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Bronson v. Southeastern Pa Trans. Authority (Septa)

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 23, 2018




         Plaintiff Andrew Bronson brings this unlawful termination suit against Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (“SEPTA”) under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12112-12117, and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. See Compl. at 1, ECF No. 3. SEPTA has moved for summary judgment on all claims. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant SEPTA's motion for summary judgment as to all counts.


         Bronson was employed by SEPTA as a train operator for approximately ten years before his employment was terminated on September 8, 2015. Id. at 6. During that time, Bronson was disciplined several times for substandard attendance. He also violated train traffic signals on four occasions. On that basis, SEPTA terminated Bronson's employment. Bronson, who suffers from depression and generalized anxiety disorder, argues that “the reason provided by [SEPTA] for its termination of Plaintiff was merely pretext for terminating his employment because of his disabilities, ” and further that his termination was “in violation of the FMLA.” Id.

         Bronson began working at SEPTA as a bus driver on September 19, 2005. Statement of Uncontested Material Facts (“SOF”) ¶ 1, ECF No. 18. On July 22, 2012, he transferred to a train operator position. Id. at ¶ 2. While he was a bus driver, Bronson alleges that SEPTA discriminated against him on account of his alleged disabilities by: (a) assessing him “points” under an attendance policy for unauthorized absences when he was attending counselling sessions and (b) not authorizing an absence to attend a counselling session on one occasion. See Compl. ¶¶ 6-15, 25-27; see also April 19, 2017 deposition transcript of Plaintiff (“Bronson Tr.”) at 216:3-222:17, ECF No. 18-2.

         Bronson claims that, in 2012, his disabilities became “aggravated . . . due to work and family stress.” Id. He thereafter sought therapeutic treatment from Life Counseling Services while continuing to “effectively perform the duties of his position with SEPTA.” Id. Bronson claims that he explained to his supervisors that he would be intermittently absent from work so that he could treat his disability with therapy sessions at life counseling.” Id. Despite this notification, Bronson claims that he was disciplined for substandard attendance. Id. These incidents, described in the Complaint, occurred on October 8, 2012; January 17, 2013; and April 9, 2013.

         Beginning on July 22, 2012, Bronson was transferred to SEPTA's Fern Rock Transportation Center to work as a train operator. Id. at ¶ 14. Between the date of the transfer and April 9, 2013, the date of his last discipline, Bronson was disciplined four times for excessive absences. Id. at ¶ 16. Further, on three occasions, he was orally warned about his excessive absences, and on one occasion he served a one-day administrative suspension. Id. at ¶ 17.

         Bronson claims that he was missing work to attend counselling sessions during the period of time when he was being disciplined for excessive absences. Bronson Tr. 209:4-15. He has put forth no evidence, however, that he notified SEPTA during the July 22, 2012 to April 9, 2013 time period that he was seeking leave to attend counselling sessions.

         Even though SEPTA provides employees such as Bronson with notice of their FMLA rights through numerous forums, including through the parties' Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) a copy of which Bronson acknowledged receiving, he claims that he was unaware that he might have been eligible to take leave pursuant to the FMLA until 2014. See Def. Mot. at Ex. D., ECF No. 18-2; see also Bronson Tr. 26:6-17; 227:13 to 228:4; Compl. ¶ 16.

         Bronson first applied for FMLA leave on June 23, 2014, but his application was denied because he failed to provide the required medical certification. SOF ¶ 18. Bronson then re-applied for FMLA leave, this time providing the required certification. Id. at ¶ 19. Upon receiving his completed application, SEPTA's third-party FMLA vendor approved Bronson to use intermittent leave from September 19, 2014 to March 15, 2015. Id. at ¶ 20.

         Bronson's first signal violation occurred on November 19, 2012, when he drove a subway train through a stop signal while transporting passengers. Id. at ¶ 33. An automatic safety feature caused the train to “go into emergency, ” meaning the train came to a halt. Id. at ¶ 34. As a result of that violation, SEPTA sought to impose a five-day suspension on Bronson. Id. at ¶ 35. After the violation and discipline were reviewed with Bronson and a Union representative at an Informal Hearing, Bronson accepted the discipline and declined to pursue his grievance any further. Id. at ¶¶ 36, 37.

         The second signal violation occurred on November 14, 2013, when Bronson drove his train through a red signal as he was approaching a station, again causing his train to go into emergency. Id. at ¶ 38. As a result of that violation, SEPTA sought to suspend Bronson for ten days. Id. at ¶ 39. Bronson disputed that violation finding through all four stages of the grievance process. Id. at ¶ 40. At each step of the grievance process, the discipline was upheld, culminating with a neutral arbitrator upholding the discipline. Id. at ¶ 41. After the second signal violation, Bronson's supervisor provided him with oral coaching recommending that he slow down while driving the train, even if that meant the train would be late in arriving to the next station. Id. at ¶ 42.

         The third signal violation occurred on June 12, 2014, when Bronson again drove a train through another stop signal. Id. at ¶ 43. As a result of that violation, SEPTA sought to terminate Plaintiff's employment. Id. at ¶ 44. Bronson testified at his deposition that there was no exculpatory or mitigating explanation for why he violated the signal on this occasion. Id. at ¶ 45.

         After the Informal Hearing for the third signal violation, during which Bronson's Union indicated that it would not be contesting the underlying merits of the violation, Union Representative Keith Swaby advised Bronson during a phone call that his employment would be terminated unless he signed a Last Chance Agreement. Id. at ¶ 46. Swaby reviewed the substantive terms of the Agreement with Bronson during their phone call. I ...

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