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Strausser v. Gertrude Hawk Chocolate, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 26, 2018




         Plaintiff Mark Strausser (hereinafter “plaintiff”) asserts that defendant Gertrude Hawk Chocolate, Inc., (hereinafter “defendant”) violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 (hereinafter “the ADA”) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 951 (hereinafter “the PHRA”) by terminating him unlawfully after he completed rehabilitation to treat alcohol addiction. Before the court is defendant's motion for summary judgment filed pursuant to Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The parties have briefed their respective positions and the motion is ripe for disposition.


         The second amended complaint identifies plaintiff as a 48-year-old male who worked as a machine operator for defendant for about eleven (11) months until he was terminated. (Doc. 34 pl. sec. amend. compl. ¶¶ 11, 12).[1] Plaintiff worked full-time from August 17, 2014 (Doc. 52 pl. resp. to def. stmnt. mat. fcts. at 4, ¶ 1) to January 30, 2015. After rehabilitation, plaintiff returned to work.

         Plaintiff contacted defendant's human resources department (herein after “HR”) in December 2014 to express his desire to check into a rehabilitation facility and request time off work to do so. (Doc. 47, ¶ 15). Defendant's HR department granted plaintiff's request, having knowledge of plaintiff's two motor vehicle accidents in one day, December 25, 2014, both the result of driving under the influence. Id., (see also Doc. 48 at 15).

         After rehabilitation plaintiff returned to work. Plaintiff was terminated by his production supervisor, Ron Madigan (hereinafter referred to as “Madigan”), on January 30, 2015 (Doc. 47-5 at 131), his second day back to work after completing thirty-one (31) days (December 29, 2014 through January 28, 2015) at Retreat at Lancaster County in Ephrata, Pennsylvania (hereinafter “Retreat”), (Doc. 47-5 at 50, 55, pl. exh. 4).

         Procedurally, plaintiff initiated this lawsuit by filing a complaint on December 21, 2015 against defendant for violating his rights under the ADA and PHRA (Doc. 1). Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, (Doc. 19), on June 20, 2016, [2] and a second amended complaint on January 17, 2017. (Doc. 34). Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, on July 7, 2017, bringing the case to its current posture.


         As this case is brought pursuant to the ADA for unlawful employment discrimination, we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (“The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.”) The court has supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff's PHRA claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

         Standard of review

         Granting summary judgment is proper “‘if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” See Knabe v. Boury, 114 F.3d 407, 410 n.4 (3d Cir. 1997) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). “[T]his standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). A material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Id.

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must examine the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Int'l Raw Materials, Ltd. v. Stauffer Chem. Co., 898 F.2d 946, 949 (3d Cir. 1990). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (1986). A fact is material when it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. Where the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the party moving for summary judgment may meet its burden by showing that the evidentiary materials of record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient to carry the non-movant's burden of proof at trial. Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once the moving party satisfies its burden, the burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who must go beyond its pleadings, and designate specific facts by the use of affidavits, depositions, admissions, or answers to interrogatories showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324.


         Count I of plaintiff's second amended complaint (Doc. 34) alleges the following claims for violations of the ADA: disability discrimination; failure to accommodate; and retaliation. Count II alleges the same claims for violations under the PHRA. Each claim can lead to a separate violation of the ADA. We will examine each claim in turn.

         I Count one- ADA

         (A) Disability discrimination

         The elements of a discrimination case under the ADA are: (1) Plaintiff is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) Plaintiff is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and (3) Plaintiff has suffered an otherwise adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination. See Wilmore v. American Atelier, Inc., 72 F.Supp. 526, 528 (E.D. Pa. 1999), citing Taylor v. Phoenixville Sch. Dist., 184 F.3d 296, 306 (3d Cir. 1999); Gaul v. Lucent Technologies, Inc., 134 F.3d 576, 580 (3d Cir. 1998). The law forbids employers from discriminating against qualified people with a disability, because of their disability. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a) (emphasis added). We will examine the elements in turn.[3]

         A plaintiff may assert an ADA disability discrimination claim with direct or circumstantial evidence. Here, plaintiff alleges that both direct and circumstantial evidence establish his ADA disability discrimination claim. (Doc. 51 at 7). We disagree.[4] Other than what might be considered direct evidence contained in deposition transcripts and other exhibits, plaintiff's disability discrimination claim is based upon circumstantial evidence.

         Where the complaining party relies upon circumstantial evidence to support a disability discrimination claim, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has approved the use of the three-step burden-shifting framework announced in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 782, 802 (1973), see Shiring v. Runyon, 90 F.3d 827, 831 (3d Cir. 1996).

         In the first step of the burden-shifting framework, a plaintiff seeking recovery under the ADA must establish a prima facie case of discrimination by demonstrating the three prima facie elements noted above. The court will not reach the burden-shifting framework unless plaintiff presents sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA, element (1).

         Defendant essentially argues that plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of disability under the ADA because his claims of alcohol addiction, drug addiction and mental health flow from the mere fact that he entered a rehabilitation facility, and that plaintiff was terminated for insubordinate behavior.

         Plaintiff counters that he is disabled due to alcohol addiction, synthetic marijuana addiction, bi-polar disorder, anxiety, and depression. (Doc. 34 ¶¶ 26-29). Plaintiff disputes that he was insubordinate or terminated for insubordinate behavior, and instead, plaintiff argues that his supervisor, Madigan, unlawfully terminated him because of his disability and request for accommodation. (Doc. 52 ¶ 31). Plaintiff ...

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