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BURNETT v. POTTER

January 30, 2004.

DARLENE BURNETT
v.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HARVEY BARTLE, III, District Judge

MEMORANDUM

This action concerns an alleged breach of a settlement agreement ("settlement agreement") between plaintiff, Darlene Burnett, and her former employer, the United States Postal Service. The settlement agreement, which the parties signed on September 27, 2000, terminated plaintiff's discrimination claim filed with the Postal Service's Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office. Before the court is the motion of defendant John E. Potter, Postmaster General of the United States,*fn1 for summary judgment.

We may grant summary judgment only if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Substantive law determines which facts are material. Anderson v. Page 2 Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 254. We review all evidence and make all reasonable inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant. See Wicker v. Consol. Rail Corp., 142 F.3d 690, 696 (3d Cir. 1998). The non-moving party may not rest upon mere allegations or denials of the moving party's pleadings but must set forth specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial through the use of its own affidavits and depositions. Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990).

  The material facts are undisputed. Plaintiff Darlene Burnett began working at a Pennsylvania office of the United States Postal Service in 1996. From August 1998 through January 1999, plaintiff worked at an annex to the Southeastern Processing and Distribution Center ("Southeastern P&DC") in Oaks, Pennsylvania, where she processed mail. On January 24, 1999, plaintiff stopped working because she suffered from swelling in both hands as a result of a job-related injury. Thereafter, Dr. Harold J. Einsig found that she exhibited signs of early carpal tunnel syndrome.

  When plaintiff returned to work in May 1999, she was assigned to what is called the nixie section of the Southeastern P&DC. In the nixie section, employees perform functions such as taping torn mail and hand stamping mail with "return to sender" markings. It is a common assignment for injured employees. The Page 3 terms of plaintiff's reassignment were governed by the American Postal Workers Union Collective Bargaining Agreement (the "Collective Bargaining Agreement"), which provides in relevant part that the "provisions and conditions for reassignment to temporary or permanent light duty . . . will be the responsibility of each installation head to implement . . . after local negotiations." Collective Bargaining Agreement, at Art. 13, § 1(B).

  Plaintiff claims that she was re-injured after working in the nixie section for two or three days. She sought treatment from a physician who placed restrictions on her work activity and instructed her to rest for one hour after each hour of work performed. Between December 1999 and around August 2000, plaintiff's pain and medical restrictions were such that she was unable to perform many of the functions of her assignment in the nixie section. As a result, in August 2000, plaintiff was assigned to the Absence Control Office, where she received calls from employees who were not reporting to work and logged relevant information related to their absences.

  In or around October 1999, plaintiff filed a complaint with the United States Postal Service EEO Complaints Processing Office, alleging discrimination based on her physical disabilities — bilateral carpal tunnel disease and aggravation of cervical degenerative disc disease. Plaintiff, in her EEO complaint, claimed that her assignment to the nixie section aggravated her condition. She was counseled and received her Page 4 right to file a formal EEO complaint of discrimination on October 1, 1999. She did so on October 6.

  On September 27, 2000, before the agency had issued a determination on plaintiff's EEO discrimination claim, she and the Postal Service entered into a settlement agreement. In exchange for withdrawing her EEO claim and waiving her right to proceed upon her disability discrimination claim raised in the EEO complaint, the settlement agreement provided in pertinent part that plaintiff

 
will not be moved from her current limited duty assignment in the Absence Control Office until and unless she either voluntarily transfers to another facility, voluntarily bids to another position to which she is otherwise qualified or her medical restrictions change and she returns to full duty. Should the Absence Control position be eliminated [plaintiff] will have input onto any newly proposed Limited duty assignment.
Settlement Agreement at ¶ 2. It was during the settlement negotiations that plaintiff obtained the addition of the last sentence of the above-quoted paragraph, that is that "[s]hould the Absence Control position be eliminated [plaintiff] will have input onto any newly proposed Limited duty assignment."

  Plaintiff worked in the Absence Control Office until May 2001, at which time she began experiencing pain in her wrists again. She did not work from May 2001 until April 2002. In January 2002, the Absence Control Office closed as part of the Postal Service's national directive to centralize absence control functions through the Attendance Control/Resource Management Database. Page 5

  When plaintiff returned to work on April 3, 2002, she was assigned to the nixie section. Richard J. Falcone, the Light Duty Coordinator and Attendance Supervisor at the Postal Service's Southeastern P&DC, had determined that plaintiff's assignment to this work met the medical restrictions in the disability certificate from plaintiff's doctor. The certificate limited her to "very light duty" for four hours per day, with no lifting or extreme use of the affected extremity and no repetitive use of the affected extremity.

  Plaintiff claims that her work in the nixie section aggravated her medical condition. In October 2002, she provided the Postal Service with new medical restrictions, which limited her to strict sedentary work with no repetitive use of either arm. The Postal Service then advised plaintiff that it would be unable to accommodate her new medical restrictions.

  Around August 17, 2002, plaintiff sent a letter to Administrative Judge Donna Nutter-Rodwell at the Lancaster District EEO Office alleging that the Postal Service was not complying with the settlement agreement.*fn2 Her complaint alleging breach of the settlement agreement made its way through the EEO administrative process, and she eventually received her right to Page 6 sue letter on May 22, 2003.*fn3 She timely filed the instant action on July 10, 2003.

  Plaintiff claims that the Postal Service violated the settlement agreement because she did not "have input onto any newly proposed Limited duty assignment" when her position in the Absence Control Office was eliminated. Settlement Agreement at ¶ 2. She maintains that her placement ...


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