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Vaughn v. Fedex Freight, Inc.

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

October 10, 2019

GREGORY J. VAUGHN, Plaintiff,
v.
FEDEX FREIGHT, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Gregory J. Vaughn asserts claims against his employer, FedEx Freight, Inc., for purported violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Allegedly, FedEx regarded Vaughn as disabled after he attempted suicide and discriminated against him based on that perceived disability by unilaterally prohibiting Vaughn from working as a road driver for one year following the incident and by not preserving his job class seniority during that year. Doc. 1. Vaughn also asserts that FedEx retaliated against him after he complained about the discrimination. Id. FedEx moves for summary judgment, arguing that Vaughn cannot establish a prima facie case of discrimination or retaliation, or show that the reasons for its actions are pretextual. Doc. 34. For the reasons discussed below, particularly Vaughn's failure to show FedEx's proffered reasons for its actions are pretextual or to establish a prima facie case of retaliation, FedEx's motion is due to be granted.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 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. “Rule 56[] 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.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (alteration in original). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who is required to “go beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         On summary judgment motions, the court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). See also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Any factual disputes will be resolved in the non-moving party's favor when sufficient competent evidence supports the non-moving party's version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d 1275, 1276, 1278 (11th Cir. 2002) (a court is not required to resolve disputes in the non-moving party's favor when that party's version of events is supported by insufficient evidence). However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Moreover, “[a] mere ‘scintilla' of evidence supporting the opposing party's position will not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the jury could reasonably find for that party.” Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         II. RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Relevant DOT Regulations and FedEx Policies

          Vaughn has worked as a road driver for FedEx or its predecessor since 1992. Doc. 42-4 at 5, 7, 79. In that capacity, Vaughn transports freight overnight to different service centers near his home base in Decatur, Alabama, and FedEx pays him based in part on the distance he drives. Docs. 41-1 at 3; 42-4 at 8; 42-2 at 7. Road Drivers, such as Vaughn, must hold a commercial driver's license, pass a physical performed by a physician certified by the Department of Transportation (“DOT”), and meet the relevant DOT and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”) regulations. Docs. 41-1 at 3; 42-4 at 7, 91.

         The FMCSA provides safety oversight to commercial motor carriers, and under FMCSA regulations, a motor carrier may not allow a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle if the driver may suffer from an impairment that makes it unsafe for her to operate the vehicle. Doc. 41-1 at 3 (citing 49 C.F.R. § 392.3). To comply with that requirement, FedEx generally adheres to the FMCSA Medical Guidelines regarding drivers' qualifications. Id. The Guidelines, which are based on expert review of “the available scientific literature, ” are recommendations to help medical examiners determine a driver's medical fitness for duty, [1] and are “considered best practice for commercial motor vehicle operators and carriers, ” doc. 41-1 at 3.

         During the relevant time, FedEx offered its road drivers the following types of leave: short-term disability for up to six months, long-term disability for up to another twelve months, Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) for up to twelve weeks, military leave, and general leave, which was typically between five to thirty days. Doc. 42-2 at 13-14. FedEx granted general leave to full-time employees for “personal illness, injury, family problems, maternity, or other good reason.” Id. at 111. According to the written policy in place at the relevant time, “[a] general leave may be extended at the request of the employee if the employee is unable to return to work at the end of 30 days.” Id. If an employee required more than thirty days of general leave, FedEx would do a reasonable accommodation review to determine if the leave could be extended. Id. at 14. Under FedEx's written policy, “[e]mployees returning from a general leave of absence in accordance with an approved timeframe will be restored to the same or equivalent position with the same pay, benefits, seniority, and other terms and conditions of employment that they had prior to going on leave . . . .” Id. at 112. However, FedEx also maintained an unwritten policy of revoking a driver's job class seniority if the driver could not return to work within six months after the safety department disqualified her from driving. Doc. 42-4 at 38.[2]

         B. Vaughn's Attempted Suicide and the Initial Response to the Incident

         On September 27, 2012, Vaughn suffered an isolated psychotic episode and attempted suicide by shooting himself. Doc. 42-4 at 10-12. Vaughn's psychotic condition lasted for approximately thirty-six hours, and, prior to this episode, the only psychiatric condition Vaughn had suffered from was a “simple phobia” and dizziness. Id. at 12, 20.

         Shortly before Vaughn shot himself, Decatur police informed Darrel Poole, Vaughn's supervisor, that “Vaughn was barricaded in his apartment . . . and was waving a gun and threatening suicide.” Doc. 42-2 at 145. Poole then informed his field safety advisor, who, in turn, informed Mark Courter, FedEx's Manager of National Safety Compliance. Id.; doc. 42-3 at 13-15. When Courter learned of the situation, he deactivated Vaughn's driver number, thereby prohibiting him from working as a road driver, pending a review of FMCSA regulations and guidelines, and a medical recertification. Doc. 42-2 at 144. In light of Vaughn's attempted suicide, Courter decided that, based on the FMCSA Medical Guidelines, Vaughn had to wait twelve months before he could be recertified to drive a commercial vehicle. Docs. 41-1 at 4; 42-2 at 146-48; 42-3 at 18-21. Courter determined that Vaughn may not meet FMCSA's minimum driver qualification requirements based only on Vaughn's suicide attempt and without speaking to Vaughn or his doctors, or reviewing Vaughn's medical records. Doc. 42-3 at 18-21.

         Vaughn remained in the hospital for approximately one week after his attempted suicide. Id. at 138. During that time, Vaughn applied for short term disability (“STD”) with Cigna, FedEx's disability insurer, and he informed his supervisor, Poole, about his application for STD. Doc. 42-4 at 13, 15. FedEx then sent Vaughn a letter dated October 26, 2012 regarding disability leave, FMLA, and the continuation of health insurance coverage. Doc. 41-5 at 5-6. Among other things, the letter informed Vaughn that “[i]n the event an employee is on STD for six (6) months, the employee may apply for [long term disability] for continuation of disability benefits for one (1) year, ” and that FedEx “does not extend job protection beyond six (6) months of STD or after FMLA time has been exhausted unless additional time is available under other leave of absence alternatives or applicable laws.” Id. at 6.

         After his release from the hospital, Vaughn understood that he was on STD leave, but he told Poole that he was able and willing to return to work. Doc. 42-4 at 13-15. Approximately four to five weeks later, Cigna denied Vaughn's disability application, which Vaughn attributes to the decision by his physician to release him to return to work. Id. at 14-16. Indeed, approximately one month after the incident, Vaughn's psychiatrist, Dr. Venkata Devabhaktuni, completed a form indicating that Vaughn suffered a brief reactive psychosis and could return to work at that time or “as required by [his] employer, ” but that “[i]f employer requires [Vaughn] to be off for [the] specified symptom-free duration, I can concur with it.” Doc. 42-4 at 99-100. Thus, Vaughn told Poole again that he would like to ...


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