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Carstetter v. Adams County Transit Authority

July 8, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner


Presently before the court is the report of the magistrate judge (Doc. 112), which recommends that the motion to dismiss or, alternatively, for summary judgment (Doc. 44), filed by defendant York County Transit Authority ("YCTA"), be granted in part and denied in party. The report recommends similar disposition of the motion for summary judgment (Doc. 46) filed by defendant Adams County Transit Authority ("ACTA"). It recommends that the motion for summary judgment (Doc. 49) filed by plaintiff Daniel Carstetter ("Carstetter") be denied. All parties have filed objections (Docs. 117, 118, 119) to the report. For the reasons that follow, the report will be adopted in part and rejected in part.

I. Statement of Facts*fn1

YCTA is a municipal authority that provides general public transportation throughout York County, Pennsylvania. ACTA is also a municipal authority and offers paratransit services in Adams County. In 1996, YCTA and ACTA executed an agreement under which YCTA agreed to manage ACTA's transportation network. (Doc. 29, Ex. 1.) YCTA and ACTA have renewed this agreement every year since its execution, and YCTA's management currently oversees Adams County transportation services. YCTA employs a general manager, who is responsible for daily management of ACTA's transit services. (Doc. 56, Ex. D at 9-11, 26; Doc. 59, Ex. UU ¶ 11.) However, the drivers, mechanics, and other personnel responsible for ACTA's daily operations are employees of ACTA, which maintains a budget separate from that of YCTA.

Until June of 2005 Carstetter served as a preventative maintenance mechanic for ACTA. The position primarily required him to perform routine maintenance on ACTA vehicles and to handle basic repairs at ACTA's facilities. (Doc. 56, Ex C. at 10-12.) He also performed various other tasks as necessary. (Id. at 12.) His position required him to drive ACTA vehicles occasionally for purposes such as test-driving after the performance of repairs or maneuvering vehicles into positions from which maintenance could be performed. He had no passenger transport responsibilities, nor was he the only ACTA employee capable of driving vehicles for maintenance purposes. (Doc. 80 ¶ 10.) ACTA required him to obtain annual medical clearance from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which is necessary to operate commercial vehicles on public roads. Medical clearance was not required for Carstetter's maintenance duties, and ACTA did not require preventative maintenance mechanics to obtain clearance prior to 2000. (Doc. 80 ¶¶ 5, 12.)

Carstetter suffers from diabetes, sleep apnea, depression, and anxiety. (Id. 20.) During early June 2005, he underwent a medical examination for the purpose of renewing his clearance, which expired on June 11. (Doc. 51 ¶ 127; Doc. 56, Ex. O at 34 & attach. 8; Doc. 73 ¶ 127.) The examining physician refused to certify Carstetter's clearance and required him to consult a pulmonary specialist. Carstetter scheduled an examination for July 2005 and informed Charmaine Wise ("Wise"), the ACTA general manager, that his appointment would not allow him to renew his medical clearance prior to June 11. He did not believe that his failure to obtain medical clearance would be detrimental to his employment because he had previously received extensions for purposes of renewing medical clearance. (See, e.g., Doc. 57, Ex. Q at 17-18; Doc. 58, Ex. KK at 7-8.) He stated that other employees could drive ACTA vehicles as necessary until he obtained clearance, as often occurred when individuals were on sick leave or vacation. (Doc. 80 ¶¶ 14-16.) He also testified that medical clearance was not required for him to operate vehicles on ACTA property.*fn2 (Id. ¶ 12.) The delay in Carstetter's re-certification had no effect on his ability to perform his maintenance duties. (Id. ¶ 11.)

Upon learning of Carstetter's situation, Wise extended his compliance deadline to June 25, 2005, several weeks prior to his pulmonary specialist appointment. (Doc. 56, Ex. K at 8.) On June 20, 2005, Carstetter requested leave under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") and under ACTA's short-term disability benefits policy to enable him to seek medical treatment. (Doc. 56, Ex. O at 27; Doc. 58, Ex. MM.) He was never placed on FMLA leave; however, Wise placed him on short-term disability status, which provided him with benefits in an amount equal to approximately sixty percent of his regular income. (Doc. 80 ¶ 21.) On June 23, Carstetter applied for unemployment compensation to compensate for this forty percent decrease. (Id.; Doc. 59, Ex. VV at 3.) Wise received notice that Carstetter filed for unemployment compensation benefits on June 27 and interpreted the filing as a voluntary resignation of Carstetter's employment. (Doc. 47, Ex. M ¶ 16.) On June 30, she informed Carstetter that his employment had ended. (Doc. 59, Ex. XX.) He attempted to explain the alleged misunderstanding to Wise the following day to no avail. (Doc. 53 ¶¶ 2-3; Doc. 54 ¶¶ 12, 14; Doc. 80 ¶ 21.)

Carstetter commenced the instant action on October 10, 2006, alleging that YCTA and ACTA violated his rights under various employment statutes the Pennsylvania common law of wrongful discharge. The case was referred to a magistrate judge, before whom each party filed a motion for summary judgment. The magistrate judge prepared a report recommending that YCTA and ACTA's motions be granted in part and denied in part and that plaintiffs' motion be denied. All parties have objected to this recommended disposition. The motions are presently before the court and are now ripe for disposition.

II. Standard of Review*fn3

Through summary adjudication the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine issue as to any material fact," and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). It places the burden on the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings," in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c), (e). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. Pappas, 331 F. Supp. 2d at 315.

III. Discussion

YCTA objects to the magistrate judge's report, asserting that it does not consider YCTA's alleged defense that Carstetter failed to exhaust his administrative remedies under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), the Rehabilitation Act ("RA"), and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"). YCTA also objects to the report's denial of its motion to dismiss Carstetter's FMLA claim.

ACTA has also filed objections to the recommended disposition of the claims under the ADA, the FMLA, the Consolidated Omnibus Budge Reconciliation Act ("COBRA"), the Pennsylvania Wage Payment and Collection Law ("WPCL"), and the Pennsylvania common law of wrongful discharge. Finally, Carstetter objects to the recommendation that his motion for summary judgment be denied with respect to his COBRA claim. The court will address these objections categorically based on the statutes under which they are brought.

A. Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies for the ADA, RA, and PHRA Claims against YCTA

YCTA objects to the report because it did not consider whether Carstetter exhausted administrative remedies applicable to his claims under the ADA, PHRA, and § 504 of the RA against YCTA. YCTA moved to dismiss these claims on the basis that failure to exhaust deprives a federal court of subject matter jurisdiction to hear claims under these statutes.

The requirement that a plaintiff exhaust administrative remedies may be either prudential or jurisdictional in nature. If exhaustion is jurisdictional, a court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to hear the claims of a plaintiff who fails to exhaust. Wilson v. MVM, Inc., 475 F.3d 166, 174 (3d Cir. 2007). By contrast, a plaintiff's failure to comply with prudential exhaustion furnishes the defendant with grounds for a motion filed under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure but has no effect on the court's subject matter jurisdiction. Id. In the instant matter, the report appropriately concluded that the failure to exhaust has no effect on the court's jurisdiction to hear claims under these statutes. See id. at 175 (holding that exhaustion requirements of the RA are prudential in nature and have no effect on a court's subject matter jurisdiction); Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 261-62 (3d Cir. 2006) (holding same with respect to ADA); McFerron v. L.R. Costanso Co., No. 3:02CV1989, 2003 WL 22740938, at *1 n.2 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 10, 2003) (holding same with respect to PHRA).

YCTA requests that the court disregard the language of subject matter jurisdiction contained in its motion and evaluate its defense as if the defense were raised in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion or in a motion for summary judgment. Both YCTA and Carstetter litigated YCTA's motion to dismiss- styled a motion for "dismiss[al] pursuant to F.R.C.P. No. 12(b)(1) and F.R.C.P. 56," (see Doc. 44)-as if it were a motion for summary judgment. They filed exhibits and statements of material facts, as required for summary judgment motions pursuant to Local Rule 56.1. (See Docs. 44, 45, 65, 67, 71.) In light of this extensive briefing, the court finds that the exhaustion issue should be substantively addressed notwithstanding the unartful jurisdictional moniker assigned to it by YCTA.*fn4 The court will therefore remand YCTA's motion to the magistrate judge for the exclusive purpose of evaluating its exhaustion defense as presented via a motion for summary judgment.*fn5

B. ADA Claims

ACTA objects to the recommendations of the magistrate judge with regard of Carstetter's ADA claim on two grounds. First, it argues that Carstetter's ADA claim is estopped by his claim for social security benefits. Second, ACTA alleges that Carstetter's disabilities prevented him from performing essential job functions and that accommodating his disabilities would place an undue hardship for ACTA. The court will address these issues seriatim.

1. Inconsistency between Carstetter's ADA Claim and Social Security Benefits

ACTA objects to the report, alleging that the recommended disposition of Carstetter's ADA claim is inconsistent with his receipt of social security disability benefits. The ADA prohibits employment discrimination against a "qualified individual with a disability." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a); see also Buskirk v. Apollo Metals, 307 F.3d 160, 166 (3d Cir. 2002). A "qualified individual" is one who, "with or without reasonable accommodation," can perform "the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires." 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8); see also 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(m). In contrast, the Social Security Act ("SSA") protects only those individuals who are unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity" due to a disability that is "of such severity that [they] are not only unable to do [their] previous work but cannot . . . engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work." 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(1)(A) & (d)(2)(A); see also Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000).

Claims filed under the two statutes pose a risk of conflicting outcomes because the ADA requires that the plaintiff be able to work while the SSA requires that the plaintiff be incapable of doing so. Nevertheless, claims under both statutes are not per se contradictory. The ADA provides relief for a disabled plaintiff if the plaintiff's can perform the essential functions of the plaintiff's job either with or without a reasonable accommodation. Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795, 803 (1999); see also 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8). The SSA, however, does not consider the feasibility of accommodating disabilities and instead awards benefits when an individual cannot retain gainful employment without accommodation. Id.; see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The individual's ability to work with accommodation plays no role in the SSA analysis. Id. "The result is that an ADA suit claiming that the plaintiff can perform her job with reasonable accommodation may well prove consistent with [a claim under the SSA if] the plaintiff could not perform her own job (or other jobs) without it." Id. A plaintiff may obtain recovery under both statutes if the plaintiff provides a "sufficient explanation" for contrary positions inherent between the two claims. Id. at 805-06; see also Detz v. Greiner Indus., Inc., 346 F.3d 109, 115-21 (3d Cir. 2003). If the plaintiff fails to provide an explanation for the discrepancies, representations made to obtain SSA benefits may estop the plaintiff from asserting a contrary position in a later ADA claim. See Ryan Operations G.P. v. Santiam-Midwest Lumber Co., 81 F.3d 355, 358 (3d Cir. 1996); see also Jones v. South-central Employment Corp., 488 F. Supp. 2d 475, 481 (M.D. Pa. 2007). This doctrine is known as judicial estoppel. See Ryan Operations G.P., 81 F.3d at 358 (observing that the doctrine of judicial estoppel "prevent[s] a litigant from asserting a position inconsistent with one that she has previously asserted in the same or in a previous proceeding"). Judicial estoppel applies only to statements made by parties to the litigation in which the defense is raised, not to statements made by others. See Greenway Ctr., Inc. v. Essex Ins. Co., 475 F.3d 139, 151 n.8 (3d Cir. 2007) ("The doctrine of judicial estoppel applies only if (1) the party against whom it is sought has taken a position inconsistent with a position previously taken; and (2) the party took either or both of the inconsistent positions in bad faith." (internal quotations omitted, emphases added)).

In the instant matter, ACTA objects to the magistrate judge's conclusion that Carstetter's ADA claim is consistent with his receipt of SSA benefits. ACTA argues that Carstetter's SSA benefits were awarded because he was found to be permanently disabled as a result of his medical conditions, precluding recovery under the ADA. Its objections rest upon the medical opinions of third-party physicians that Carstetter was disabled, (Doc. 47, Ex. Y at 2) and the congruent conclusion of the Social Security Administration, (Doc. 47, Ex. CC at 7).

Carstetter has sufficiently explained the discrepancy between his SSA benefits and his ADA claim. A questionnaire submitted by Carstetter in support of his SSA benefits claims states that he could operate a vehicle continuously for approximately thirty minutes, mow grass with a lawn tractor or push-style mower, place garbage bags on the curb for collection, unload grocery bags, and perform basic yard and automotive work. (Doc. 47, Ex. DD at 14-15.) He sometimes required rest periods in order to perform certain tasks. His employment duties included tasks of a similarly demanding nature, such as basic vehicle repairs, building maintenance, yard work, part purchasing, and updating vehicle records. (Id. at 4; Doc. 56, Ex. C at 10.)

Carstetter's lengthy description of his physical abilities (which totals over twenty pages) is consistent with his ADA claim. The third-party statements upon which ACTA bases its judicial estoppel argument have no preclusive effect because they were not made by Carstetter, the party against whom ACTA seeks to assert estoppel.*fn6 A reasonable jury could therefore find that Carstetter received SSA benefits on the basis that he was unable to perform strenuous job functions without accommodation in the form of occasional rest periods. The jury could likewise conclude that Carstetter was able to perform his job duties if accommodated with reasonable breaks, making him a "qualified individual with a disability" for purposes of the ADA.

2. Carstetter's Ability to Perform Essential Job Functions under the ADA

The ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating "against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability . . . in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). To establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show: "(1) he is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA; (2) he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and (3) he has suffered an otherwise adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination." Benko v. Portage Area Sch. Dist., No. 06-3457, 2007 WL 2041977, at *2 (3d Cir. July 17, 2007) (citing Taylor v. Phoenixville Sch. Dist., 184 F.3d 296, 306 (3d Cir. 1999)). Essential functions of a job "must be fundamental" rather than "marginal." See Conneen v. MBNA Am. Bank., N.A., 334 F.3d 318, 326 (3d Cir. 2003). "The inquiry into whether a job requirement is essential to one's job 'is a factual determination that must be made on a case by case basis [based upon] all relevant evidence.'" Id. (quoting Deane v. Pocono Med. Ctr., 142 F.3d 138, 148 (3rd Cir.1998) (en banc)). Written job descriptions, the employee's experience, and the employer's description of essential functions all play a role in this analysis. Id. If a qualified individual with a disability is able to perform the essential functions of a job, the employer must provide the individual with a reasonable accommodation unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the employer. Turner v. Hershey Chocolate U.S., 440 F.3d 604, 614 (3d Cir. 2006).

ACTA objects to the report's conclusion that factual questions exist about whether medical clearance was an essential function of Carstetter's job, whether granting Carstetter an extension qualified as an undue hardship to ACTA, and whether Carstetter ...

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