifting analysis of Title VII employment discrimination claims” to ADA discrimination claims as well as Rehabilitation Act claims. Holly v. Clairson Indus., L.L.C.,492 F.3d 1247, 1255 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Earl v. Mervyns, Inc., 207 F.3d 1361, 1365 (11th Cir. 2000)); Durley v. APAC, Inc., 236 F.3d 651, 657 (11th Cir. 2000) (ADA); Sutton v. Lader, 185 F.3d 1203, 1208 n.5 (11th Cir. 1999) (Rehabilitation Act). Under McDonnell Douglas, the plaintiff carries the initial burden of producing circumstantial evidence sufficient to prove a prima facie case of discrimination. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973); see also Schoenfeld v. Babbitt, 168 F.3d 1257, 1267 (11th Cir. 1999). If the plaintiff meets his initial burden of establishing a prima facie case, the burden of production shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Trask v. Sec'y, Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 822 F.3d 1179, 1191 (11th Cir. ...

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