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Porterfield v. Saul

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

December 9, 2019




         Plaintiff Sanquinette Porterfield's second amended complaint alleges violations of Title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 et seq., by her employer, Defendant Andrew M. Saul, [1] Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“SSA”). (Doc. 39).[2] Specifically, Porterfield contends she was discriminated against because of her disability and that Defendant failed to accommodate her. (Id.). Now before the court[3] is Defendant's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 58). The motion has been fully briefed (docs. 59, 63, 64), and is now ripe for decision. After a review of the briefs and evidence, the court concludes that the motion is due to be granted in full.


         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a 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). The party moving for summary judgment “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, ” relying on submissions “which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); see also Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991); Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144 (1970). Once the moving party has met its burden, the nonmoving party must “go beyond the pleadings” and show that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324.

         At summary judgment, a court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant. Stewart v. Booker T. Washington Ins., 232 F.3d 844, 848 (11th Cir. 2000). The court must credit the evidence of the non-movant and draw all justifiable inferences in the non-movant's favor. Id. Inferences in favor of the non-movant are not unqualified, however. “[A]n inference is not reasonable if it is only a guess or a possibility, for such an inference is not based on the evidence, but is pure conjecture and speculation.” Daniels v. Twin Oaks Nursing Home, 692 F.2d 1321, 1324 (11th Cir. 1983) (alteration supplied). At summary judgment, “the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).


         Plaintiff began her employment with SSA in 2007.[5] (Doc. 58-1 (“Porterfield Dep.”) at 18). During the relevant time period, Plaintiff worked as a Teleservice Representative/Customer Service Representative[6] in the TeleService Center. (Id. at 21, 25). In her position, Plaintiff answered telephone calls from the public. (Doc. 58-2 (“Green Dep.”) at 17-18). Her supervisor was George Green during the times relevant to this lawsuit. (Id.).

         Plaintiff suffers from migraine headaches. She made Defendant aware of her migraines before the events surrounding this lawsuit. She gave Defendant a letter dated May 19, 2014, from her physician stating,

Mrs. Porterfield is being treated in my office for chronic daily headaches and migraines, these are chronic life-long conditions. Migraines are unpredictable and may flare up from time to time. If the migraines cannot be controlled with the patient[']s medications she may be absent from work.

(Doc. 58-1 at 45). At some point, at the request of Plaintiff, Defendant purchased a special computer screen to help prevent Plaintiff from getting a migraine from her computer at work. (Porterfield Dep. at 87). Additionally, Plaintiff routinely took leave when her medication did not manage her migraines. Defendant never refused Plaintiff leave and designated the leave for her headaches as FMLA leave. (Porterfield Dep. at 71, 72-73, 106).

         A. Leave Policies[7]

         SSA has a number of different types of leave, including annual leave, sick leave, and leave without pay (“LWOP”). Annual and sick leave are paid leave of absences that are accrued as the employee works. (Porterfield Dep. at 33-34). Annual leave may be used for “anything [the employee] wants to use it for, ” such as vacations, rest and relaxation, or any other personal reason. (Porterfield Dep. at 33; Doc. 62-2 (“Time and Leave Policy”) at 1). Annual leave must be approved in advance and all accrued leave must be used within a year or it is lost. (Time and Leave Policy at 1). Sick leave may be used for personal illness, medical treatment or surgery, incapacity due to pregnancy, contagious disease of a family member requiring care, and the like. (Time and Leave Policy at 6). Employees must provide documentation of any sick leave exceeding three consecutive workdays. (Id.). Employees may also take advanced paid annual leave and advanced paid sick leave, up to a certain amount, [8] but the employee had to pay the SSA back through work within a year. (See Porterfield Dep. at 34-35; Time and Leave Policy at 8).

         Employees may also take LWOP under certain circumstances.[9] Those circumstances, “consistent with government wide rules and regulations, ” include: (1) medical treatment for a disabled veteran; (2) period of service by a reservist or National Guard member; (3) employee incapacitated from a job-related injury who is waiting for adjudication of a workers' compensation claim; and (4) FMLA leave. (Time and Leave Policy at 10). The LWOP policy states that “[t]here are no set minimum or maximum amounts of LWOP that may be granted, ” but “[u]sually no more than 12 months of LWOP should be approved at one time” and it “should be granted in the smallest reasonable amounts according to the individual circumstances, with additional requests submitted by employees as needed.” (Doc. 62-14 at 5). Porterfield testified that an employee had to use all of his or her paid annual leave and paid sick leave, including advanced annual and sick leave, before the employee could take LWOP. (Porterfield Dep. at 63-64).

         B. June 9, 2014 Leave Counseling

         On June 9, 2014, Green conducted an interview with Plaintiff regarding her leave situation. (Porterfield Dep. at 92). Plaintiff testified that Green told her he was “told to do a leave counseling on [Plaintiff] because [she] had taken too much leave.” (Id. at 93). Green testified the counseling was because of “her leave balance” and “for the leave that she had taken.” (Doc. 58-2 (“Green Dep.”) at 54-55). The “Record of Interview” states that the purpose of the leave counseling interview was to “discuss her leave record and the requirements for requesting and obtaining approved leave in advance.” (Doc. 58-1 at 41).

         The “Record of Interview” was written by Green and contains Green's statements allegedly made to Plaintiff during the “leave counseling interview, ” as well as what Plaintiff calls her “rebuttal.” (Doc. 58-1 at 41-44; Porterfield Dep. at 60, 66). Although not explained to the court by the parties, it appears that Green's comments are in regular font and Porterfield's “rebuttal” is in bold on the document. (See id.). According to the “Record of Interview, ” Green discussed the following topics with Plaintiff, in relevant part:

• Plaintiff's negative sick leave balance was 223.5 hours and her annual leave balance was negative 33 hours. Green said this “leave usage was at a critical stage and [Plaintiff] needs to make an effort to accrue leave.” (Doc. 58-1 at 41). Plaintiff does not dispute her leave balances.
• Plaintiff's “frequent use of leave and the manner in which she requests sick leave, ” including “long periods of sick leave over the past nine (9) months” that had “become a pattern for her since July 2013.” (Id.). Regarding this alleged pattern, Plaintiff noted her leave for her workers' compensation injuries and that she always supplies documentation when she requests leave. She also noted the letter from her doctor's office. (Id. at 41-42).
• Porterfield had taken 79.5 hours of advanced annual leave, with the maximum allowed being 80 hours, and advanced sick leave could only be granted in cases of serious illness or injury. (Id. at 41).
• Green explained the process by which Plaintiff should apply for leave, or call-in for leave if it cannot be anticipated. (Id. at 42).
• Green discussed the effects of LWOP in that it “can delay with-in-grade increases and slow the accrual of leave.” (Id.). He explained that LWOP as not a right but may be granted only in certain circumstances, including 12 weeks of FMLA leave. (Id. at 43). However, specific documentation is required for FMLA leave. (Id.). Plaintiff disputed this statement, “because according to the contract she can provide [Defendant] a letter from [her] doctor that is good for six months at a time.” (Id.).

         Plaintiff testified that Green did not cover all the above with her during the interview, and that is why “when [she] got this write-up, [she] didn't agree with it and [she] rebutted it.” (Porterfield Dep. at 66). She did not recall whether Green went over her negative leave balances with her, but she did not dispute that the balances were correct. (Id. at 61-65). Plaintiff recalled Green telling her that “they told him that he had to do a leave counseling” with her and that “he didn't think that it was fair because [Plaintiff] had documentation” regarding the reasons for her leave.” (Id. at 66). Additionally, Green allegedly told the ...

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