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Walton v. Spherion Staffing LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 13, 2015

TAJ WALTON, Plaintiff,
v.
SPHERION STAFFING LLC a/k/a SPHERION STAFFING SERVICES, and TECH DATA CORPORATION, Defendants

          For TAJ WALTON, Plaintiff: FAYE RIVA COHEN, LEAD ATTORNEY, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

         For SPHERION STAFFING LLC, also known as, SPHERION STAFFING SERVICES, Defendant: JENNIFER PLATZKERE SNYDER, LEAD ATTORNEY, DILWORTH PAXSON LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA; BENJAMIN D. BRIGGS, CHRISTINA F. MEDDIN, SEYFARTH SHAW LLP, ATLANTA, GA.

         For TECH DATA CORPORATION, Defendant: GARY L. LIEBER, LEAD ATTORNEY, FORD & HARRISON LLP, WASHINGTON, DC; ASHWIN R. TREHAN, DAWN SILER-NIXON, FORD HARRISON LLP, TAMPA, FL.

         MEMORANDUM

         Gerald Austin McHugh, United States District Judge.

         This case tests the outer bounds of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the context of workplace violence. I am confronted with two competing but equally valid public policy interests--the need for a safe workplace, as weighed against the need to accommodate and treat mental illness. Ruling in favor of the Defendant employer here could discourage employees in crisis from seeking help. On the other hand, ruling for the affected employee could subject employers to a daunting standard, torn between a legal requirement to accommodate mentally ill employees and the moral imperative of providing a safe workplace. On the specific facts of this case, as ably pleaded by Plaintiff's counsel, I am persuaded that this case should proceed with discovery, and so Defendant's Motion to Dismiss will be denied.

         I. Factual Allegations in Plaintiff's Complaint

         Plaintiff Taj Walton commenced employment with Defendant Spherion Staffing LLC (" Spherion" ) in 2007. Compl. at ¶ 8. Spherion is a staffing agency that places employees in various work assignments. Id. at ¶ ¶ 9-10. In October of 2011, Spherion assigned Plaintiff to the position of Warehouse Worker at Tech Data Corporation (" Tech Data" ). Id. at ¶ 11. On or around November 21, 2011, Plaintiff experienced suicidal ideations for the first time while traveling to work at Tech Data. Id. at ¶ 13. After approximately thirty (30) minutes, his suicidal thoughts subsided. Id. The following day, Plaintiff's suicidal thoughts returned, and, in a troubling progression, he experienced homicidal ideations for the first time. Id. at ¶ 14. " Recognizing that he needed immediate medical attention," Plaintiff wrote a note to his supervisor, Lizelle Parks, a Spherion staffer on site at Tech Data. Id. at ¶ 15. Plaintiff's plea for help read:

Lizelle, Please Help Call [telephone number provided] Mom [telephone number provided] Dad The police I'm scared and angry. I don't know why but I wanna kill someone/anyone. Please have security accompany you if you want to talk to me. Make sure, please. I'm unstable. I'm sorry Taj."

Id. at ¶ 15. Although Parks was not present at the time of the incident, a Tech Data security guard read the note and called the police. Id. at ¶ 16. Plaintiff subsequently waited outside until the police arrived and drove him to a nearby hospital. Id. He was not restrained while waiting for the police to arrive, and he did not act out or converse with the security guard during that time period. Id.

         Plaintiff was subsequently diagnosed with depression and advised that he required further medical attention and treatment. Id. at ¶ 17. Based on the limited record before me, it appears that Defendants did not have notice of Plaintiff's disability prior to his hospital visit and diagnosis.[1] In an effort to follow his physician's advice, Plaintiff attempted to contact Parks and inform her about his diagnosis and intention to seek additional treatment, but he was unable to reach her. Id. at ¶ 18. After numerous failed attempts to connect with Parks, Plaintiff spoke to two employees, " Chris" (last name unknown) and Carlos Hernandez, who each answered the phone at Spherion's Philadelphia office. Id. Plaintiff informed Chris and Hernandez that he had been diagnosed with depression and inquired about his medical insurance coverage provided by Spherion. Id. at ¶ ¶ 18-19. Chris and Hernandez directed Plaintiff to discuss his issues with Parks directly. Id. at ¶ 19. However, after Plaintiff's efforts to reach Parks continued to be futile, Chris and Hernandez advised him to contact Spherion's headquarters. Id. at ¶ 20. On November 23, 2011, Plaintiff called headquarters and notified a human resources (" HR" ) representative of his disability and need for medical care. Id. The HR representative advised Plaintiff to contact Parks and file for workers' compensation benefits, which did not address his ongoing medical issues. Id. at ¶ 21.

         Plaintiff continued to attempt to contact Parks, who finally responded to him on or about December 11, 2011 via text message. Id. at ¶ 22. Parks informed Plaintiff that she was on " intermittent medical leave" and would be in touch upon her return. Id. Almost three weeks had now passed since Plaintiff's episode. Plaintiff called Parks once again the next day, at which time she answered the phone and immediately terminated his employment from both Spherion and Tech Data. Id. at ¶ 23. Parks informed Plaintiff that his health insurance policy was canceled and he was prohibited from working at any of Spherion's locations. Id. at ¶ 24. These actions allegedly prevented Plaintiff from receiving the medical care and treatment he needed. Id.

         II. Discussion

         Plaintiff claims that Defendants terminated his employment because of his disability, and failed to make any efforts to accommodate his depression, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (" ADA" ), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq,, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (" NJLAD" ), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1, et seq. . Id. at ¶ ¶ 25-33. Defendant Spherion (" Defendant" ) has moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c), on the ground that the threat of violence took Plaintiff outside the protection of the statutes.

         a. Rule 12(c) Motion Standard

         A Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings " is analyzed under the same standards that apply to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion." Revell v. Port Auth. Of N.Y. & N.J., 598 F.3d 128, 134 (3d Cir. 2010). The standard is well-established: I must view the pleadings in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, including drawing all inferences in favor of the pleader. Leamer v. Fauver, 288 F.3d 532, 535 (3d Cir. 2002). " A Rule 12(c) motion should not be granted unless the moving party has established that there is no material issue of fact to resolve, and that it is entitled to judgment in its favor as a matter of law." D.E. v. Cent. Dauphin Sch. Dist., 765 F.3d 260, 271 (3d Cir. 2014) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         b. ...


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