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Pulchalski v. Franklin County

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 14, 2018


          KANE JUDGE


          Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge


         This is an action brought by Bruce Pulchalski against Franklin County, Pennsylvania, alleging that his employment as a correctional officer at the Franklin County Jail was unlawfully terminated, and that he suffered retaliation and harassment as a result of a physical disability that he sustained to his calf and knee during his employment. Pulchalski has brought claims alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 951 et seq., for actual or perceived disability discrimination, retaliation and a hostile work environment.

         The defendants previously moved to dismiss this action for failing to state a claim, but that motion was denied in all respects with the single exception of Pulchalski's claim for punitive damages. (Doc. 46.)

         Following discovery, the defendant has moved for summary judgment, this time asserting that Pulchalski lacks sufficient evidence to prove his claims, and maintaining that the undisputed evidence of record makes clear that Pulchalski was not subjected to harassment, did not suffer retaliation, and was terminated for entirely appropriate reasons after it was concluded that he made a threat of physical violence to a juvenile visitor to the jail. Pulchalski has vigorously contested the motion, filing his own brief, more than 1, 000 pages of exhibits, and a statement of facts that he contends is more than sufficient to allow him to present each of his claims to a jury. The motion has now been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition. (Docs. 61, 62, 63, 71, 74, 75.)

         Upon consideration of the parties' arguments and the evidence submitted, we agree with Pulchalski that the defendant's motion for summary judgment should be denied. Taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and giving him the benefit of all reasonable inferences, we find that he has demonstrated numerous disputed issues of fact that if resolved in his favor could support his claims. The defendant, despite able briefing, is unable to overcome as a matter of law the fact that Pulchalski has offered testimony that provides sworn support for all of his claims. Importantly Pulchalski has adduced evidence that could cast doubt on the defendant's proffered reasons for terminating his employment, while at the same time providing ballast for his argument in support of a causal connection between his asserted disability, request for accommodations and FMLA leave, complaints of discrimination, and eventual firing. Much of the defendant's brief offers pointed argument in an attempt to discredit Pulchalski's legal and factual assertions, and the County has endeavored to show that Pulchalski's problems at work were largely of his own making and unrelated to his leg injury and time away from work.

         These contentions may have great persuasive power at trial, but the defendant's arguments are more properly suitable for trial where they may be presented to a jury that will ultimately determine whose version of events is more plausible. Constrained by the familiar standards that govern motions for summary judgment, which that enjoin us to avoid weighing the evidence and to interpret that evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, we find that the plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence and highlighted disputes in the record that make summary judgment improper on any of the claims.

         II. BACKGROUND [1]

         Bruce Pulchalski was hired as a correctional officer at the Franklin County Jail in July or August of 2012, and worked in that capacity until his termination in July 2014.

         In April of 2013, the plaintiff suffered a calf injury, which also affected his knee. (Doc. 71, Ex. H.) During physical therapy to treat his injuries, the plaintiff suffered more extensive knee damage, which limits his ability to engage in major life activities such as walking and lifting. More than a year after his termination from employment, the plaintiff continues to suffer from the same limitations, and he remains unemployed as of the briefing on the summary judgment motions. Among the conditions that affect his knee, and cause limitations on his ability to walk, are a “flap tear” to the meniscus, as well as symptoms that are consistent with patellar chondrosis, medial synovial plica, and a meniscal tear. (Id.) Mr. Pulchalski attested that he remains unable to stand for eight hours and is limited in his ability to lift weights greater than 50 pounds, which has limited his employability. He remains unable to run, and in fact testified that he continues to walk with a limp. (Doc. 71-1, Pulchalski Dep. at 213:10-15.)

         Following the onset of his injury in April 2013, Pulchalski returned to work at the Franklin County Jail, resuming his duties on or about May 7, 2013. (Doc. 71, Exs. G, H.) At this time he was under restrictions from his doctor, to include no running, no excessive stair climbing and no contact with inmates. (Id.) Pulchalski requested and received light-duty assignment, including stints in the roll-call room, as a lobby officer, and in Central Control for much of the remainder of 2013, into December of that year.[2] (Pulchalski Dep. at 48:6-49:18.)

         According to the plaintiff, his limitations and reassignment to light-duty workstations was not well-received by his fellow corrections officers. In fact, he testified that every day at work a cadre of corrections officers would mock him and verbally make derogatory statements to the effect that he was “milking his injury.” (Id. at 66:10-19.) Another officer, Corrections Officer Heck, would accuse Pulchalski of “milking” his ailments and charged that he was seeing a “Dr. Summer-off” as a means of getting placed in light-duty assignments that kept him from being mandated for overtime and other work detail that had to be picked up by other staff. (Id. at 67:3-10.) Pulchalski also attested that he and another officer assigned to light duty would be talked to harshly by Lieutenants and other supervisory staff, who would frequently make remarks that Pulchalski interpreted as insulting and insinuating that he was not doing his job following his reassignments. (Id. and Ex. I, Certification of Lisa Hatch.) Other officers would make remarks such as “How do I bid into your position” and “Why don't you two get a real job?” (Doc. 71-1, Ex. I, Hatch Certification.) Pulchalski attested that his limitations engendered “ill will” from colleagues who had been mandated to work overtime, leading to “friction” at work. (Pulchalski Dep. at 68:200-69:3.)

         Although not accused of making verbal statements to him directly relating to his injury and reassignment, Pulchalski testified that Captain Sullen began scrutinizing his daily activities in an unprecedented fashion, continually coming by and asking questions that caused Pulchalski to feel as though he was distrusted and being subjected to harsh supervision. (Pulchalski Dep. at 80:17-21, 84:18-23, 221:7-21.) Pulchalski bolstered his own deposition testimony by noting that during this time, two other corrections officers who had disabilities or light-duty assignments had also formally complained that Captain Sullen had begun treating them in a hostile or discriminatory manner following their own injuries or reassignments. (Doc. 71, Ex. E, I.)

         Pulchalski also testified that in addition to daily disparaging commentary from his co-workers, and unprecedented scrutiny from his supervisors, in the fall of 2013 he was told directly by Warden Keen that as the top supervisory official at the prison he would “get rid of” him if continued to complain about his leg injury. (Pulchalski Dep. at 69:10-19; 210:3.) In addition, at one point during the summer of 2013, Pulchalski was returned to the jail where he was stationed in the roll call room doing light-duty work. Because of his physical restrictions Pulchalski was placed on the non-secure side of the facility and, according to the defendants, was asked to remain outside of the secure perimeter of the jail; by being subjected to this restriction, Pulchalski did not have access to the staff dining area. (Def. SMF ¶ 69.) Although the defendant argues that there was a reasonable and justifiable reason for isolating Pulchalski in this fashion, he interpreted as yet another example of being ostracized and harassed for his physical injury and resulting limitations. He testified that he had to rely on other officers to get his meals and drinks for him, and when these requests sometimes went unheeded or were ignored, Pulchalski saw further evidence of discrimination and harassment.

         On November 18, 2013, Pulchalski filed a written complaint with the Human Resources department, stating that “When I was injured and put on light duty every day coworkers would give me a hard time and make insulting comments to me. This was reported to Rouzer, Sullen, Keen, and Comfort and nothing was done.” (Doc. 71, Ex. K.) It appears that an investigation was undertaken, including questions to supervisors about “snide remarks about being on light duty, ” but ultimately those charged with looking into the allegations did not find any proof to substantiate Mr. Pulchalski's claims. (Doc. 71-1, Ex. L, M.) Nevertheless, Pulchalski testified that the negative and disparaging comments made to him persisted and were unceasing, and his feelings of alienation continued on into 2014 until his termination. (Pulchalski Dep. at 216:15-217:9.)

         As 2013 progressed, Mr. Pulchalski's leg problems continued to worsen. Thus, on December 11, 2013, he underwent a left knee arthroscopy with partial lateral menisectomy and debridement of a medial synovial plica. (Doc. 71, Ex. H.) Two days prior to surgery, Pulchalski applied for FMLA leave for an unspecified duration. Leave was approved for 12 weeks from December 11, 2013, until March 5, 2014. (Doc. 63, Ex. QQ, FMLA Paperwork and Grant of Leave Documents.) Captain Sullen and Warden Keen were both aware of the FMLA leave. (Doc. 71-1, Ex. Q, Sullen Dep. at 52:12-20; Ex. D, Keen Dep. at 22:10-17, 44:14-45:4.) During the time he was out of work, Pulchalski communicated with Rouzer and Warden Keen to develop an appropriate plan for his return. (Def. SMF ¶ 94.)

         The County initially offered Pulchalski a position to begin February 12, 2014, which was rejected via correspondence of counsel due to an alleged concern with preserving rights under a collective bargaining agreement. Another offer was thereafter made to begin work on February 24, 2014, which Pulchalski accepted and returned to the County in the Risk Management Department, reporting to Loretta McClure, the Risk Manager. (Def. SMF ¶ 96.) The position was intended to assist Pulchalski in adjusting back into the work environment while officials at the jail considered an appropriate light-duty post. (Id.)

         In May 6, 2014, Pulchalski approached McClure and stated that he did not believe he could return to his full duty position as a normally posted corrections officer, and asked about his options. McClure explained that to obtain a different position with the County, Pulchalski would have to apply just like any other candidate, and she directed him to a County jobs bulletin board. When Pulchalski inquired about a job posting in Human Resources, McClure noted that the job required a college degree, which Pulchalski does not have. He also spoke with her about County security jobs, but the positions did not include benefits, which he desired. A generalist in the Human Resources office who was conducting a market survey of security positions in the area provided the plaintiff with three job descriptions for security officers with local municipalities which did include benefits. During his deposition, Pulchalski seems to have interpreted this act as being yet another instance of harassment or an effort to get him to leave his job, though it is not clear that there is any basis for this other than Pulchalski's own subjective interpretation.

         Efforts to find Pulchalski an appropriate placement continued after the clerical tasks that Pulchalski was assisting with had been completed. McClure and Keen discussed a light-duty position and decided that they would give him a try as a visiting corridor monitor, a new position. (Def. SMF ¶ 98.) At this time, based on a doctor's note submitted in May 2014, Pulchalski's restrictions included no prolonged bending, squatting or kneeling; no standing or walking over 15 minutes per hour, and to avoid repetitive getting out of chairs, with an emphasis that he needed a sedentary position. (Def. SMF ¶ 99.)

         On May 19, 2014, Pulchalski was transferred from Human Resources back to the Franklin County Jail and for a two-week period was assigned to an administrative room that the County claims was an average-sized space and what Pulchalski describes as “essentially a closet”, where he worked until May 30, 2014. During this time, Pulchalski indicated that he complained to Captain Sullen that harassment and discriminatory treatment had once again resumed, with correctional officers persistently commenting about him going on light duty, that he was milking his injury, and verbally expressing doubts about how Pulchalski's leg injury could possibly have lasted as long as it had. (Pulchalski Dep. at 52:18-22; 217:10-218:23; Def. SMF ¶ 100.) Pulchalski testified that even though he complained about the situation to Captain Sullen, specifically describing the kind of harassment he was again experiencing on a daily basis, “nothing got better.” (Pulchalski Dep. at 218:24-219:3.) In fact, according to the plaintiff, Captain Sullen essentially ignored him as if he “didn't even say it” and undertook no investigation at all. (Id. at 218:6-219:8.) Mr. Pulchalski testified that he experienced verbal abuse from co-workers, without relief, five days a week and felt “upset” and “demeaned” by the persistent commentary on his light-duty status. (Id. at 216:5-14.)

         At the time Pulchalski was transferred back to the jail, it was contemplated that following the two weeks of clerical duties that he had been assigned, he would be transferred to a modified light-duty position monitoring the mezzanine level of the jail, which was used for visitation. (Def. SMF ¶103.) As part of this position, Pulchalski patrolled the visiting corridor once per hour, and watched for policy violations by visitors and inmates and monitor security of the area. When violations of the visitation or other policy by inmates were observed by Pulchalski, he was to contact the particular unit officer. Pulchalski was also to monitor for violations of jail policy by visitors. (Pulchalski Dep. at 53, 126:16-23; 127:100-21.) Although it appears that some visitors complained about Pulchalski treating them rudely, there is also evidence that Warden Keen and Captain Sullen were pleased with his performance in this position, as he was able to address issues occurring with visitors that had previously gone unnoticed. (Def. SMF ¶106.)

         On June 23, 2014, Pulchalski was involved in an incident that is a key part of the litigation, as it closely preceded his termination and, depending on whose story is ultimately believed either precipitated his firing or served as pretextual cover to justify getting rid of him. Needless to say, the factual record concerning what transpired on this day at the jail is sharply disputed by the parties, and we provide only a basic overview of the incident that focuses on the essential facts that appear to be either agreed upon, or which are viewed in Pulchalski's favor.

         On this day, Pulchalski was posted on the mezzanine monitoring inmate visitation, scheduled to work from 1:00 PM to 9:00 PM. Between 7:30 PM and 7:45 PM, Troy Meredith and his son, Dalton Mellott, came to visit Stacy Mellott, Dalton's mother and Troy's long-term girlfriend, who was in custody at the jail. (Def. SMF ¶ 116.) The visitors were processed into the facility, and began their visitation with Ms. Mellott. During the visit, Dalton was using a key he had from the locker the jail lobby to scrape caulking from the window to the inmate portion of the visiting room. (Def. SMF ¶120; Doc. 63, Ex. “ZZ”, Incident Report of Pulchalski dated June 23, 2014.) Pulchalski, who had been making a round on the mezzanine, observed Dalton scraping the caulking and opened the door to the visiting room and told the teenager he would have to leave the jail. (Def. SMF ¶121; Pulchalski Dep. at 152:4-13; 160:24-161-6.) According to Pulchalski, both Dalton and Mr. Meredith began arguing with him, while Pulchalski explained that he had observed Dalton damaging the window. (Def. SMF ¶¶122-123; Pulchalski Dep. at 132:8-14.) Pulchalski testified that immediately after he notified the visitors that the visit was being terminated, Dalton got in his face and became verbally and physically threatening, even rearing his arm back as if to strike Pulchalski. (Pulchalski Dep. at 133:5-134:5.)

         Mr. Meredith emerged from the room, came into the hallway, and told Dalton to calm down and to go outside. Dalton turned and did as he was told. According to Pulchalski, Dalton continued to make physical threats against him, and even threatened to “fucking kill him” in the parking lot. (Pulchalski Dep. at 144:20-22.) Pulchalski radioed for the Lieutenant who was on duty, Gregory Snodgrass, and asked him to meet him in the jail's lobby. (Id. at 144:23-145:12.) Meanwhile, Pulchalski directed Dalton to descend using the stairs, rather than escorting him in the jail's elevator. Pulchalski notified one of his colleagues that Dalton was not to be permitted back inside the building, at which point Lieutenant Snodgrass arrived. (Def. SMF ¶134.) Pulchalski informed him about the incident, the reason that he terminated the visit, and that the juvenile visitor had been escorted out of the facility while the adult remained upstairs. (Def. SMF ¶137.) Lieutenant Snodgrass was concerned with how the matter had been handled, since it would have been against policy to order a juvenile to leave the jail without his guardian. (Def. SMF ¶138.) Lt. Snodgrass and Pulchalski encountered Mr. Meredith at the elevator, and the conversation between Pulchalski and Meredith became ...

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