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Runkle v. Department of Labor and Industry

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 11, 2014

NICOLE RUNKLE, Plaintiff.
v.
DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND INDUSTRY, COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER, Chief District Judge.

Presently before the court in the above-captioned matter is the motion (Doc. 11) for summary judgment filed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry ("Department"). The Department seeks summary judgment with respect to all claims asserted by Nicole Runkle ("Runkle"), a former employee, who alleges that the Department failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 PA. STAT. §§ 951-963. For the reasons that follow, the court will grant the Department's motion.

I. Standard of Review

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). The burden of proof is upon 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); 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. 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.

II. Statement of Material Facts[1]

The dispute sub judice arises from Runkle's former employment[2] as an Unemployment Compensation Claim Intermittent Intake Interviewer ("UCIII") with the Department. Runkle interviewed for the UCIII position on December 29, 2011. (Doc. 14 ¶ 3). During her interview, Runkle was notified that the position, located in the Harrisburg Overflow Call Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, may require working shifts on evenings and weekends. (Id. ¶¶ 5-6; also Doc. 14-1, Ex. 2 (Runkle's signed statement acknowledging that "this position may also require me to work evenings, Saturday's and Sunday's... [and] that I will be available to work these hours if so assigned")). Runkle notified the interviewer that she is legally blind, resulting in restrictions in her ability to drive, and would require reasonable accommodations. (Doc. 14 ¶ 7; also Doc. 16-3). Runkle was not advised during the interview that she would be assigned to work a 1:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. shift. (Doc. 17 ¶¶ 4, 9).

Runkle's appointment to the UCIII position began on February 13, 2012. (Doc. 14 ¶ 9; see Doc. 17 ¶ 9). Runkle emphasizes that her appointment letter did not assign or limit her to any particular shift. (Doc. 17 ¶ 9). The class to which Runkle was appointed is represented by the Pennsylvania Social Services Union ("PSSU"), and Runkle became a member of the union by virtue of her employment with the Department. (Doc. 14 ¶ 11; Doc. 17 ¶ 11). Runkle was assigned to work the 1:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. shift. (Doc. 1-2 ¶ 13 ("Defendants placed [Runkle] on the night shift (1 pm-9 pm).")). All new UCIII hires without union seniority start on the 1:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. shift. (Doc. 14 ¶ 13).

On February 22, 2012, Runkle sought a change in her schedule as an accommodation for her visual impairment: she advised that she is unable to drive to work because she is legally blind and does not have a driver's license, and that there is no public transportation between her home in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, and the call center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 14 ¶ 14; see also Doc. 16-1 (email requesting shift change)). Runkle requested that she be assigned to the day shift so that she could commute to work with Gina Runkle, also employed by the Department, and another individual. (Doc. 14 ¶ 14; Doc. 16-1). Runkle submitted a formal request for accommodation form on February 24, 2012, wherein she restated her request for a day shift assignment and also requested large print materials or a closed-circuit television ("CCTV") so that she could "see printed materials better." (Doc. 14 ¶ 15; see also Doc. 16-2 (formal request for accommodation)).

Wendy Peters ("Peters"), the Site Administrator for the Department's Harrisburg Overflow Call Center, signed the formal request on February 24, 2012. (See Doc. 16-2). Peters made the following handwritten notation in the supervisor comments section of the form: "During the interview, we were made aware that Nicole has a visual impairment. At no time did she indicate that she could not work the required hours. Our shifts are based on seniority. This would become a union contract violation." (Doc. 16-2). The "determination made" section of the form is blank. (See Doc. 14-3, Ex. 1 at 2). Runkle construes Peters' comments as a "flat out" denial of her request. (Doc. 17 ¶ 16). Peters states that she simply forwarded Runkle's form to the Bureau of Human Resources for further processing. (Doc. 14 ¶ 17). Rhonda Brown ("Brown"), the Department's Disability Services Coordinator, states that she received Runkle's request and initiated processing. (Doc. 14 ¶ 18).[3]

On March 27, 2012, Brown notified Runkle's counsel that her request for large print materials and a CCTV had been approved. (Id. ¶ 20). According to Brown, Runkle's shift change request took additional time to process because of union seniority considerations. (Id. ¶ 21). Runkle does not cite evidence to counter Brown's position, but instead contends that it was the Department, not the union, which ultimately had authority over the shift change decision. (See Doc. 17 ¶ 21 (citing Runkle's affidavit as support)). According to Brown, day shift positions are preference positions which are awarded based upon seniority, as defined by the collective bargaining agreement. (Id. ¶ 22; see also Doc. 14-1, Ex. 3 at 73-75 (PSSU collective bargaining agreement setting forth seniority provisions)). In order to facilitate the shift change for Runkle, a non-senior union member, "negotiations were necessary between the union, Runkle's supervisor, and attorneys with the [Department's] Office of Chief Counsel." (Doc. 14 ¶ 25).

Runkle admits that she does not know whether these negotiations occurred. (See Doc. 16-8 ¶ 18 ("N. Runkle Aff.") ("I am not aware that the union was involved in any negotiations... and believe I would know since it involves me.")). Runkle's primary witness, Gina Runkle, similarly concedes a lack of knowledge with respect to whether union negotiations took place. (Doc. 16-7 ¶ 9 ("G. Runkle Aff.") ("I am not aware that the union was involved in any negotiations on Nicole's behalf.")). Gina Runkle states that she has been employed with the Department for more than two years and has "personally witnessed switches in shifts that did not require union approval." (Doc. 17 ¶ 13; G. Runkle Aff. ¶ 3). Gina Runkle also states that she has twice requested a shift change for purposes of a carpool and that the requests were granted without union involvement. (See G. Runkle Aff. ¶¶ 4-5).

The Department's management ultimately decided after "discussion and negotiaton with the union" that Runkle could be transferred to day shift. (Doc. 14 ¶ 27). Brown issued a letter to Runkle on May 16, 2012, advising that her request had been approved, and on May 17, 2012, Runkle's schedule was changed to day shift. (Id. ¶ 28).

Runkle filed a single-count complaint in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas on March 20, 2013, before the Department granted her requested accommodations. Notwithstanding Runkle's shift change, Runkle alleges that the Department failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 PA. STAT. §§ 951-963. (Doc. 1-2 at 8-11). The Department timely removed the action to this court on April 18, 2013, (Doc. 1), and answered the complaint on May 3, 2013. (Doc. 4). The Department amended its answer on May 22, 2013. (Doc. 8). After a ...


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