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Roy D. Thomas v. Penn United Technology

April 6, 2011

ROY D. THOMAS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
PENN UNITED TECHNOLOGY, BILL JONES, DAVID JONES, AND JAMES FERGUSON, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambrose, Chief District Judge

OPINION and ORDER OF COURT

Synopsis

The Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 70). Plaintiff filed a Response and Defendants filed a Reply thereto. (ECF Nos. 74 and 78). After careful consideration of the submissions by the parties and as more fully set forth below, the Defendants= Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 70) is denied.

I. Background

Plaintiff was employed by Defendant, Penn United Technology ("Penn United"), from November 16, 1987, until September 20, 2007. On January 14, 2005, Plaintiff suffered a non-work related automobile accident, which rendered him a quadriplegic.*fn1 Prior to the accident, Plaintiff held the position of Manager of Parts Assembly and Secondary Operations. On November 9, 2005, Plaintiff was told at a meeting that upon his return he would be in a different position, Team Leader of Secondary Operations. Also during that meeting, Dave Jones, Vice President of Manufacturing, told Plaintiff that he could not be a good manager because his legs did not work. On January 3, 2006, Plaintiff returned to work at Penn United as Team Leader of Secondary Operations.

Upon his return, Plaintiff had to travel between buildings 1 and 2 to attend meetings at Penn United. Plaintiff was having trouble traveling between the buildings -- there was a drop-off from concrete to the asphalt and the asphalt on the parking lot area was "busted up" from the winter weather and trucks driving over it. (ECF No. 79, ¶160). On several occasions, Plaintiff‟s wheelchair got stuck in the broken asphalt as he traveled between the buildings. Id. at ¶166. Plaintiff broke a wheel on his wheelchair while traversing between the buildings. Id. at 167. On April 25, 2006, Plaintiff suffered a work related injury by falling out of his wheelchair when his wheel was caught on some uneven pavement as it moved off the edge of the concrete pad onto the roadway while he was traversing between buildings. Id. at ¶155. Plaintiff returned to work on August 9, 2006. (ECF No. 75, ¶168). On October, 27, 2006, Plaintiff was medically removed from working at Penn United at the request of his treating physician, Dr. Brenes. Id. at ¶179.

Plaintiff has filed a Complaint against Penn United and individuals employed by Penn United. (ECF No. 1). The Amended Complaint asserts violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (AADA@), 42 U.S.C. '12101, et seq. and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (APHRA@) 43 P.S. ' 951, et seq. Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 70). After briefing by the parties, the issues are now ripe for review.

II. Legal Discussion

A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment may only be granted if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Rule 56 mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against the party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party‟s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

In considering a motion for summary judgment, this Court must examine the facts in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. International Raw Materials, Ltd. v. Stauffer Chemical Co., 898 F.2d 946, 949 (3d Cir. 1990). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that the evidence creates no genuine issue of material fact. Chipollini v. Spencer Gifts, Inc., 814 F.2d 893, 896 (3d Cir. 1987). The dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is material when it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. Where the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the party moving for summary judgment may meet its burden by showing that the evidentiary materials of record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient to carry the non-movant‟s burden of proof at trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

Once the moving party satisfies its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party, who must go beyond its pleadings, and designate specific facts by the use of affidavits, depositions, admissions, or answers to interrogatories showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324. Summary judgment must therefore be granted "against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party‟s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." White v. Westinghouse Electric Co., 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988), quoting, Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

B. Count I -- ADA (Disability Discrimination)*fn2

ACongress enacted the ADA in 1990 as an effort to prevent otherwise qualified individuals from being discriminated against in employment based on a disability.@ Gaul v. Lucent Technologies, Inc., 134 F.3d 576, 579 (3d Cir. 1998), see, 29 C.F.R. '1630. Pursuant to the ADA, an employer is prohibited from discriminating Aagainst a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual with 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). Discrimination encompasses not only Aadverse actions motivated by prejudice and fear of disabilities, but also includes failing to make reasonable accommodations for a plaintiff=s disabilities.@ Taylor v. Phoenixville School District, 184 F.3d 296, 306 (3d Cir. 1999). The ADA states that an employer discriminates against an employee when he Adoes not mak[e] reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship....@ 42 U.S.C. ' 12112(b)(5)(A).

In light of the standards imposed by the ADA, it is well-settled that for a plaintiff to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, he/she has the burden of showing:

1. He/She is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA;

2. He /She is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and

3. He/She has suffered an otherwise adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination based on his/her disability.

Gaul, 134 F.3d at 580, citing Shiring v. Runyon, 90 F.3d 827, 831 (3d Cir. 1996); Deane v. Pocono Medical Center, 142 F.3d 138, 142 (3d Cir. 1998). A failure to meet any one of these elements is fatal to Plaintiff=s case.

The familiar burden shifting paradigm, established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 793-94 (1973), applies here. As a result, if the plaintiff makes out a prima facie showing of discrimination, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action. If the defendant meets this burden, the plaintiff must then offer evidence that the defendant=s stated reason for the adverse action was pretextual. Id. at 802-04. To prove pretext, the plaintiff must Acast sufficient doubt upon each of the legitimate reasons proffered by the defendant so that a factfinder could reasonably conclude that each reason was a fabrication...or...allow the factfinder to infer that discrimination was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the adverse employment action.@ Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 762 (3d Cir. 1994).

1. Adverse Employment Action

An adverse employment action is "a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits." Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 761 (1988). Defendants argue that Plaintiff fails to meet his prima facie case because his placement as the Team Leader of Secondary Operations was not an adverse employment action. (ECF No. 71, pp. 9-11). Specifically, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs‟ new position as Team Leader retained his pre-accident hourly wage rate and benefits. Id. at 10. In a conclusory fashion, Defendants also state that they supported Plaintiff‟s career growth and development. Id.

While "direct economic harm is an important indicator of a tangible adverse employment action, it is not the sine qua non. If an employer's act substantially decreases an employee's earning potential and causes significant disruption in his or her working conditions, a tangible adverse employment action may be found." Durham Life Ins. Co. v. Evans, 166 F.3d 139, 153 (3d Cir. 1999). In this case, the evidence reveals Plaintiff went from a management employee as a Manager to a non-management employee as a Team Leader. Thus, in the organizational chart, Plaintiff‟s position as team leader was below manager positions. (ECF No. 79, ¶49, 50, 59). His duties changed. He had less responsibility than the manager position he previously held. Id. at 57. He went from managing 12-75 employees to managing no employees. Id. at ¶52. He was no longer in management, but had to report to a manager. Id.at ¶55. As a team leader Plaintiff did physical labor about 70 percent of the day and spent about 30 percent of the day doing paperwork. As a manager, he would spend about 90 percent of the day going to meetings and handling managerial level matters and only about 10 percent of the day doing actual physical labor. Id. at ¶77. He was no longer in charge of or had any connection with the parts assembly department. Id. at ¶60, 66. He no longer had customer contacts and he did not handle quality issues. Id. at ¶66. Thus, the scope and breadth of his duties and responsibilities changed. Additionally, Plaintiff had a reduction in pay grade from 10 to a 7. Id. at ¶61. Based on the same, therefore, I find that a reasonable jury could find that Plaintiff‟s employment was substantially decreased and caused disruption in his working conditions. Therefore, summary judgment it not warranted on this issue.

2. Pretext "[W]hen the defendant answers the plaintiff's prima facie case with legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for its action, the plaintiff must point to some evidence, direct or circumstantial, from which a factfinder could reasonably either (1) disbelieve the employer's articulated legitimate reasons; or (2) believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the employer's action." Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 764 (3d Cir. 1994). Defendants argue the reason for returning Plaintiff to the Team Leader position was not pretextual or otherwise indicative of a discriminatory animus related to his disability. (ECF No. 71, pp. 11-15). Penn United‟s stated reason for not returning Plaintiff to his prior position is that his prior duties were absorbed by an existing manager and the position no longer existed. Id.

In opposition, Plaintiff argues there is sufficient evidence for a jury to believe that there was a discriminatory animus that was the motivating factor in the decision to return Plaintiff to the Team Leader position. (ECF No. 74, pp. 7-9). First, Plaintiff points to the comment made by Dave Jones in November of 2005 that he could not be a good Manager if he could not walk. Id.; see also, ECF No. 79, ΒΆΒΆ13-14, 16.Plaintiff also points out that Dave Jones was one of the people who made the decision to return Plaintiff to work as a team leader rather than as a manager. (ECF No. 74, pp. 7-9; ECF No. 77-3, p. 112). As such, Plaintiff argues ...


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