United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
CANDY S. ORNER, Plaintiff,
NATIONAL BEEF PACKAGING, COMPANY, LLC, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.
I. Statement of Facts and of the Case
A. Procedural History
On April 2, 2013, the plaintiff, Candy S. Orner, filed a complaint against the defendant National Beef Packaging Company, LLC, stating a claim for "Discrimination and Failure to Provide Reasonable Accommodation Pursuant to the American with Disabilities Act." (Doc. 1.) Thus, the plaintiff's cause of action in this lawsuit is a claim under the American with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. The plaintiff avers that she is disabled for purposes of the ADA, that the defendant was aware of her disability, and that the defendant repeatedly denied her requests for reasonable accommodation to return to work.
This case now comes before us for consideration of a motion for summary judgment filed by the defendant. (Doc. 26.)  This motion for summary judgment is now ripe for disposition. Based on our discussion below, we agree with the plaintiff that material issues of fact exist with respect to her claim under the ADA against the defendant. We find that the numerous exhibits submitted by the parties create these disputed issues of material fact and that these disputes should be resolved at trial. Thus, we agree with the plaintiff that the defendant's motion for summary judgment should be denied.
B. Factual Background
We state the contested factual background of this case based upon both the undisputed evidence, and on the disputed evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Bielich v. Johnson & Johnson, Inc., ___ F.Supp.2dM ___, 2014 WL 1117939, *1 (citation omitted); Bender v. Norfolk Southern Corp., 994 F.Supp.2d 593, 603 n. 2 (M.D.Pa. 2014)(citation omitted). We also note that only facts supported by citation to the record will be considered and that any unsupported denials by the plaintiff of the defendant's statement of material facts sans citations to the record will be deemed admitted under Local Rule 56.1, M.D.Pa. See Bender v. Norfolk Southern Corp., 994 F.Supp.2d 593, 603 n. 2.
The plaintiff began working for the defendant on February 28, 2005, as a Tray Packer at its Hummel's Wharf location. The plaintiff worked various positions for the defendant and her last position was a Tray Packer. The plaintiff worked side-by-side with other Tray Packers on a production line. As a Tray Packer, the plaintiff was required to continuously stand with her stomach up against a metal table containing a work area and conveyor belts. The plaintiff had to grab a Styrofoam tray from above the packing lines, and put meat on the tray as the meat came down a conveyor belt in front of her. The plaintiff was then required to put the meat filled tray on a different conveyor belt where it would be eventually packaged.
The plaintiff had a history of back problems, including degenerative disc disease, and received medical treatment, including physical therapy and prescriptions for Vicodin, Mirapex, Prednisone and Flexeril, for her continuing back pain during her employment with the defendant. The plaintiff's lower back pain radiated down her left leg and caused pain in her leg. The plaintiff's medical treatment and diagnostic tests for her back pain and leg pain continued from 2005 through 2011. The plaintiff had epidural steroid injections in July and August 2010. The plaintiff had back surgery performed by Dr. Rajjoub in the nature of a lumbar laminectomy with discectomy L5-S1 on December 16, 2011. The plaintiff obtained the defendant's approval of her request for time off from work due to her back surgery. Dr. Rajjoub advised the defendant via a note on December 20, 2011, that the plaintiff had surgery and would be off of work for 4-6 weeks.
The plaintiff tried to return to work in her Tray Packer position with the defendant on February 20, 2012, with a note from Dr. Rajjoub releasing her to work, but she was not allowed to return to work. Pursuant to requests from the defendant regarding the plaintiff's functional capacity, the plaintiff tried to return to work on February 23, 2012, with a note from Dr. Companion indicating that she would need to able to sit occasionally at her discretion while working during the day to decrease her back discomfort. The defendant refused to allow the plaintiff to sit during her job as a Tray Packer. Thus, the plaintiff was not allowed to do her Tray Packer job with the defendant after her surgery since the defendant medically disqualified her from the position.
The parties' pleadings relating to this summary judgment motion reveal that this case is replete with essentially factual controversies. As a threshold matter, the parties dispute whether the plaintiffs back condition constituted a disability for purposes of the ADA. The parties further dispute whether the plaintiffs request to be able to sit at times while working her job as a Tray Packer for the defendant was a reasonable accommodation or whether the Tray Packer job could not be performed from a seated position since the employee would not be able to reach and grab empty trays and, reach to place filled trays of meat on the outgoing conveyor belt. The parties also dispute whether the plaintiff would be able to perform the essential functions of her job as a Tray Packer for the defendant if she was permitted to occasionally sit. In this regard, the defendant contends that the plaintiff's inability to stand at all times while she was working rendered her unqualified to perform the essential functions of the Tray Packer job in a safe manner. The parties do not agree as to whether continuous standing is an essential function of the Tray Packer job.
Further, the parties dispute whether the plaintiff has produced evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that she is substantially limited in major life activities. With respect to this issue, we agree with the plaintiff that she has produced sufficient evidence to create genuine issues of fact with respect to whether she was disabled when she was removed from her Tray Packer job by the defendant. We also agree with the plaintiff that she submitted adequate evidence to show that while she performed daily activities and chores, before and after her surgery, she struggled to complete them and endured pain. The voluminous medical records the plaintiff submitted shows that she was continuously treated for her symptoms from 2005 through the commencement of this action, including low back pain and bilateral leg pain, and that her treatment continued during her tenure with the defendant. The plaintiff was also restricted as to her need to sit occasionally during the work day at her discretion and no time limit as to this restriction was given.
We note that this threshold factual dispute regarding the extent of Orner's impairment, in turn, appears to have inspired other fact-bound disagreements between the parties relating to other aspects of the plaintiff's ADA claim. As discussed, the plaintiff argues that the defendant discriminated against her due to her back disability by not allowing her to return to work after her surgery and that the defendant refused to grant her reasonable accommodation for her disability. Because the defendant argues that the plaintiff did not have a disability, it contends that the plaintiff's requested accommodation which would allow her to sit occasionally during the work day at her discretion was unreasonable and would remove essential functions of the Tray Packer job. The defendant also maintains that the plaintiff's requested accommodation would cause a safety hazard to the plaintiff and her co-workers. Thus, the question of what would have constituted a reasonable accommodation of this alleged disability seems on this record to be inextricably intertwined with the parties' factual dispute regard the nature, extent, severity and potentially disabling impact of Orner's physical impairment.
Finally, both the defendant and the plaintiff contend that the other party failed to engage in a meaningful interactive process to have the plaintiff return to work. This disagreement also stems from, an seems closely linked to, the parties contrasting views regarding the nature of Orner's impairments. Thus, in our view these cascading, and interlocking factual disputes ultimately define the contours of the controversy between the parties.
A. Summary Judgment- Standard of Review
The defendant has moved for summary judgment. Rule 56 (c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, provides that "[t]he judgment sought should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Summary judgment is appropriate only when: (1) there are no material facts in dispute; and (2) one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Int'l Union, United Mine Workers of Am. v. Racho Trucking Co., 897 F.2d 1248, 1252 (3d Cir.1990). A district court may properly grant a motion for summary judgment when the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 An issue is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). "Material facts" are those which might affect the outcome of the suit. Id .; Justofin v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 372 F.3d 517, 521 (3d Cir. 2004).
Regardless of who bears the burden of persuasion at trial, the party moving for summary judgment has the burden to show an absence of genuine issues of material fact. Aman v. Cort Furniture Rental Corp., 85 F.3d 1074, 1080 (3d Cir.1996) (citations omitted). To meet this burden when the moving party does not bear the burden of persuasion at trial, the moving party must show "that the evidentiary materials of record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient to carry the nonmovant's burden of proof at trial.'" Jalil v. Avdel Corp., 873 F.2d 701, 706 (3d Cir.1989) (quoting Chippolini v. Spencer Gifts, Inc., 814 F.2d 893, 896 (3d. Cir.1987)); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). More simply put, a party moving for summary judgment who does not bear the burden of persuasion at trial is not required to negate the nonmovant's claim, but only point out a lack of evidence sufficient to support the nonmovant's claim. Country Floors, Inc. v. Partnership Composed of Gepner and Ford, 930 F.2d 1056, 1061 (3d Cir.1991).
Once the moving party meets its burden of showing an absence of genuine issues of material fact, the nonmoving party must provide some evidence that an issue of material fact remains. Matushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). The nonmoving party, however, cannot do so by merely offering general denials, vague allegations, or conclusory statements; rather, the party must point to specific evidence in the record that creates a genuine ...