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Ellis v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 10, 2017

DARLA C. ELLIS, Plaintiff
PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, and JOHN E. WETZEL, in his official capacity as the Secretary of Corrections, Defendants


          William W. Caldwell United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff, Darla C. Ellis, an African American female, filed this lawsuit against defendants, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (the DOC), and John E. Wetzel, the Secretary of Corrections. Plaintiff was formerly employed with the DOC as a Corrections Counselor 2. Her case is mainly based on the DOC's alleged failure to accommodate disabilities resulting from her successful battle against lung cancer. Plaintiff says her disabilities required a work location where she could control the temperature, that was smoke-free, in which she was not exposed at any one time to a large number of prisoners, and which did not require much walking distance to travel to upon her arrival at work.

         In her second amended complaint, she makes the following claims: (1) in Count I, a claim against Wetzel for injunctive relief under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA); (2) in Count II, a claim against Wetzel for injunctive relief under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA); (3) in Count III, claims under Title VII against the DOC and Wetzel for disparate treatment and retaliation based on sex and race; and (4) in Count IV, claims under the Rehabilitation Act against the DOC and Wetzel for disparate treatment and retaliation.

         We are considering Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         II. Standard of Review

         Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 governs the grant of summary judgment. The moving party is entitled to summary judgment if he “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Rule 56(a). “Material facts are those that could affect the outcome of the proceeding, and a dispute about a material fact is genuine if the evidence is sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Pearson v. Prison Health Serv., 850 F.3d 526, 534 (3d Cir. 2017)(citation omitted).

         In pertinent part, parties moving for, or opposing, summary judgment must support their position by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for the purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). “The non-moving party cannot rest on mere pleadings or allegations, ” El v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Auth., 479 F.3d 232, 238 (3d Cir. 2007), but “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 231-32 (3d Cir. 2001). “To survive summary judgment, a party must present more than just ‘bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions . . . .'” Podobnik v. U.S. Postal Serv., 409 F.3d 584, 594 (3d Cir. 2005)(cited case omitted). “‘[C]onclusory, self-serving affidavits are insufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment.'” Kirleis v. Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C., 560 F.3d 156, 161 (3d Cir. 2009)(cited case omitted).

         We “must view all evidence and draw all inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party” and we will only grant the motion “if no reasonable juror could find for the non-movant.” Lawrence v. City of Phila., 527 F.3d 299, 310 (3d Cir. 2008).

         III. Background

         Based upon Defendants' statement of material facts ((DSMF), Plaintiff's response thereto, Plaintiff's counter-statement of material facts (PCSMF), and Defendants' response thereto, we set forth the background to Defendants' summary judgment motion. Since Plaintiff admits many of Defendant's facts, we will often simply borrow Defendants' language without the use of quotation marks.

         The DOC employed Plaintiff as a Corrections Counselor 2 in the Camp Hill Diagnostic and Classification Center (CDCC). (DSMF ¶ 1, admitted by Plaintiff), located at the state correctional institution in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania (SCI-Camp Hill). The CDCC work sites include the infirmary, D Block, which is the restricted housing unit (RHU), and R Block. (DSMF ¶ 3, admitted by Plaintiff). The essential functions of a Corrections Counselor 2 include: (1) organize criminal data per policy; (2) use DOC automated systems; (3) visit all CDCC work sites; (4) care, custody and control of inmates; (5) travel to other facilities; and (6) exchange information with non-DOC sites. (DSMF ¶ 2, admitted by Plaintiff). The position description for Corrections Counselor 2 includes “[o]ngoing observation and assessment . . . through such one-on-one contact which is carried out in the office and inmate housing area.” (DSMF ¶ 4, admitted by Plaintiff).

         CDCC1 and CDCC2 were two mobile trailers purchased by the DOC in the 1990s to house employees at SCI-Camp Hill following structural damage to the institution caused during riots in 1989. (DSMF ¶ 36, admitted by Plaintiff). CDCC2 was purchased in 1994 and had a use expectancy of 20 years. (DSMF ¶ 41, admitted by Plaintiff).

         At all relevant times, Plaintiff was assigned to CDCC2, (DSMF ¶ 5, admitted by Plaintiff), where she had an office. (DSMF ¶ 9, admitted by Plaintiff). CDCC2 had its own HVAC system controlled by zoned thermostats, one of which was located in Plaintiff's office. (DSMF ¶ 8, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff's office contained a fan and window. (DSMF ¶ 9, admitted by Plaintiff). Inmates who had to travel to CDCC2 to meet with Plaintiff were issued a pass to leave their cell blocks. (DSMF ¶ 10, admitted by Plaintiff). While waiting to meet with Plaintiff, inmates would sit on a bench in the hallway. (DSMF ¶ 11, admitted by Plaintiff).

         Plaintiff has suffered from three bouts of lung cancer. (DSMF ¶ 12, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff was first diagnosed with lung cancer on January 30, 2009. (DSMF ¶ 13, admitted by Plaintiff). After her diagnosis, Plaintiff missed approximately six months from work, returning in the fall of 2009. (DSMF ¶ 14, admitted by Plaintiff).

         The only medical accommodation Plaintiff sought when she returned to work at that time was gate clearance to bring alcohol-based hand sanitizer into the institution. (DSMF ¶ 15, admitted by Plaintiff). Deputy Tim Henry approved Plaintiff's request to bring alcohol-based hand sanitizer into the institution. (DSMF ¶ 16, admitted by Plaintiff).

         Following her return in the fall of 2009, some of Plaintiff's co-workers volunteered to take her cases that involved inmates housed in the infirmary and RHU. (DSMF ¶ 17, admitted by Plaintiff). In exchange for taking her RHU and infirmary cases, Plaintiff would agree to take a case from whichever co-worker took a case for her. (DSMF ¶ 18, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff would take whatever case the other counselor wanted to give her - even a harder case. (DSMF ¶ 19, admitted by Plaintiff). The practice of trading cases was not approved by management. (DSMF ¶ 20, admitted by Plaintiff).

         Plaintiff was diagnosed with lung cancer for the second time in May 2010. (DSMF ¶ 21, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff again missed six months of work, returning in the winter of 2010. (DSMF ¶ 22, admitted by Plaintiff). When Plaintiff returned to work in the winter of 2010 she did not formally request any new medical accommodations. (DSMF ¶ 23, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff continued to trade cases with co-workers so that she did not have to visit inmates in the infirmary or RHU. (DSMF ¶ 24, admitted by Plaintiff). The practice of trading cases was still not approved by management. (DSMF ¶ 25, admitted by Plaintiff).

         Plaintiff was diagnosed with lung cancer for the third time in October 2011. (DSMF ¶ 26, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff was again out of work for six months, returning in the spring of 2012. (DSMF ¶ 27, admitted by Plaintiff). When Plaintiff returned to work she did not formally request any new medical accommodations. (DSMF ¶ 28, admitted by Plaintiff).

         When Plaintiff returned to work in the spring of 2012, the new superintendent would not permit alcohol-based hand sanitizer in the institution. (DSMF ¶ 29, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff requested that an exception be made so she could bring alcohol-based hand sanitizer into the prison. (DSMF ¶ 30, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff's request was granted and she was permitted to bring in limited quantities of alcohol-based hand sanitizer. (DSMF ¶ 31, admitted by Plaintiff). Each time Plaintiff returned to work, she was physically capable of performing the essential functions of her job, but she felt that, medically, she should not travel to all CDCC work sites. (DSMF ¶ 34, admitted by Plaintiff).

         When Plaintiff returned to work in the spring of 2012 she continued to trade cases with co-workers so she would not have to travel to the infirmary or RHU. (DSMF ¶ 32, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff still did not get approval from management to trade cases with co-workers. (DSMF ¶ 33, admitted by Plaintiff).

         In June 2012, due to leakage issues and feral animal infiltration, planning began to relocate the CDCC1 employees so the unit could be taken out of service. (DSMF ¶ 37, admitted by Plaintiff). With the planned removal of CDCC1, all Corrections Counselors were going to be moved to R Block or diagnostic blocks. (DSMF ¶ 38, admitted by Plaintiff). In December 2012, following an electrical fire within its walls, CDCC1 was rendered unusable, requiring the relocation of employees assigned to that unit. (DSMF ¶ 39, admitted by Plaintiff). Psychology staff and Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialists (DATS) assigned to CDCC1 were relocated to CDCC2 so they could retain confidential space adjacent to the Education building where therapy programming takes place. (DSMF ¶ 40, admitted by Plaintiff). Due to the use span and some feral animal infiltration, DOC planned to remove CDCC2 within two to three years from 2012, if not sooner. (DSMF ¶ 42, admitted by Plaintiff).

         On July 10, 2012, Plaintiff submitted a request for accommodation under the ADA, seeking an “ergonomically correct chair with lumbar support and adjustable arm rest and a headset for the telephone.” (DSMF ¶ 43, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff's request was granted. (DSMF ¶ 43, admitted by Plaintiff).

         On October 4, 2012, Plaintiff submitted a second request for accommodation in an effort to avoid being moved to R Block, after learning that all Corrections Counselors were being moved out of CDCC2. (DSMF ¶ 45, admitted by Plaintiff). The request stated “ongoing contact with more than the amount of inmates I currently interview outside of my temperature controlled office would lead to numerous lung issues and illnesses preventing me to come to work and increasing my sick leave usage.” (DSMF ¶ 46, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff's requested accommodation was “to remain in the temperature controlled office that I am currently located in to assure my continued health and welfare after surviving 3 battles with lung cancer.” (DSMF ¶ 47, admitted by Plaintiff).

         In support of the accommodation request, on October 9, 2012, Plaintiff submitted a health-care-provider questionnaire completed by John Varlotto, M.D. (DSMF ¶ 48, admitted by Plaintiff; Doc. 4-5, ECF pp 63-65, questionnaire). Dr. Varlotto stated that Plaintiff “needs to avoid areas that are highly concentrated with people especially ones that may be sick. This includes cell blocks, concerts, malls during the holiday or busy seasons, etc.” (DSMF ¶ 49, admitted by Plaintiff). In response to question 11 which asked “Please list any accommodation(s) you believe would enable the employee/applicant to perform the essential functions of his/her job”, Dr. Varlotto stated “[t]emperature controlled room that has limited people traffic.” (DSMF ¶ 50, admitted by Plaintiff).[1]

         On December 12, 2012, Plaintiff was notified by letter that her request for accommodation seeking to remain in a temperature controlled office could not be approved based upon the documentation submitted by her physician. (DSMF ¶ 51, admitted by Plaintiff; Doc. 40-5, ECF p. 73, Gelsinger letter, dated Dec. 12, 2012). In the same letter, Plaintiff was further advised that, based on the medical documentation submitted, Plaintiff was unable to perform the essential functions of her job, with or without accommodation, as her job requires her to “be around the inmate population.” (DSMF ¶ 52; Doc. 40-5, ECF p. 73, Gelsinger letter, dated Dec. 12, 2012).[2]

         Also on December 12, 2012, Plaintiff sent an e-mail listing additional accommodations she believed were needed as part of her ADA request. (DSMF ¶ 53, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff indicated she required the following accommodations prior to moving to a new work location:

(a) special clothing to heat her clothing due to her sensitivity to cold;
(b) special clothing to cool her clothing due to her sensitivity to heat;
(c) sterilization of the new work area - including the computer, keyboard, desk drawers, and floors;
(d) the ability to store food away from inmates;
(e) a place to keep her water cool;
(f) assistance to move her supplies to the new office area;
(g) weekly cleaning and sterilization of her new office area;
(h) protective clothing and masks; and
(I) regular sterilization of the shared bathroom or a portable bathroom for her private use.

         She further asked if a virtual office could be set up, so that she could interview inmates from home. (DSMF ¶ 54, admitted by Plaintiff).

         In light of the additional requests, the ADA Committee agreed to take a second look at Plaintiff's request for accommodation. (DSMF ¶ 55, admitted by Plaintiff). Plaintiff was permitted to remain in her current work space in CDCC2 while the request was being reviewed. (DSMF ¶ 56, admitted by Plaintiff).

         On December 18, 2012, the ADA Committee was provided with two memos from George Clements, Corrections Counselor Treatment Manager at SCI Camp Hill, both dated December 18, 2012. The first addressed facility moves, and the second addressed work locations for the corrections counselors. (DSMF ¶ 57, admitted by Plaintiff; Doc. 40-5, ECF p. 68, facility-moves memo; Doc. 40-5, ECF p. 69, work-locations memo).

         The memo regarding facility moves indicated that, due to structural duress of CDCC1, the employees located within that unit needed to be relocated. (DSMF ¶ 58, admitted by Plaintiff). It was determined that many of the CDCC1 staff would be relocated to CDCC2 in order to maximize effective utilization of the limited space available, efficiency of operations, and cost effectiveness. The relocation of CDCC1 employees was also based on the job requirements of the staff involved and the need to maintain security of staff and operations of the facility. (DSMF ¶ 59, admitted by Plaintiff).

         Due to the relocation of CDCC1 staff to CDCC2, the corrections counselors would then be moved out of CDCC2 and into housing units or R Block. (DSMF ¶ 60, admitted by Plaintiff). In the facility-moves memo, Clements stated: “Selection of any one or more of the counselors to remain in the CDCC2 location creates a disruption that affects the flow and operation of the facility.” (Doc. 40-5, ECF p. 68, facility-moves memo; (DSMF ¶ 61).

         In the work-locations memo, Clements stated:

a. even prior to the move out of CDCC2, corrections counselors worked on the majority of the housing units within SCI Camp Hill;
b. The counseling staff located on R block, as well as in CDCC2, require inmates to be placed on a call line system ...

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