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Fuoco v. Lehigh Univ.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

November 8, 2013


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Ditter, J.

Plaintiff, D'Anna Fuoco, has filed this employment discrimination action against

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her former employer, Lehigh University. Fuoco contends that she was subject to discrimination on the basis of her disabilities - namely, depression and attention deficit disorder (" ADD" ) - in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (" ADA" ), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (" PHRA" ), 43 P.S. § 951, et seq. [1] By order dated September 30, 2013, I granted defendant's motion for summary judgment. This memorandum sets forth the rationale for that decision.


D'Anna Fuoco was hired by Lehigh in September 1997, as an office manager in the Department of Transition and Assessment Services. In 2002, she applied for and accepted a secretary position in the Office of Admissions and remained in that role until January 2008, when she began working as a coordinator in Lehigh's Office of Multicultural Affairs. Fuoco's employment with Lehigh was terminated on September 23, 2010.

Fuoco's history of medical issues, including alleged physical and mental impairments, as well as her relevant work-performance record, are described below.

A. Department of Transition and Assessment Services

Fuoco concedes that from 1997 to 2002, while working in the Department of Transition and Assessment Services, she never notified any of her supervisors of any disabilities or impairments. Pl.'s Response to Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Facts (" Pl.'s Facts" ) ¶ 4. The record does not reflect that Fuoco was diagnosed with any impairment during this time, and Fuoco does not contend that any alleged disability impacted her daily life, including her work performance. See Fuoco Dep. at 20 (testifying she was not aware of her disabilities during this time); id. at 17-18 (noting that her performance appraisals were average).

B. Office of Admissions

While Fuoco was employed in the Office of Admissions, from 2002 to 2007, she was supervised by Lisa Dubreuil and Bruce Bunnick. Fuoco's work performance was satisfactory until late-2005. Around September 2005, Fuoco was assigned additional responsibilities because another employee in the department was terminated. Overwhelmed by the added duties, Fuoco asked Dubreuil if she could be relieved from answering the phones because it distracted her from her other work. See Fuoco Dep. at 27-28. Dubreuil denied her request.

A month later, on October 29, 2005, Fuoco and Dubreuil met and Fuoco was reprimanded for poor work performance. During this meeting, Dubreuil discussed with Fuoco the various problems observed with her work, focusing on areas related to communication, organization, and follow through, as well as attention to detail.

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See Def.'s Br., Exh. C. Dubreuil determined that she and Fuoco would meet on a weekly basis to monitor Fuoco's progress and Fuoco was warned that if she did not improve, she would receive a formal warning. Id.

Thereafter, prior to Christmas 2005, Fuoco received a poor performance evaluation and was placed on probation. It is unclear exactly how long this probation period lasted or what took place between Fuoco and her supervisors, but presumably she completed the necessary probationary period. There is nothing else in the record related to Fuoco's work performance leading up to her departure from the Office of Admissions at the end of 2007.

In explaining what led to the above-mentioned disciplinary issues and work-related problems, Fuoco testified that in late 2005 she was experiencing significant stress at home as she was caring for her daughter who nearly died from an overdose, as well as the added stress at work caused by her new duties. Fuoco Dep. at 30-31. In early 2006, Fuoco took a four month leave of absence, either under the Family and Medical Leave Act (" FMLA" ) or short-term disability, in order to care for her daughter. Id. at 36. Fuoco testified that despite taking the leave to care for her daughter, she " might have lied" to Lehigh as to the reason and recalled submitting a physician's certificate wherein the doctor " wrote [her] an excuse to take time off" and believed that the doctor said she was depressed. Id. at 36-37. Fuoco took the leave without any difficulty from Lehigh. Id. at 37.

Fuoco also submitted as part of the record a letter addressed to her then-supervisor, Dubreuil, copying Eric Kaplan in Human Resources, dated May 13, 2005, apologizing for " the position I put you and my coworkers in due to my absences over the past six months." Pl.'s Br., Doc. 23-7. [3] In the letter, Fuoco explained that she had experienced a nervous breakdown earlier in the year and had missed work due to " health and personal problems," noting that she was seeking medical help to get her " life back on track." Id. Fuoco further stated, " [depression and anxiety are hard things for people to understand if they never experienced them" and that she had " been very open about my situation to try and ease the tension between myself and my coworkers." Id.

At her deposition, Fuoco stated that during this time she was unaware of any underlying learning disability, such as ADD, or any stress disorder. Fuoco Dep. at 32. Indeed, Fuoco acknowledged that she thought any problems she was experiencing were due to her alcohol and drug addiction. Id. Other than the May 13, 2005 letter addressed to Dubreuil, Fuoco did not testify that she informed her supervisors of any other mental impairment she was experiencing.

Fuoco also testified about having filled out FMLA paperwork at some point and listing alcoholism and depression as the reason for her potential leave. This paperwork was not provided as part of the record, but Fuoco thought she completed it after returning from the leave to care for her daughter in 2006. Id. at 38, 53. It is clear that Fuoco never actually took this particular FMLA leave. Pl. 's Facts ¶ 21 (" [Plaintiff] believed having the paperwork in place would protect her. Yet, Plaintiff never ended up taking FMLA leave." ). Fuoco explained that she filled out the paperwork just in case she needed it and thought she submitted it to Human Resources

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and might have explained her situation to Peter Hinkle, a Human Resources associate. Fuoco Dep. at 53. Fuoco also believed that, along with the FMLA paperwork, she might have submitted a written diagnosis from her physician, Dr. Eric Becker, who had just recently diagnosed her with depression. Id. at 53-56. Fuoco saw Dr. Becker for treatment during the early part of 2006 while she was out caring for her daughter, and was prescribed a " general antidepressant." Id. at 59.

Fuoco also believed that she started seeing a physician during this time period for the treatment of migraine headaches. Id. at 64-65. She testified that all of her co-workers, as well as several of her supervisors, were aware she experienced migraines. Id. at 77. Finally, around October 2007, Fuoco was involved in a car accident and was injured. While she did not receive surgery for these injuries until 2009, she testified that she thinks she may have taken a couple of days or a week medical leave around the time of the accident. Id. at 46-47.

C. Office of Multicultural Affairs

Fuoco began working in the Office of Multicultural Affairs as a coordinator on January 3, 2008. Her job responsibilities included coordinating events and meetings, maintaining the office calendar, including that of her supervisor, and making arrangements for various student activities. Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Facts (" Def.'s Facts" ) ¶ 16; Fuoco Dep. at 133. Fuoco was supervised initially by John McKnight and later by Jame'l Hodges. Def.'s Facts ¶ 17-18. Alison Gelati was Hodges's supervisor.

Fuoco's employment during 2008 appears to have been without incident. Fuoco's first full-year appraisal was satisfactory, but her then-supervisor noted concerns due to her absenteeism. Fuoco explained that this absenteeism was due to having doctors' appointments and physical therapy stemming from her earlier car accident, as well as her other physical ailments including a heart murmur and migraine headaches. Fuoco Dep. at 71-74. According to Lehigh, Fuoco's next performance appraisal, for the year ending December 31, 2009, reflected a rating of " needs improvement" and contained comments from her then-supervisor, Hodges, as to excessive absences and " balancing personal and work related issues." Zavalydriga Aff. ¶ 16.

In April 2009, Fuoco underwent surgery to alleviate the pain she was experiencing from a crushed or herniated disc that was a result of the 2007 car accident. Fuoco Dep. at 71-72; Pl.'s Br., Doc. 23-8. Fuoco took leave for this surgery and subsequent recovery, although it is unclear whether that leave was under FMLA, short-term disability, vacation, or a combination thereof. See Pl.'s Br., Doc. 23-8 (Fuoco's short-term disability paperwork); LU 000275; Doc. 23-9 (April 1, 2009 letter from Human Resources notifying Fuoco that her current leave was being designated as FMLA leave). [4] In any event, Fuoco returned to work part-time in July 2009 and then later returned to work full-time around August 2009. See id., Doc. 23-14, LU 000255; Doc. 23-17, LU 000292. [5]

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Fuoco acknowledges that Lehigh accommodated her medical needs by allowing her to take time to recover from her surgery. Fuoco Dep. at 71-72 (testifying that she " took as much time as [she] needed to commit to [her] physical therapy and doctors' appointments, all of which had to be made during the day" ).

Moreover, the record reflects that throughout the remainder of 2009 and the first half of 2010, Fuoco was never denied the opportunity to take time off or miss work for any appointments. In fact, the opposite is true as Lehigh permitted Fuoco to often miss work due to her own and her family's medical needs. See, e.g., Pl.'s Br., LU 000256 (August 26, 2009 return to work doctor's note due to " illness" ); LU 000259 (September 11, 2009 doctor's note from an ob/gyn providing an excuse from work); LU 000273 (November 24, 2009 email from Fuoco to Hodges regarding her making a " last minute" doctor's appointment over her lunch hour); LU 000263 (January 11, 2010 email from Fuoco to Hodges concerning her eye problems and need to see an ophthalmologist); LU 000268 (March 24, 2010 email to Hodges regarding a dentist appointment); LU 000266-267 (April and May 2010 emails to Hodges that she will be taking time off to care for her son after his oral surgery); LU 000258, LU000265 (July 2010 internal email informing recipients that Fuoco was not coming to work due to a migraine and her plan to see a doctor, and corresponding emergency room form providing an excuse from work on that day). Indeed, Fuoco's attorney acknowledged during oral argument that there was nothing Fuoco ever requested that was denied by Lehigh.

In addition to her excessive absences, in the summer of 2010, Fuoco's work performance deteriorated, and eventually she was terminated on September 23, 2010. More specifically, in August 2010, Lehigh contends, and Fuoco agrees, the Office of Multicultural Affairs had scheduled a trip for students to Dorney Park, a local amusement park, as part of its " Preclusion Program," which was an orientation program for new students. See Fuoco Dep. at 122. Fuoco was tasked with reserving the admission tickets ahead of time, something she admits she failed to do, resulting in the school's having to pay more for the tickets at the gate. See id. at 122-125. Additionally, on September 10, 2010, Fuoco and Hodges did not arrive for a mandatory breakfast meeting because Fuoco failed to add it to either of their calendars. Id. at 133 (admitting she was responsible for keeping Hodge's calendar). Although Fuoco was later directed to attend the meeting, she failed to do so. Zavalydriga Aff. ¶ 20.

As a result of these incidents, Fuoco was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (" PIP" ) on September 13, 2010. However, the same week she was placed on the PIP, Fuoco made additional mistakes, including listing the wrong month for an event on the department's Facebook page and not purchasing CDs as directed for an orientation program. See Zavalydriga Aff. ¶ 22-23. Then, on September 22, Fuoco failed to order food or decorations for the office's Hispanic Heritage Days event - another error she acknowledges that she committed. Fuoco Dep. at 145 (admitting she did not order the food); Zavalydriga Aff. ¶ 25. Fuoco was out of the office on vacation that day and failed to make the necessary arrangements beforehand.

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Fuoco Dep. at 145. [6] Lehigh describes Heritage Days as one of the department's most important events, and considered her errors significant. See Def.'s Facts ...

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