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Strawbridge v. Potter

July 22, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Surrick, J.


Presently before the Court is the Motion of Defendant John E. Potter, Postmaster General, for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 15.) For the following reasons, the Motion will be granted.


A. Employment and Injury as a Letter Carrier

Karen Strawbridge ("Plaintiff") is a letter carrier with the United States Postal Services ("USPS") in Philadelphia. (Doc. No. 15, Ex. A at 7, 11, 65 (Pl.'s Dep., Apr. 14, 2009).) Plaintiff began working for the USPS in November 1996. (Id. at 7.) On September 3, 1997, Plaintiff injured her neck, right shoulder, and arm while delivering mail. (Id. at 32, 56-58; see also Doc. No. 15, Ex. I; Doc. No. 19, Ex. B.) For two weeks after being injured, Plaintiff worked at the Richmond Station answering telephones. (Pl.'s Dep. at 58.)

Letter carriers have many duties. (Pl.'s Dep. at 27.) Primary among those duties are sorting (or, in USPS parlance, "casing") mail for their routes and delivering the mail. (Doc. No. 26, Ex. B ¶ 3 (Decl. of J. Breslin); Pl.'s Dep. at 27-28, 36.) Each morning, before starting delivery, letter carriers spend approximately one-and-a-half hours casing and bundling the mail for their routes. (Decl. of J. Breslin ¶ 4; Pl.'s Dep. at 31.) After casing, letter carriers spend approximately six-and-a-half to seven hours delivering the mail, which they accomplish through a combination of walking, driving, and climbing steps. (Pl.'s Dep. at 31-32; Decl. of J. Breslin ¶ 4.) Letter carriers must be able to lift and carry bags of mail and parcels ranging in weight from 25 to 70 pounds, with the bags getting lighter as the day progresses. (Id.)

Casing and delivering mail are considered to be two essential functions of letter carriers. (Pl.'s Dep. at 55; Decl. of J. Breslin ¶¶ 3, 5, 9; Doc. No. 26, Ex. C ¶¶ 3, 8 (Decl. of A.C. Disante).) Due to Plaintiff's injury, she cannot case or deliver mail. (Pl.'s Dep. at 32, 34, 36, 105-06; Decl. of J. Breslin ¶ 5; Decl. of A.C. Disante ¶ 3.) There is no accommodation that the USPS could devise that would allow Plaintiff to case mail. (Pl.'s Dep. at 36.) Nor is there any accommodation that would allow Plaintiff to deliver mail along a full, regular route. (Id. at 35.) Plaintiff has never asked her supervisors for accommodations that would allow her to case and deliver mail. (Decl. of J. Breslin ¶ 5; Decl. of A.C. Disante ¶ 3.)

After her injury, Plaintiff was placed on limited duty by the USPS. (Doc. No. 20 ¶ 4.) "Limited duty assignments are provided to employees during the recovery process when the effects of the injury are considered temporary." (Doc. No. 19, Ex. C § 546.141 ("Employee Benefits Injury Compensation Program").) Nevertheless, throughout her employment with the USPS, Plaintiff's job title has remained "letter carrier." (Pl.'s Dep. at 11, 65.) Plaintiff's salary range and union membership are based upon her position as a letter carrier. (Id. at 11.)

B. Modified Rehabilitation Program Positions

In April 2000, Plaintiff reached maximum medical improvement, according to her physician, Dr. Ivan A. Donor. (Doc. No. 26, Ex. D.) Dr. Donor listed Plaintiff's medical and physical limitations as: (1) no lifting above shoulder level on the right arm; (2) no lifting or carrying more than 20 pounds; (3) no driving at work; and (4) no casing. (Id.; see also Pl.'s Dep. at 105.) Subsequently, Plaintiff's lifting and carrying restrictions were further limited to five to ten pounds. (Doc. No. 15, Ex. P; Pl.'s Dep. at 105.) In July 2000, Plaintiff was placed in the USPS Rehabilitation Program. (Doc. No. 15, Exs. F-I (rehabilitation job offers and acceptances).)

The Rehabilitation Program "was developed to fulfill the USPS legal obligation to provide work for injured-on-duty (IOD) employees" (Doc. No. 15, Ex. E at 259), and is operated under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act ("FECA"), 5 U.S.C. § 8105 et seq.*fn1 (Doc. No. 15, Ex. E at 260.) Under the Rehabilitation Program, the USPS developed an "in-house rehabilitation program . . . as a means of facilitating the proper placement and accommodation of current employees with permanent partial disabilities resulting from injuries on duty." (Id. at 259.) The USPS attempts "to reemploy or reassign IOD employees with permanent partial disabilities to positions consistent with their medical work restrictions." (Id. at 260; see also Decl. of J. Breslin ¶ 7.) In identifying a suitable modified job assignment, the USPS reviews the injured employee's medically defined work restrictions and considers whether the employee can be assigned to the employee's current position, to another authorized position, or to a residual vacancy. (Doc. No. 15, Ex. E at 269.) The employee must be able to perform the core duties of these positions with only minor modifications. (Id.) If an employee's restrictions prevent any of the above placements, "individual tasks must be identified and combined to develop a modified assignment consistent with the employee's medical restrictions. These tasks are usually subfunctions and may be from multiple positions." (Id.) Plaintiff's modified positions are not "separately funded, official position[s] within the United States Postal Service." (Decl. of J. Breslin ¶ 9; Decl. of A.C. Disante ¶ 8.)

After being placed in the Rehabilitation Program, Plaintiff accepted rehabilitation job offers at Nicetown Station (Doc. No. 26, Ex. F (dated July 13, 2000)) and Olney Station (id., Ex. G-I (dated Dec. 20, 2000; Sep. 24, 2001; Oct. 2, 2006)).*fn2 Although Plaintiff's position title remained "letter carrier," Plaintiff's modified assignments at these stations included: working with the USPS's Computerized Forwarding System ("CFS"); calculating monthly mileage for letter carriers; entering information on the computer; "key-desk" work, which involved checking in the registered and certified mail from letter carriers at the end of the night; and answering phones. (Pl.'s Dep. at 22, 24, 70-72; Decl. of J. Breslin ¶ 8; Decl. of A.C. Disante ¶¶ 6, 7.) CFS is "[a] system used by the USPS to provide mail redirection and address correction services." (Doc. No. 26, Ex. J at A-3.) Plaintiff's CFS duties included making copies of completed Change of Address cards, placing the appropriate extract codes on envelopes, and giving updated labels to the letter carriers. (Pl.'s Dep. at 24.) Plaintiff was also asked to consolidate change of address form information, and to create master lists of changed addresses for letter carriers. (Decl. of A.C. Disante ¶ 7.) If Plaintiff missed a day of such work, no one completed her work while she was gone. (Pl.'s Dep. at 86.)

During her tenure at Olney Station, Plaintiff's supervisors found it difficult to find 40 hours a week of work for her. (Decl. of J. Breslin ¶ 6; Decl. of A.C. Disante ¶ 4.) Plaintiff was often not busy while at work. (Decl. of J. Breslin ¶ 13.) Nevertheless, Plaintiff's station manager "did [his] best to cobble together enough work to provide [Plaintiff] with some overtime hours." (Decl. of A.C. Disante ¶ 9.) Plaintiff generally worked overtime for 4 to 6 hours every Tuesday, one of her days off. (Pl.'s Dep. at 92-93.)

C. Change in Overtime Usage Enforcement

Even though the USPS overtime policy was that overtime should only be given to employees when justified, the policy was not enforced. (Doc. No. 15, Ex. K ¶ 7 (Decl. of M. McKenna).) However, with the USPS in Philadelphia losing revenue because of a significant drop in the volume of mail that was processed (id. ¶ 4), USPS officials were forced to address concerns about overtime usage (id. ¶¶ 5-6). Unnecessary overtime usage by disabled and non-disabled USPS employees was costing Philadelphia post offices money. (Id. ¶ 5.) As a result, Philadelphia Postmaster Judith Martin held a staff meeting on July 18, 2006 with area managers to address the financial situation. (Id. ¶ 9.) After the meeting, Postmaster Martin emailed the area managers a list of "absolutes" that they had developed for Philadelphia, including:

2. ABSOLUTE -- there will be ZERO overtime used to case open routes. All casing will be on under time. . . .

3. All offices will utilize carriers on overtime using the WINDOW of OPERATIONS which is 5 pm in the city of Philadelphia. . . .

4. No Limited Duty Carrier will work overtime unless they are able to perform the core functions of their assignment which is delivering mail. There is absolutely no mail in the city to justify overtime in casing mail. . . .

6. By 12:00 noon each day the Station Manager will email the area manager the name of every employee and the amount of overtime authorized. They will notate by the amount how much is POT. The following morning the area manager will compare the amount authorized and amount used. (Doc. No. 15, Ex. N.) The overtime rules memorialized by Postmaster Martin applied to both injured and non-injured employees. (Decl. M. McKenna ¶¶ 10-12.)

Accordingly, beginning in October 2006, Plaintiff's supervisors no longer allowed her to work overtime on her days off since there "simply was not enough work within her restrictions to justify overtime pay." (Decl. of A.C. Disante ¶ 12; see also Pl.'s Dep. at 85.) There were other injured, light-duty and limited-duty employees at Olney Station who continued to receive overtime payments because they could perform tasks that justified overtime, such as delivering mail, driving to the hub center to pick up mail, and driving mail to letter carriers on the street. (Decl. of A.C. Disante ¶ 13; see also Pl.'s Dep. at 91, 99.) Plaintiff could not perform these tasks. (Decl. of A.C. Disante ¶ 13; Pl.'s Dep. at 91.)

On October 11, 2006, Plaintiff filed an informal EEO complaint alleging discrimination on the basis of her disability, complaining about the reduction in her overtime hours. (Doc. No. 20 ¶ 11). On October 28, 2006, Plaintiff filed a formal EEO complaint. (Id.; see also Decl. of J. Breslin ¶ 10; Decl. of A.C. Disante ¶ 14.)

D. Transfer out of Olney Station

In March 2007, changes in passport requirements for air travel generated a massive amount of passport applications that needed to be processed. (Doc. No. 15, Ex. P ¶ 3 (Decl. of R. Bethune); id., Ex. R ("Meeting the Challenge: Update on Passport Production" dated Mar. 13, 2007); id., Ex. S ("State Department Ramps Up Passport Production To Meet Record Demand" dated Mar. 23, 2007).) The Philadelphia Main Post Office, also known as Main Office Delivery ("MOD"), was responsible for processing 80% of these passports. (Decl. of R. Bethune ¶ 3.) Postmaster Martin asked Philadelphia station managers to send injured employees who were not being used productively at their assigned stations to MOD to assist with the passport processing. (Id. ¶ 4.) MOD was then located at 30th and ...

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