The opinion of the court was delivered by: EDUARDO C. ROBRENO
Plaintiff Illena R. Nixon alleges that her former employer, the United States Postal Service, illegally discriminated against her on the basis of race and physical handicap, and illegally terminated her in retaliation for her filing a claim with the employer's Equal Employment Office. The case was tried to the Court without a jury over the course of four days. This memorandum constitutes the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a).
1. Plaintiff is a member of a protected class by virtue of her race, black,
and her handicap, a knee injury.
2. Plaintiff was hired on April 23, 1988, by Arthur LeGar, Jr., who at the time was the Postmaster of the Pottstown Post Office (the "Pottstown P.O."), in the position of part-time flexible ("PTF") city letter carrier. Though this was the plaintiff's first career appointment, she had worked in several temporary assignments at the Pottstown P.O. since September of 1986.
4. Plaintiff was a member of the National Association of Letter Carriers, AFL-CIO (the "NALC"), which was her exclusive bargaining representative.
5. In September of 1988, plaintiff first felt pain in her left knee. She informed her supervisors in October of her pain, claiming that the strain of walking with a mail satchel had caused her injury.
6. Plaintiff duly filed a Notice of Occupational Disease and Claim for Compensation with the United States Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (the "OWCP"). See Def.'s Ex. 7.
7. On November 30, 1988, plaintiff underwent arthroscopic surgery on her left knee. She was designated as being on sick leave status.
8. By February 10, 1989, plaintiff had exhausted her sick leave and was placed on "leave without pay," or "LWOP" status. Under the Employee and Labor Relations Manual (the "ELM"), which governed the relationship between the Postal Service and the members of the NALC, "LWOP is an authorized absence from duty in a nonpay status." Def.'s Ex. 19C (ELM § 514.1(a)).
9. On May 2, 1989, plaintiff's claim for workers' compensation was denied by the OWCP, on the basis that no causal link had been established between her employment and her knee injury. See Def.'s Ex. 12.
10. In June of 1989, plaintiff underwent a second surgical procedure on her left knee.
11. Plaintiff was maintained on LWOP status until September 25, 1989, when she returned to her duties as a PTF city letter carrier.
12. On December 29, 1989, plaintiff reported that she had twisted her left ankle while delivering mail. She filed an Accident Report and a Notice of Traumatic Injury. See Def.'s Exs. 23A & 23B. A Postal Service medical officer treated plaintiff, diagnosed a sprained ankle, and ordered "no activity" for five days. See Def.'s Ex. 26.
13. Jeffrey Shoch, at that time the Superintendent of Postal Operations at the Pottstown P.O., testified that on the date of the injury, he was at the Pottstown Memorial Medical Center on other matters when plaintiff was brought in for X-rays. He testified that plaintiff stated to him at that time that she had hurt her ankle (and not her knee).
14. When plaintiff returned to work on January 2, 1990, she was placed on "limited duty." A limited duty assignment is provided to employees who suffer from a physical limitation identified by a treating physician and stemming from an on-the-job injury. See Def.'s Ex. 47. An employee who suffers a non-job-related injury may request a "light duty" assignment. See id. Ex. 6B. An employee whose workers' compensation claim is pending is assigned to limited duty.
15. In mid-January, plaintiff informed Mr. LeGar that she had reinjured her left knee when she twisted her ankle on December 29, 1989. See Def.'s Ex. 27. Her treating physician filed a report with the OWCP indicating that she had "wrenched" her knee, see id. Ex. 28B, and advised that she should be assigned to sedentary work, see id. Ex. 28C.
16. On January 30, 1990, the Postal Service issued to plaintiff a letter of warning for failure to work in a safe manner in connection with the accident of December 29, 1989. This letter was the subject of a grievance by the plaintiff's union representative, and by agreement, the letter was removed from plaintiff's file in June of 1990. The agreement to remove the letter, however, explicitly permitted reference to the discipline by either party in any future judicial proceeding involving the plaintiff. See Def.'s Ex. 24.
17. In February of 1990, plaintiff filed a Notice of Recurrence of Disability with the OWCP, claiming that she had reaggravated her knee injury when she twisted her ankle. See Def.'s Ex. 29.
19. On February 22, 1990, the denial of worker's compensation benefits on May 2, 1989, was affirmed. See Def.'s Ex. 15.
20. On April 10, 1990, plaintiff received a letter of warning for "failure to meet the availability/dependability requirements of [her] position" due to excessive absences from work during the period from January 22 through March 28, 1990. See Def.'s Ex. 31. The letter indicated that more severe discipline, including suspension or removal, could be taken if there were further deficiencies. Plaintiff filed a grievance regarding this letter of warning.
21. On April 24, 1990, plaintiff received a letter notifying her that she had been placed on restricted sick leave, requiring her to provide documentation for any future sick leave absences. Failure to provide the documentation would result in a status of "absent without leave," or "AWOL." See Def.'s Ex. 33. This letter was sent pursuant to the restricted sick leave provisions of the ELM. See id. Ex. 19B.
22. On April 27, 1990, plaintiff underwent a third surgical procedure on her left knee.
23. On May 25, 1990, Mr. Shoch wrote to plaintiff inquiring as to her whereabouts, since the office had "not heard from [her] since April 26, 1990." Def.'s Ex. 34. The letter reminded her that she was under an obligation to report to the Postal Service on her condition every two weeks, and informed her that if she did not return to duty, resign, or submit medical documentation within five days, she would possibly be subject to termination.
24. On May 31, plaintiff made a written request for assignment to "light duties." Def.'s Ex. 35B. She also submitted a status report filled out by her doctor indicating that she could return to sit-down duties on June 4, 1990. See id. Ex. 35A.
25. Based on the limitations established by plaintiff's doctor, Mr. LeGar assigned plaintiff to sedentary work. On June 4 and June 5, 1990, she was assigned to sorting flat envelopes, a task ...