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Slayton v. Sneaker Villa, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 20, 2017

NADIA SLAYTON, Plaintiff,
v.
SNEAKER VILLA, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Goldberg, J.

         This case involves claims of disability discrimination. Plaintiff, Nadia Slayton, alleges that Defendant, Sneaker Villa, Inc., unlawfully terminated her employment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101, et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), 42 P.S. § 951, et seq. Plaintiff claims that Sneaker Villa discriminated against her based on her disability, failed to provide a reasonable accommodation, and retaliated against her for requesting a reasonable accommodation. Presently before me is Sneaker Villa's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted only regarding Plaintiff's request for punitive damages on her retaliation and state law claims, but will be denied in all other respects.

         I. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The following facts are undisputed, unless otherwise noted.

         Plaintiff began working for Defendant as a Corporate Recruiter on November 14, 2012. On February 2, 2013, approximately eighty (80) days into her employment, Plaintiff was seriously injured in a bus accident and hospitalized for five (5) days, suffering compression fractures of multiple vertebrae in her neck and back, and sustaining a head injury. (Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 23, 27, 29, 30.)

         On February 4, 2013, Plaintiff's sister emailed Plaintiff's supervisor, Denise Lee (Director of Human Resources), and apprised her of the accident and Plaintiff's physical condition. Plaintiff was given an application to collect Short Term Disability benefits during her absence from work. During Plaintiff's roughly two-month unpaid absence, Defendant hired a temporary employee to cover the responsibilities of the Corporate Recruiter position. (Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 27, 31-33, 36; Def.'s Ex. K; Denise Lee Dep. 202:2-11.)

         On March 28, 2013, Plaintiff emailed Denise Lee requesting the “reasonable accommodation of working full time from home for the next four weeks or until my physical therapy is complete and [my doctor] releases me back to full time status without restrictions.” (Def.'s Ex. N.) Plaintiff indicated that her physical restrictions included, inter alia, no driving, no lifting anything heavier than five pounds, no bending or walking, and no sitting or standing for long periods of time. (Id.)

         On April 1, 2013, Denise Lee responded to Plaintiff's email stating in relevant part:

As you know Nadia, I have held your position since February 4 and this is a critical time for us as we are constantly opening new stores and creating new positions to support growth. This requires a constant level of support to recruit Store Support and store management candidates, along with the staff for each store and our warehouse. We have job fairs that must be attended, positions that must be posted and monitored, interviews that must take place, and other duties that must be completed. A full time recruiter is required to do this job. Your restrictions will prohibit you from meeting the requirements of this position. Therefore, your request to work from home on a full-time basis will not work for us. I am very sorry that this accident has happened to you. However, I must consider filling this position as I [cannot] hold this job any longer. This is a business decision that I must make. If anything changes with your availability, please let me know. I do wish you the best with your recovery.

(Id.)

         Plaintiff replied to Denise Lee's email that same day and asked her to reconsider.

         Specifically, Plaintiff stated she was:

… requesting the accommodation to work full time from home only for a maximum of 4 weeks. This accommodation could expedite my physical therapy and possibly make my return to the office sooner. Another option would be to work part time in the office approximately 10-15 hours per week and the other 25-30 hours from home which is 40 hours per week until my physical therapy is complete. I can perform all of the essential functions of the duties you listed at home with the exception of the job fairs which I may need a minor accommodation. Posting and monitoring the job descriptions, interviewing, supporting store openings, and other duties assigned require a computer with an internet connection, phone with long distance, and account access with logons all of which I have. Please let me know your thoughts as soon as possible.

(Id.) (emphasis in original).

         On April 2, 2013, the next day, Plaintiff went to Defendant's Philadelphia office. The parties dispute what prompted Plaintiff's visit. According to Plaintiff, she called Denise Lee and asked to come in for a meeting to discuss her employment with Defendant, and Lee allegedly agreed to meet. Plaintiff claims she met with Lee in her office, and Lee informed her that her employment was being terminated. Plaintiff further claims that she was asked to turn in her company property. (Pl.'s Dep. 242:6-24; 243:19-23.)

         According to Denise Lee, there was no meeting scheduled between the two, and they merely exchanged a brief greeting in passing at the office. (Lee Dep. 148:1-16.) The parties do not dispute that Plaintiff turned in her company key card and employee discount card before she left Defendant's building on April 2. (Def.'s SOF ¶ 52.)

         On April 8, 2013, Denise Lee emailed Plaintiff requesting a doctor's note outlining her restrictions so that a “formal decision may be made on [her] continued employment.” (Def.'s Ex. N.) Plaintiff responded that she “thought a formal decision was made regarding [her] employment in [Lee's] office last Tuesday [April 2] that [she] was indeed terminated.” (Id.) Nevertheless, Plaintiff agreed to send a copy of her doctor's note. (Id.)

         On April 14, 2013, Plaintiff emailed Denise Lee stating that there had been a miscommunication with her doctor's staff, which is why a note had still not been produced. (Def.'s Ex. N.) On April 15, 2013, Plaintiff emailed a doctor's note to Denise Lee, but less than a half hour later, told Lee to disregard it, and instructed that a new note would be sent momentarily. (Def.'s Ex. O.)

         On April 16, 2013, the next day, Denise Lee emailed Plaintiff stating that because she had still not received a “return to work document” from Plaintiff's doctor, Lee had “no choice but to terminate [her] employment effective April 16, 2013.” (Id.) Lee also stated there would be new positions in the human resources department opening up in the ensuing months, and Plaintiff should “feel free” to apply. Lee concluded by saying, “I regret this action but I must fill this position immediately.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff responded just over an hour later stating that she was “baffled” by Lee's email. Plaintiff pointed out that she believed her employment was terminated on April 2, 2013-the day she visited Defendant's office. Plaintiff also stated that she had sent a doctor's note the day before (April 15), and would have another copy faxed to Lee directly from the doctor so that there would be “no mistake about receiving the note.” (Def.'s Ex. O.) Later that same day, Plaintiff again emailed Lee asking her to respond to Plaintiff's email, and to “let [Plaintiff] know what accommodations can be made.” Plaintiff further requested that Lee let Plaintiff know as soon as possible if her termination stood effective, so that Plaintiff could “know what actions” to take on her end. (Id.)

         Lee's reply email indicated that, although she did receive the doctor's note that day, the note stated that Plaintiff was only available to work 20 hours per week in the office (or full-time from home), and Defendant's needs were for a “full-time position in the office.” Lee reiterated that Defendant was undergoing “tremendous growth, ” which required face-to-face interviews, traveling, attendance at job fairs, “and other responsibilities” that Plaintiff could not perform given her physical condition. (Id.; Def.'s Ex. Q.)

         Plaintiff again replied and expressed confusion about Lee's message. Plaintiff indicated that her restrictions did not limit her “ability to interview, travel, or attend job fairs.” Plaintiff reiterated that she could have worked twenty hours in the office and the other twenty at home, and that her accommodations were only temporary (i.e., her physical restrictions would be “lifted” in another two weeks). Nevertheless, Plaintiff acknowledged that these issues had already been discussed, so the “issue [was] dead.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff filed her Amended Complaint on January 12, 2015 alleging: disability discrimination; failure to accommodate; and, retaliation. (Am Compl. ¶¶ 41-66.) After a period of discovery, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims.[1] The motion has been fully briefed, and is now ripe for consideration.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating that there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute, and that judgment is appropriate as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once a properly supported motion for summary judgment has been made, the burden shifts to the non- moving party, who must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986).

         An issue is “genuine” if a reasonable jury could rule in favor of the non-moving party based on the evidence presented. Kaucher v. Cnty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006). A factual dispute is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the appropriate governing law. Id. at 423. The non-moving party cannot avert summary judgment with speculation or conclusory allegations, but rather must cite to the record. Ridgewood Bd. of Educ. v. N.E. for M.E., 172 F.3d 238, 252 (3d Cir. 1999); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). On a motion for summary judgment, the court considers the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Disability Discrimination (Disparate Treatment)

         A plaintiff may prove disability discrimination by direct evidence as set forth in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 244-46 (1989), or indirectly through the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Walker v. E.I. Dupont De Nemours & Co., 2016 WL 4258927, at *6 (D. Del. Aug. 11, 2016). Here, I conclude that the McDonnell Douglas framework applies.[2]

         Under the McDonnel Douglas framework, a plaintiff carries the initial burden of demonstrating a prima facie case of unlawful disability discrimination. If the plaintiff establishes her prima facie case, the burden of production shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment decision. Assuming that the employer is able to meet its “relatively light burden, ” the burden of production shifts back to the plaintiff who must then show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the employer's proffered reason for the adverse employment action is pretextual. Showers v. Endoscopy Ctr. of Cent. Pennsylvania, LLC, 58 F.Supp.3d 446, 460 (M.D. Pa. 2014) (citing Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 763 (3d Cir. 1994)). While the burden of production may shift, the burden of persuasion always rests with the plaintiff. Williams v. Philadelphia Hous. Auth. Police Dep't, 380 F.3d 751, 759-60 n.3 (3d Cir. 2004).

         1. Plaintiff's Prima Facie Case

         Under the ADA, an employer is prohibited from taking an adverse employment action against a qualified individual on the basis of her disability.[3] 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). “To establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show: (1) she is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA; (2) she is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and (3) she has suffered an adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination. Mercer v. Se. Pennsylvania Transit Auth., 26 F.Supp.3d 432, 440 (E.D. Pa. 2014) (citing Taylor v. Phoenixville Sch. Dist., 184 F.3d 296, 306 (3d Cir. 1999)).

         Defendant does not dispute that Plaintiff was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, nor does Defendant dispute that Plaintiff was subjected to an adverse employment action (termination). It is the second element-whether Plaintiff was otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of her job with or without a reasonable accommodation-that Defendant argues Plaintiff cannot demonstrate. Specifically, Defendant urges that “physical presence in the office” and the “ability to travel” are both essential job functions of the Corporate Recruiter position, and thus Plaintiff's indisputable inability to perform these functions rendered her “unqualified” for the position under the ADA. (Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. 4-5.)

         Plaintiff first responds that there are factual disputes because the “vast majority of [her] job responsibilities could be accomplished from home and did not require travel, ” which casts doubt on how “essential” physical presence in the office really was. (Pl.'s Resp. 17-18.) Plaintiff also emphasizes that she “never traveled outside Philadelphia during her employment” with Defendant, which again calls into question how “essential” travel was to the Corporate Recruiter position. (Id. at 18.)

         a. Essential Functions of the Corporate Recruiter Position

          “[W]hether a particular function is essential ‘is a factual determination that must be made on a case by case basis [upon review of] all relevant evidence.'” Turner v. Hershey Chocolate U.S., 440 F.3d 604, 612 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Deane v. Pocono Medical Ctr., 142 F.3d 138, 148 (3d Cir.1998) (en banc)) (emphasis in original). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has repeatedly cautioned against usurping the role of the jury in the context of deciphering whether a given function is “essential.” See e.g., Skerski v. Time Warner Cable Co., a Div. of Time Warner Entm't Co., L.P., 257 F.3d 273, 279-283 (3d Cir. 2001); Deane, 142 F.3d at 148.

         Whether a job duty is an “essential function” turns on whether it is “fundamental” to the position. “Marginal functions” of the position are insufficient. Turner, 440 F.3d at 612 (citing 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(1)); 29 C.F.R. § Pt. 1630, App. 1630.2(n) (“The purpose of this [inquiry] is to ensure that individuals with disabilities who can perform the essential functions of the position … are not denied employment opportunities because they are not able to perform marginal functions of the position.”).

         Section 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8) of the ADA states that, in assessing whether a given job function is essential, “consideration shall be given to the employer's judgment as to what functions of a job are essential, and if an employer has prepared a written description before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job, this description shall be considered evidence of the essential functions of the job.” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8).

         Additionally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (“EEOC”) “Interpretive Guidance” defining “essential functions” states that a function may be deemed “essential” because: (i) the reason the position exists is to perform that function; (ii) the limited number of employees available among whom the performance of that job function can be distributed; and/or (iii) the function may be highly specialized so that the incumbent in the position is hired for her expertise or ability to perform the particular function. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(2).

         The EEOC regulations further set forth a non-exhaustive list of evidentiary examples that may assist courts with identifying the “essential functions” of a job: (i) the employer's judgment as to which functions are essential (which reiterates the dictates of § 12111(8)); (ii) written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job; (iii) the amount of time spent on the job performing the function; (iv) the consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function; (v) the terms of a collective bargaining agreement; (vi) the work experience of past incumbents in the job; and/or (vii) the current work experience of incumbents in similar jobs. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(3); see ...


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