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Macvaugh v. County of Montgomery

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 27, 2018

MICHAEL A. MACVAUGH, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF MONTGOMERY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Rufe, J.

         Plaintiff Michael A. MacVaugh, a 911 dispatcher working for the County of Montgomery, alleges that the County violated provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), [1] the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), [2] and the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”)[3] in terminating his employment in light of his ongoing struggle with Crohn's disease. Specifically, Plaintiff raises disability discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment claims under the ADA and the PHRA, as well as a retaliation claim under the FMLA. The County has moved to dismiss, arguing that Plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies and failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For reasons that follow, the Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Complaint alleges the following facts, which are assumed to be true for purposes of the Motion to Dismiss. Plaintiff worked for the County's Emergency Services Department as a 911 dispatcher for nine years-from 2007 to 2016.[4] Plaintiff generally worked two to three days each week in twelve-hour shifts.[5] In May 2008, Plaintiff was diagnosed with Crohn's disease-a chronic, autoimmune disorder that causes “extreme abdominal pain, diarrhea and fevers, ” and requires life-long medical treatment.[6] As a result of his Crohn's disease, Plaintiff applied for and received intermittent FMLA leave from the County on March 5, 2011, December 9, 2011, and December 9, 2012.[7]

         In November 2013, Plaintiff experienced a “flare-up” of his Crohn's disease that required hospitalization.[8] On November 24, 2013, he emailed his supervisors to inform them that he would be out sick because of the flare-up.[9] Plaintiff requested FMLA leave, but did not receive a decision on his request, and was instead cited for “excessive absenteeism.”[10] Plaintiff also requested a transfer to a position that was “more administrative in nature, ” but this transfer was denied.[11] Plaintiff applied for two other positions with the County that would have required him to work eight-hour shifts as opposed to twelve-hour shifts, but was not awarded either position.[12]

         In 2015, Plaintiff experienced further complications with his Crohn's disease, and underwent major abdominal surgery that required him to be out of work for a month.[13] When he returned to work, he was permitted to temporarily work eight-hour shifts, but then went back to his regular twelve-hour shifts.[14] It was after this surgery that other employees began treating Plaintiff differently and excluding him from trainings and meetings because he was “sick.”[15] In February 2016, Plaintiff underwent double hip replacement surgery, necessitated by a further complication of his Crohn's disease.[16]

         Plaintiff alleges that upon his return to work after his hip surgery, he experienced problems with his coworkers and supervisors. For example, one supervisor chastised him for raising a concern during a meeting, and another warned him “that he needed to watch his etiquette on the dispatch radio.”[17] In July 2016, he was called into a meeting with two of his supervisors where he was “warned that he was out of his seat too much and too long” and that his breaks would be monitored.[18] The following month, Plaintiff was called into the office and told that his coworkers thought he was sleeping on the job. Although Plaintiff informed his supervisors that he was not sleeping but was instead suffering from dry eye problems associated with Crohn's disease, he was sent home for allegedly sleeping.[19] On October 16, 2016, Plaintiff applied for FMLA leave, but did not receive a response.[20] Rather, on October 24, 2016, Plaintiff was again accused of sleeping on the job and was terminated.[21]

         On February 9, 2017, Plaintiff filed a dual charge with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and shortly thereafter received a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Dismissal for failure to state a claim is appropriate if the complaint fails to allege facts sufficient to establish a plausible entitlement to relief.[22] In evaluating a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court “take[s] as true all the factual allegations of the [complaint] and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them, ” but “disregard[s] legal conclusions and recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements.”[23] Instead, to prevent dismissal, a complaint must “set out sufficient factual matter to show that the claim is facially plausible.”[24] “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”[25]

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         Defendant contends Plaintiff did not exhaust his administrative remedies because he failed to timely file his ADA and PHRA claims.[26] “A plaintiff must exhaust all required administrative remedies before bringing a claim for judicial relief.”[27] This includes timely filing a charge of discrimination with the PHRC and the EEOC before bringing suit.[28] For a charge to be timely, the plaintiff must normally file his charge of discrimination with the EEOC within 180 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice took place.[29] “However, in a ‘deferral state' such as Pennsylvania, that is, a state which has a state or local law prohibiting the practice alleged and established or authorizing the state or local authority to grant or seek relief from practices prohibited under the ADA, the plaintiff has not 180 but 300 days from the date of the alleged unlawful employment practice in which to file [his] charge of discrimination with the EEOC.”[30] The EEOC will then investigate the charge, and, if warranted, will issue a right-to-sue letter allowing the plaintiff to initiate a private action.

         Plaintiff dual-filed a charge with the PHRC and the EEOC on February 9, 2017. The Court therefore looks to conduct occurring from April 15, 2016 to February 9, 2017. The Complaint alleges that during this period, Plaintiff had returned to work after his second major surgery, and began experiencing problems with his coworkers and supervisors. For example, in July 2016, Plaintiff was called into a meeting with two of his supervisors during which he was criticized for taking frequent and long bathroom breaks, and was warned that his breaks would be monitored.[31] During this period, Plaintiff was criticized for his “etiquette on the dispatch radio, ” despite never receiving such a critique for more than eight years on the job.[32] In August 2016, Plaintiff was called into a supervisor's office and was accused to sleeping on the job. Although Plaintiff tried to explain to his supervisors that he was not sleeping but was instead suffering from dry eye problems associated with Crohn's disease, he was sent home.[33] On October 16, 2016, Plaintiff applied for FMLA leave, but did not receive a decision on his application. Instead, eight days later, Plaintiff was again accused of sleeping on the job and was terminated.[34] To the extent that these facts allege claims under the ADA and PHRA, these claims will not be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

         Although the above-mentioned conduct occurred within the 300-day time period, Plaintiff also seems to allege Defendant should be held liable for discrete acts that occurred years before. Specifically, Plaintiff appears to assert that, in 2014, he applied for three open positions with the County for jobs that were more administrative in nature to accommodate his disability, but that he was denied these transfers.[35] To the extent that Plaintiff seeks to state an ADA or PHRA claim based on these transfers, such a claim would be untimely, and will be dismissed.[36]

         B. Failure to State a Claim

         1. Disability Discrimination, Retaliation, and Hostile Work Environment Claims in Violation of the ADA and PHRA (Count I)

         a. Disability Discrimination

         To plead a prima facie case of disability discrimination under the ADA or PHRA, [37] “a plaintiff must show that he is (1) disabled within the meaning of the ADA, (2) can perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation, and (3) suffered an adverse employment action as a result of discrimination based on his disability.”[38]

         Here, Plaintiff stated that he suffers from Crohn's disease, which courts have recognized as a disability within the meaning of the ADA.[39] He has also alleged that he was able to perform the essential functions of his job as a 911 dispatcher, which includes receiving 911 calls, providing aid, and connecting callers to the appropriate first responders, with or without reasonable accommodation.[40] For example, Plaintiff performed his duties as a 911 dispatcher for more than eight years without incident. He also suggested that the reasonable accommodation of temporarily reducing his shift from twelve to eight hours allowed him to return to work shortly after undergoing surgery related to his Crohn's disease.[41] Furthermore, Plaintiff alleged that he suffered an adverse employment action by being terminated based on his disability.[42] Despite explaining to his supervisors that he suffered from dry eye symptoms as a side effect of his Crohn's disease, he was fired after being falsely accused of sleeping during his shift.[43] He also alleged that his termination occurred shortly after he requested FMLA leave.[44] Plaintiff, therefore, has stated a claim for disability discrimination under the ADA and PHRA.

         b. Retaliation

         To state a retaliation claim under the ADA or PHRA, the employee must allege (1) a protected employee activity, (2) an adverse employment action, and (3) a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action.[45]

         Accepting all factual allegations as true, Plaintiff has plausibly stated a claim for retaliation under the ADA and PHRA. First, Plaintiff alleged that he engaged in protected conduct by taking FMLA leave on several occasions due to his Crohn's disease, which included time spent recovering from major abdominal and hip surgeries.[46] Plaintiff also submitted a final FMLA leave request to his supervisors on October 16, 2016. Second, Plaintiff stated that he suffered from an adverse employment action, i.e., termination, after submitting this final FMLA leave request.[47] Third, Plaintiff alleged a causal link between his final request for FMLA leave and his termination.[48] In fact, his firing occurred a mere eight days after his leave request.[49] He also has pleaded facts suggesting that his supervisors were increasingly antagonistic towards him leading up to his termination, stating that his supervisors chastised him in front of his coworkers, warned him about taking inappropriately long breaks, and falsely accused him of sleeping on the job. Thus, Plaintiff has stated a claim for retaliation under the ADA and PHRA.

         c. Hostile Work Environment

         To make out a hostile work environment claim under the ADA or PHRA, a plaintiff must allege that: (1) he is a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA, (2) he was subject to unwelcome harassment, (3) the harassment was based on his disability or request for an accommodation, (4) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of his employment and create an abusive working environment, and (5) the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt, effective remedial action.[50]

         The “severe or pervasive” element requires conduct that is sufficient “to alter the conditions of [the plaintiff's] employment and to create an abusive working environment.”[51] In determining whether a work environment is sufficiently abusive or hostile, courts look at all the circumstances, including “the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance.”[52]

         In this case, the Complaint alleges that after returning from his second surgery, Plaintiff was chastised in a meeting, was criticized about his “etiquette on the dispatch radio, ” was called into his supervisor's office where he was warned about being “out of his seat too much, ” and was told that his breaks would be monitored.[53] Plaintiff also alleged that he attempted to take FMLA leave, but instead of being granted this request, his supervisors falsely accused him of sleeping on the job and fired him.[54] Taken together over the final eight-month period from Plaintiff's second surgery leading up to his termination, these actions suggest the type of “severe or pervasive” discriminatory conduct that could create an abusive or hostile work environment.[55]For purposes of the Motion to Dismiss, Plaintiff has stated a hostile work environment claim under the ADA and PHRA.

         2. Retaliation in Violation of the FMLA (Count II)

         “Courts have recognized that the FMLA creates two essentially distinct causes of action.”[56] First, an interference claim prohibits an employer from acting to “interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise, any right” secured by the Act.[57]Second, a “retaliation” or “discrimination” claim makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against the employee for exercising, or attempting to exercise, his FMLA rights.[58]

         “To state a claim for FMLA retaliation, an employee must allege that (1) [he] engaged in protected conduct; (2) [he] suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) the adverse action was causally related to the request for leave.”[59] A plaintiff may establish a causal link between the protected right and the adverse employment decision by temporal proximity or evidence of antagonistic conduct.[60] “As with other retaliation claims, the Court utilizes the burden-shifting framework set forth by the United States Supreme Court in McDonnell-Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).”[61]

         Here, Plaintiff allegedly engaged in protected conduct by requesting leave on October 16, 2016, due to complications with his Crohn's disease.[62] However, Plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action when he was terminated on October 24, 2016.[63] As his firing occurred a mere eight days after his leave request, [64] and he pleaded facts suggesting that his supervisors were becoming increasingly hostile towards him by chastising him in front of his coworkers, monitoring his restroom ...


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