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Reyer v. Saint Francis Country House

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 20, 2017

JASON REYER, Plaintiff,
v.
SAINT FRANCIS COUNTRY HOUSE, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          GOLDBERG, J.

         Jason Reyer brings this employment discrimination action against Saint Francis Country House, 1412 Lansdowne Operating, LLC and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, his former employers, for violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

         According to Reyer who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), emphysema, other respiratory conditions and related complications, Defendants failed to accommodate his disability, discriminated against him on the basis of his disability, interfered with his FMLA rights and ultimately, terminated his employment because he requested accommodations and took FMLA leave.

         Reyer brings interference and retaliation claims under the FMLA as well as discrimination, failure to accommodate and retaliation claims under the ADA. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on all claims. As many genuine issues of material fact exist, Defendants' motion will be denied.

         I. FACTUAL RECORD[1]

         Saint Francis Country House is a nursing care facility owned and operated by the Archdiocese at all times prior to Reyer's termination. The Archdiocese sold Saint Francis Country House to Center Management Group, LLC in November of 2014. As of the date of the sale, all existing employees were terminated. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 1, 4, 8.)

         A. Reyer's Employment at St. Francis

         St. Francis had three separate grades of Maintenance Workers: I, II, and III. Jason Reyer was hired by Saint Francis Country House in October 2004 as a Maintenance Worker II. On August 25, 2005, Reyer was promoted to a Maintenance Worker III position. Throughout his employment Reyer was supervised by a Plant Operations Manager, John Hedges. (Id. at ¶¶ 15, 22, 31.)

         Under a heading titled “Purpose of Your Job Position, ” the description for the Maintenance Worker II and III position states:

The primary purpose of your job position is to perform the duties necessary to keep the structure of the facility in good repair. These duties include the repair and maintenance of machinery and medical equipment in accordance with diagrams, schedules, operation manuals and manufacturer's specifications, using power tools and precision measuring and testing instruments.

         The job description also identified certain “physical and sensory requirements, ” including (i) “must be able to move intermittently throughout the work day;” (ii) “must be in good general health and demonstrate emotional stability;” and (iii) “must be able to lift in excess of 50 pounds, push, pull and move residents, equipment, supplies, etc., up to 200 pounds.” (Defs.' Mot., Ex. 10.) Reyer signed and returned a form acknowledging that he received the job description for the Maintenance Worker position. (Id.)

         When asked about the job duties of Maintenance Worker at St. Francis, Hedges explained that they “would oversee their units or the building and handle any issues that might arise, whether it be moving beds, unclogging sinks, toilets, light bulbs being out, any emergency repairs, walls needed repairing, if there was project work, fixing wheelchairs, painting. This list could possibly go on forever.” Hedges also testified that lifting items in excess of fifty pounds was a “true assessment” of the Maintenance Worker position. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 31; Defs.' Mot. Ex. 5, Hedges Dep., 30:24 - 31:11, 83:17-83:23.)

         If a Maintenance Worker was unable to come to work on a particular day, that work would be divided between the other maintenance workers on site that day. During the relevant time period, four or five Maintenance Workers were employed on-site. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 24, 33.)

         B. St. Francis' Leave Policies and Notice of FMLA Rights

         St. Francis' employee handbook states that “[u]pon request, an eligible employee may receive a maximum of twelve (12) weeks of family and medical leave in any twelve (12) month period.” It further explains that if FMLA leave “was taken because of the employee's own illness, documentation from the employee's physician that the employee is able to return to work is required.” It also states that “for the purpose of determining eligibility for family and medical leave, a ‘twelve (12) month period' refers to the twelve months immediately preceding the start of the request leave. In no case will an employee receive family and medical leave for a period in excess of twelve (12) consecutive weeks.” (Defs.' Mot., Ex. 1.)

         St. Francis' employee handbook also informs employees that they may take up to a six month “medical” leave of absence. The handbook specifies that if a period of leave is “covered by the family and medical leave policy” then the six month leave of absence will “apply only to those periods beyond the twelve (12) weeks of the family leave policy.” (Id.) Reyer signed a form acknowledging receipt of the employee handbook on October 6, 2004. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 17.)

         Upon his hire, Reyer also received a notification regarding workplace discrimination. In 2009 and 2010, Reyer received a form setting forth “Employee Rights and Responsibilities under the Family and Medical Leave Act.”[2] (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 16; Defs.' Mot., Ex. 9.)

         C. Reyer's FMLA Leave

         In 2011, Reyer began treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”) and emphysema with Dr. Thomas Prestel, a pulmonologist. Shortly thereafter, Reyer notified Saint Francis that he would be taking intermittent FMLA leave and provided a certification from his primary care physician. His request was approved and he took intermittent leave during the 2011 calendar year. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 36-37, 39; Defs.' Mot., Exs. 15, 16.)

         In April of 2012, Reyer requested and received permission to take FMLA leave to care for his ailing father. In December of 2012, Reyer retroactively requested FMLA leave for a week long absence due to the fact that he had pneumonia. In support of his request, he submitted a certification from his primary care physician. His request was approved. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 41-44; Defs.' Mot., Ex. 17, 18.)

         In January of 2013, Reyer submitted a third FMLA certification from a physician in support of his request for intermittent FMLA leave to deal with his COPD and emphysema. This request was also approved. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 47, 49; Defs.' Mot., Ex. 19.)

         Unrelated to his COPD and emphysema, Reyer was absent from work for twenty one days in April and May of 2013 in connection with a hernia repair operation. Reyer did not submit FMLA paperwork for this absence and instead St. Francis allowed Reyer to take “personal time” and return to work after he had recovered. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 50-51.)

         On August 13, 2013, Reyer emailed Cindy Kersey, the Director of Human Resources at St. Francis, asking “how many [FMLA days he had] already used and how many days are remaining.” Kersey did not respond to this email until shortly after his termination. (Pl.'s Resp., Exs. J; Ex. A, Reyer Dep. 57:4-7.)

         Reyer was then out of work again from August 15, 2013 to August 30, 2013 to undergo a bronchoscopy and further evaluation of his lungs. He returned to work for five days but then again was absent from September 20, 2013 to September, 25, 2013 in order to undergo a second bronchoscopy. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 53, 55-56.)

         Reyer returned to work for several days but then requested and received approval for an “extended” leave beginning on September 30, 2013. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 56-57; Pl.'s Resp., Ex. B, Kersey Dep. 41:12-42:5.)

         Following a conversation with Kersey, Reyer completed the “employee portion” of long-term disability paperwork. In that paperwork which he dated October 1, 2013, Reyer stated that September 28, 2013 was the date on which he became “totally disabled.” On November 1, 2013, Dr. Prestel completed the “attending physician portion” of the paperwork and indicated that Reyer was unable to climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl. Under a space for “extent of disability, ” Dr. Prestel also wrote “last day able to work 9/29/13.” Although Reyer returned the completed paperwork to Kersey, Reyer was “somewhat reluctant” about applying for disability and instructed Kersey not to submit his claim. As such, Reyer's completed application was not submitted. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 61-66, 68, 71; Defs.' Mot. Ex. 29.)

         In September or October, Reyer developed a significant lung infection. On November 11, 2013, Dr. Michael Kimzey, an infectious disease specialist, inserted a peripherally inserted central catheter (“PICC”) in Reyer's arm to aid in the delivery of antibiotics. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 74, 76.)

         D. Information Regarding Reyer's Ability to Return to Work

         In a note dated November 11, 2013, Dr. Kimzey stated:

This letter is to confirm that Jason Reyer may return to work while undergoing treatment. His only restriction is that he may not lift anything over 5 pounds because of the PICC line that is in his arm so that he may self-administer his antibiotic for the next 60 days.

(Pl.'s Resp., Ex. K.) Reyer testified that he believed he provided this note to Kersey “immediately” after he received it. (Pl.'s Resp. Ex. A, Reyer Dep. 132:5-12.)

         In a subsequent note dated November 25, 2013, Dr. Kimzey stated Reyer “may return to work on December 9th, 2013. He is restricted to not lifting more than 5 pounds because of the PICC line in his arm.” (Defs.' Mot. Exs. 34, 35.) Reyer faxed this note to Kersey on December 3, 2013. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 81; Defs. Mot. Exs. 34-35).[3]

         On December 4, 2013, Reyer emailed Kersey to confirm receipt of his “‘Return to work Note' from doctor, which I faxed to you on Tuesday December 3rd.” In the email, he further wrote “[t]he note states that I am able to return to work on Monday December 9th with certain medical restrictions, as listed. I will need a response prior to Monday, December 9th, to know whether to come into work on that date.” On December 9, 2013, Kersey responded by way of email that she would speak with Hedges later that week about the doctor's note. (Pl.'s Resp., Ex. N.)

         In addition to sending the November 11th and 25th notes from Dr. Kimzey and the above referenced email, Reyer testified that he had multiple conversations with Kersey and others at St. Francis about when he would return to work. Reyer testified that he had discussions with Kersey and Hedges about how long his PICC line would be in. (Pl.'s Resp., Ex. A, Reyer Dep. 106:21-107:17.) Reyer testified that, prior to his termination, he told Kersey that he would be able to return to work on December 9, 2013 and that he would have the five-pound weight restriction until the PICC line was removed sometime in January. (Id. at 134:2-7, 142:9-144:19.)[4]

         Reyer testified that during these conversations, Defendants informed him that the notes from Dr. Kimzey did not contain adequate information regarding his ability to return to work and did not specify the date on which he could do so without restrictions. According to Reyer, he obtained multiple notes from Dr. Kimzey in order to address these concerns. (Id. at 102:3-104:2, 105:19-106:5.) Reyer explained that, as a result of his ability to get follow-up appointments and ongoing treatment concerns, the notes contained differing information regarding when he could return to work. (Id. at 106:8-24.)

         Kersey, Hedges and Thomas Chapman, the Nursing Home Administrator, could not recall having a conversation with Reyer about when he could return to work without any restrictions. According to Kersey and Hedges, Reyer provided them with conflicting information about when he would return to work and that he continued to change his story. (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 79-81; Pl.'s Resp., Ex. B, Kersey Dep. 33:23-34:17, 82:20-83:2; Ex. F, Chapman Dep. 29:24-30:3; Ex. C, Hedges Dep. 45:4-10:14.))

         E. Five-Pound Lifting Restrictions

         Kersey testified that she did not believe that she had discussed the five-pound lifting restriction with Reyer. However, Kersey stated that she believed that she discussed the five-pound lifting restriction with Chapman and Hedges. In particular, Kersey claimed that she discussed with Hedges what tasks a Maintenance Worker could complete with such a restriction. (Pl.'s Resp., Ex. B, Kersey Dep. 47:21-8, 48:24-49:4; 50:23-51:11.)

         Kersey testified that after her discussions with Chapman and Hedges and review of the Maintenance Worker job description, “it didn't seem that that was going to be a possibility for him to be able to go back into that with any kind of a restriction just due to the nature of the work that [maintenance employees] did.” (Id. at 48:4-48:19.) When asked if she was familiar with the Maintenance Worker job duties, Kersey replied “I guess mostly per the actual job description. I couldn't tell you what his daily routine was and such.” (Id. at 19:7-12.)

         Hedges, however, could not recall ever having a conversation with Kersey about the five-pound lifting restriction. (Pl.'s Resp., Ex. C, Hedges Dep. 50:1-18.) Hedges and Chapman both testified that they never discussed the restriction with Reyer. (Id. at 50:15-18; Pl.'s Resp., Ex. F, Chapman 27:1-4.)

         Hedges testified that if a Maintenance Worker was limited to lifting five pounds “there's a lot of things that, you know, maybe could be done but a lot of things can't be done. It's hard to say what though, you know, depending on the circumstances.” (Pl.'s Resp., Ex. C, Hedges Dep. 80:9-23.) However, Hedges equivocated and stated “there's a lot of things that, you know, maybe could be done but a lot of things can't be done. It's hard to say what though, you know, depending on the circumstances.” (Id. at 80:19-23; 86:16-22.) Chapman Administrator testified that Maintenance Workers were required to lift more than five pounds “[e]very day, many times during the day” (Defs.' Mot., Ex. 2, Chapman Dep. 35:2-5.)

         Contrary to Hedges and Chapman's testimony, Reyer testified that he could have performed the following Maintenance Worker tasks with the five-pound lifting restriction in place: taking inventory of supplies and materials, sweeping floors, folding laundry, changing batteries in chair and bed alarms, covering security guard shifts and testing faucets and toilets. (Pl.'s Resp., Ex. A, Reyer Dep. 111:-10-113:17, 178:1-19.)

         Reyer testified that after he bruised his ribs in 2010 he was subject to a no-lifting restriction and that, during the pendency of that restriction, Reyer was permitted to fold laundry for a “few days.” Reyer also testified that, following a bronchoscopy, he also had a “prior lifting restriction” of twenty-five pounds between March and June of 2013. (Id. at 24:9-22, 112:7-113:22.)

         F. Reyer's Termination

         According to Reyer, on or about December 17, 2013, Kersey informed Reyer that St. Francis did not have a position available that could accommodate the five-pound lifting restriction. According to Reyer, Kersey then told him that his employment was being terminated. Reyer testified that during this conversation he informed Kersey that the restriction would be in effect for two more weeks. (Pl.'s Resp., Ex. A, Reyer Dep. 127:13-128:14.) Reyer's termination was effective December 23, 2013. (Defs.' Mot., Ex. 36.)

         When asked why Reyer's employment was terminated, Kersey testified:

Well, he had used up all of his FML time, really way exceeded that. We didn't really have any definitive information as to when he was coming back. The department had been without his help for a long period of time. There was a lot of overtime. At the same time they were - the facility was going through - I think that was probably when we got word about the impending sale, so they were trying to do a lot of different things with the building, work got behind. It was several factors, but a lot of overtime, a lot of money spent on overtime and there was not supposed to be any money spent on overtime, so it became a real burden on the company.

Pl.'s Resp., Ex. B, Kersey Dep. 31:12-32:2)

         Kersey further explained that “[b]asically, [Reyer] was terminated because he had exceeded all of his [FMLA] time, we weren't sure when he was coming back and we were in kind of desperate need there.” According to Kersey, prior to terminating Reyer, St. Francis had unsuccessfully attempted to hire a temporary maintenance employee. (Id. at 112:20-113:9; 37:3-12.)

         When asked who made the decision to terminate Reyer's employment, Kersey testified that she, Chapman and Hedges together made the decision to terminate Reyer's employment. (Id. at 32:3-23.) Hedges, however, testified that he was not involved in the decision-making and even stated that he was unaware ...


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