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Lane v. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency

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

September 30, 2019

LINDA LANE, Plaintiff,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, MISSILE DEFENSE AGENCY, Dr. Mark T. Esper, Secretary of Defense, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Linda Lane contends that the Department of Defense Missile Defense Agency discriminated against her because she is disabled and retaliated against her after she reported acts of discrimination.[1] Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Secretary of Defense has asked the Court to enter judgment in the Department’s favor on Ms. Lane’s claims. According to the Secretary, there is no genuine dispute of fact as to whether the Department of Defense Missile Defense Agency suspended and terminated Ms. Lane because of her disability or in retaliation for filing an EEO complaint. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court grants the Secretary’s motion for summary judgment in part.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         “The court shall grant summary judgment 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). To demonstrate that there is a genuine dispute as to a material fact that precludes summary judgment, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment must cite “to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). “The court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3). When considering a summary judgment motion, a district court must view the evidence in the record and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Asalde v. First Class Parking Sys. LLC, 898 F.3d 1136, 1138 (11th Cir. 2018). Accordingly, the Court presents the evidence in the light most favorable to Ms. Lane.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Ms. Lane’s Employment History with MDA and Ms. Lane’s Reasonable Accommodations

         Ms. Lane worked as a contract specialist for the Department of Defense Missile Defense Agency (MDA) at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. (Doc. 68-1, p. 11, tp. 41; Doc. 68-1, p. 12, tp. 45). She was responsible for evaluating contractor proposals, negotiating the government’s contract position, and preparing written documentation for contract files. (Doc. 74-8, p. 3).

         In 2009, while working for MDA, Ms. Lane began suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks. (Doc. 68-1, p. 28, tp. 108). Ms. Lane did not request a formal accommodation until November of 2012. (Doc. 74-9, pp. 1-6).

         In October 2011, Ms. Lane’s supervisors recorded her absence from a mandatory contract course. (Doc. 74-49, p. 1). After Ms. Lane missed the class, her second-level supervisor, Barnett Klehman, stated in an email to Ms. Lane’s other MDA supervisors: “Either she is mentally ill (which I think is a definite possibility), or she is trying to manipulate the system.” (Doc. 74-49, p. 1). Mr. Klehman added: “We need to start the official documentation trail; at this point there is no longer any reason to try to help this employee, and we need to be prepared for a long and arduous process leading to separation.” (Doc. 74-49, p. 1).

         Several months later, Mr. Klehman said to Ms. Lane, “Good luck on getting your next 10 years.” (Doc. 74-26, p. 13, ¶ 14). Ms. Lane perceived Mr. Klehman’s comment as a direct threat to her employment with MDA. (Doc. 74-26, p. 13, ¶ 14). In June 2013, Masha Thornton replaced Mr. Klehman as Ms. Lane’s second-level supervisor. (Doc. 68-17, p. 2).

         Meanwhile, in March of 2012, Marie Hickox became Ms. Lane’s first-level supervisor. (Doc. 68-1, p. 12, tp. 45). In September 2012, Ms. Hickox emailed Ms. Lane’s other supervisors and requested a “Record-Discussion” about Ms. Lane. (Doc. 74-35, p. 1). Ms. Hickox stated that Ms. Lane “ha[d] performed satisfactorily” but was beginning “a downhill slide, ” and “[t]here is a concern that she is unstable.” (Doc. 74-35, p. 1). Ms. Lane contends that Ms. Hickox encouraged her to leave MDA. (Doc. 74-12, p. 2).

         On November 7, 2012, Ms. Lane requested a reasonable accommodation for her disabilities via a form prepared by her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Regina Doody. (Doc. 74-9, pp. 1-6). Dr. Doody diagnosed Ms. Lane with panic disorder, ADHD, and depression. (Doc. 74-9, p. 1). Dr. Doody reported that because of anxiety and panic attacks, Ms. Lane found it difficult to function in the office environment, perceived MDA as a hostile work environment, and desired the option to telecommute for her job and perform her work duties from home when necessary because of panic attacks and anxiety. (Doc. 74-9, p. 2). Dr. Doody reported that Ms. Lane “states she is intermittently incapacitated to leave home for work” because of anxiety and panic attacks. (Doc. 74-9, p. 5).

         On November 27, 2012, Ms. Hickox and the MDA disability program manager, Denise Walker, granted Ms. Lane the accommodations of telework (Ms. Lane could request to work remotely when necessary), a flexitour (ability to work credit hours to accumulate leave), and modified requirements for requesting sick leave (Ms. Lane could call in sick at any time before 1:00 p.m.). (Doc. 74-13, p. 1). In a memorandum memorializing a meeting that she attended with Ms. Lane and Ms. Walker, Ms. Hickox wrote that Ms. Lane must be able to perform the essential functions of her position from home. (Doc. 74-13, p. 1).

         Beginning in January 2013, Ms. Lane teleworked almost every day. (Doc. 74-10, p. 14, tp. 51). Ms. Lane reported to Redstone approximately once every two weeks to perform duties that required her to be in the office. (Doc. 74-10, p. 22). On January 18, 2013, Ms. Lane filed an EEO complaint. (Doc. 74-46, p. 5; Doc. 68-1, p. 15, tp. 56). Ms. Lane amended her complaint four times, and her complaint was investigated from September 17, 2013, to April 15, 2014. (Doc. 74-46, p. 5).

         On April 26, 2013, Ms. Lane met with Ms. Hickox and Ms. Walker. (Doc. 74-10, p. 15, tpp. 54-55; Doc. 74-15, pp. 1-4). Ms. Lane informed them that telework worked for her and that she wanted to telework as much as possible. (Doc. 74-10, p. 15, tp. 55). In a memorandum memorializing the meeting, Ms. Hickox wrote that she had approved Ms. Lane’s telework in January 2013 “with the understanding from [Ms. Lane] that it would be irregular and infrequent.” (Doc. 74-15, p. 1). Ms. Hickox and Ms. Walker informed Ms. Lane that MDA needed her to transition back into working at the office for the majority of her work schedule. (Doc. 74-15, p. 1). Accordingly, Ms. Lane came to the office one day the first week after the meeting, two days the second week, three days the third week, and then four days the fourth week. (Doc. 74-15, p. 1). Ms. Lane was supposed to work in the office full-time by June 10, 2013. (Doc. 75-15, p. 1).

         On Friday, June 7, 2013, Ms. Lane submitted a note from Dr. Doody dated May 29, 2013, in which Dr. Doody stated, “I am the treating physician for [Ms. Lane]. I am requesting that Ms. Lane be allowed to work from home for the next eight weeks due to her complaint of experiencing some episodes of anxiety and panic attacks.” (Doc. 74-16, p. 1). Ms. Lane also submitted a note from her chiropractor, Martin Bryant, D.C., in which Dr. Bryant stated, “I have recommended [Ms. Lane] not be required to lift more than 2 pounds” because of neck pain, back pain, and headaches. (Doc. 74-17, p. 1). Ms. Hickox denied Ms. Lane’s request to telework for eight weeks. (Doc. 74-18, p. 1). In a memorandum provided to Ms. Lane, Ms. Hickox explained that she denied the request because she believed Ms. Lane’s previously approved accommodations were sufficient, the May 29, 2013 note from Dr. Doody did not demonstrate a nexus between Ms. Lane’s disability and the accommodation specifically requested, and the note did not describe the functional limitations that interfered with Ms. Lane’s ability to perform her essential duties. (Doc. 74-18, p. 1). Ms. Hickox approved Ms. Lane’s request for a lifting restriction of two pounds. (Doc. 74-18, p. 1). Ms. Hickox and Ms. Walker did not confer with Ms. Lane before denying her request for eight weeks of telework. (Doc. 74-10, p. 16, tpp. 59-60).

         On August 3, 2013, Ms. Lane reported to Ms. Hickox via email that Ms. Lane’s ex-husband, David Lane, who worked at Redstone, stalked Ms. Lane in the parking lot. (Doc. 74-20, pp. 5-6). Ms. Hickox responded, “I will find out and let you know what, if anything, I can do about the incident.” (Doc. 74-20, p. 5). Ms. Lane responded,

I don’t appreciate you asking me yesterday whether I was still taking my medication. I found that very offensive. . . . Due to this incident I am requesting to once again work from home and away from what I perceive as a hostile work environment.

(Doc. 74-20, p. 5). In another email, Ms. Lane stated, “I don’t being [sic] asked by you whether I am taking my meds.” (Doc. 74-20, p. 4). And in another email, Ms. Lane stated, “your first question to me was ‘You haven’t been taking your medication lately have you?’ I find that very insulting.” (Doc. 74-20, p. 3). Throughout these emails, Ms. Lane requested telework, advanced annual or sick leave under the FMLA, or administrative leave. (Doc. 74-20, pp. 3-5). Ms. Hickox explained to Ms. Lane the process for requesting FMLA leave and for documenting the stalking incident. (Doc. 74-20, pp. 2-3). Ms. Hickox informed Ms. Lane that Redstone security would investigate the stalking incident and provide an escort for Ms. Lane to and from the parking lot. (Doc. 74-20, p. 2). Ms. Lane responded, “it’s almost laughable that MDA will conduct a fruitful investigation” because, according to Ms. Lane, MDA previously had covered up misconduct against her, destroyed her career, accused her of imagining the stalking, and humiliated her. (Doc. 74-20, p. 1).

         After this email exchange, Ms. Lane submitted to Ms. Walker an FMLA form requesting telework and a doctor’s note. (Doc. 74-23, p. 1; Doc. 74-21; Doc. 74-22). Ms. Hickox issued a memorandum denying Ms. Lane’s request to telework. (Doc. 74-23, p. 1). Ms. Hickox wrote:

I am not willing to grant this accommodation because I believe the previously approved accommodations are sufficient to reasonably accommodate your disability. Certain parts of your duties require your presence in the office. Further, based on the September 12, 2013 doctor’s FMLA form your doctor did not recommend 100% telework; therefore I am not willing to approve you for 100% telework.

(Doc. 74-23, p. 1). Ms. Hickox requested bi-weekly meetings with Ms. Lane “in order to review the situation and maintain an open line of communication.” (Doc. 74-23, p. 1).

         On October 17, 2013, Ms. Lane learned that she and a fellow contracting officer, Glenda Heard, would be participating together in a contracting class required for Ms. Lane’s position. (Doc. 74-27, p. 6). A year earlier, Ms. Lane had accused Ms. Heard of threatening to cut her. (Doc. 74-4, p. 11, tpp. 142-43). Ms. Lane asked Ms. Hickox if “there [was] any chance that [she] might be assigned at a later date” and indicated that she would have a panic attack if she encountered Ms. Heard. (Doc. 74-27, pp. 5-6).[2] Ms. Hickox denied the request. (Doc. 74-27, p. 6). Ms. Lane missed the class. (Doc. 74-27, p. 5).

         Ms. Lane submitted a note from Dr. Doody dated October 23, 2013. (Doc. 74-24). In the note, Dr. Doody stated that Ms. Lane reported experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms and panic. (Doc. 74-24, p. 1). Dr. Doody requested that MDA permit Ms. Lane to telework “whenever possible until January 2, 2014.” (Doc. 74-24, p. 1). Ms. Lane submitted another note from Dr. Doody in which Dr. Doody requested that MDA permit Ms. Lane to telework until December 1, 2013. (Doc. 74-28, p. 1). Ms. Hickox denied the requests because she believed the accommodations already provided were sufficient. (Doc. 74-29, p. 1).

         On December 16, 2013, Ms. Hickox proposed suspending Ms. Lane for three days for failure to follow directions to attend the contracting class. (Doc. 74-30, p. 1). In a memorandum of proposed suspension, Ms. Hickox stated that Ms. Lane failed to attend the class required for her position and did not submit medical documentation to excuse her absence as instructed. (Doc. 74-30, p. 1). Ms. Hickox stated that Dr. Doody’s note was insufficient because it did not reference Ms. Lane’s failure to attend the class. (Doc. 74-30, p. 1). Ms. Thornton sustained the charges and suspended Ms. Lane from January 21 to January 23, 2014. (Doc. 74-40, p. 1).

         Leave in January and February 2014

         At 8:04 a.m. on January 28, 2014, Ms. Lane sent Ms. Hickox an email explaining, “since it’s snowing outside in Athens and Huntsville right now, I’m requesting telework today. I plan to finish my pre-class assignment on Bundling which requires a paper and power point presentation which is due on 3 February. Please advise your approval.” (Doc. 74-31, p. 9). Ms. Hickox responded, “I have not been made aware of any road closures and the base is open as usual. Before I approve for this reason, please let me know if there are any announced road closures. Otherwise, you need to report to the office.” (Doc. 74-31, p. 9). At 9:15 a.m., Ms. Lane responded, “[n]o road closures. Working from home will allow me to work on this assignment and hopefully complete it today. Please advise.” (Doc. 74-31, p. 9). Ms. Hickox responded, “[s]ee previous email below, ” referring to her first response. (Doc. 74-31, p. 8). At 9:27 a.m., Ms. Lane responded, “I believe you approved me for telework on a situational basis and now [are] refusing this request. Please provide your rationale for disallowing this telework request.” (Doc. 74-31, p. 8). Ms. Lane questioned whether Ms. Hickox refused the telework request in retaliation for a prior EEO complaint that Ms. Lane filed against Ms. Hickox and Ms. Thornton. (Doc. 74-31, p. 8). Ms. Lane stated, “I’m requesting that I be allowed to work from home due to the hostile environment that I work in which is directly related to the ongoing anxiety I’m now coping with.” (Doc. 74-31, p. 8). Ms. Hickox denied the request again because the MDA office was open, and the roads were clear. (Doc. 74-31, p. 8).

At 11:15 a.m., in a message to Ms. Hickox, Ms. Lane stated,
I don’t think you understand. I’m just not able to come in. How you and Ms. Thornton have treated me is nothing more than retaliation. I’m asking you again to allow me to work from home. The stress is unreasonable for ...

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