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Cartagena v. Temple University Hospital, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 27, 2019



          EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, J.

         Presently before the Court are the motions for summary judgment filed by Defendant, Temple University Hospital, Inc., and the cross-motion for partial summary judgment filed by Plaintiff, Cherie Cartagena. After Plaintiff developed carpal tunnel syndrome in her right dominant hand, took medical leave for over a year, and showed no significant improvement, Defendant concluded that it could no longer accommodate Plaintiff and terminated her employment. As a result, Plaintiff filed this action alleging: (1) discrimination/failure to accommodate and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. (“ADA”) and (2) retaliation under the Family Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et. seq. (“FMLA”).[1] For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant Defendant's motions and deny Plaintiff's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         A. Background on Plaintiff's Employment Position

         Plaintiff was initially hired by Defendant in July 1993 as a Phlebotomist. On November 21, 2014, Plaintiff was promoted to Ctyology Prep Technician (“CPT”). The Ctyology Department processes bodily fluids, biopsy tissue, and other specimens for the purpose of diagnosing cancer and other diseases. These specimens are typically taken during surgery while the patients are under anesthesia and then brought to the Ctyology Department. Plaintiff was the only CPT in the department. Plaintiff's direct supervisor was Theresa Castle.

         Castle described the essential job functions of a CPT as: (1) filtering and changing stains in the automatic staining machine; (2) lifting and pouring four liter and gallon containers of reagents; (3) preparing and maintaining laboratory reagents; (4) preparing specimens according to policies and procedure; (5) lifting and pouring specimens, including high volume body fluids (three liters); (6) being able to centrifuge, decant, and vortex specimens; (7) stocking and maintaining prep room supplies including unloading cases of reagents, cases of glass slides (greater than twenty pounds), and storing specimen containers in overhead bins and cabinets; and (8) cover-slipping glass slides, which requires fine motor skills. Castle explained that dexterity is a key component of the job and that a CPT needs to use two hands to handle specimens and must be able to write legibly. Defendant's job profile for the CPT position elaborates that a CPT is expected to lift up to 25 pounds for up to a third of the day.

         Plaintiff testified, inter alia, that preparing slides requires a certain amount of bilateral dexterity, that she could not prepare a slide with only her left hand, that she regularly had to write details on a small portion of the slides, and that she used both hands throughout her workday. She further testified that the CPT position requires heavy lifting and regularly handling and pouring biohazardous materials including large jars of bodily fluids. However, Plaintiff also testified that, after developing carpal tunnel syndrome, other than the lifting and pouring aspects of the position, she could perform all essential functions of the job.

         B. Relevant Factual History of Disability and Accommodation

         Plaintiff alleges that on August 26, 2015, she began experiencing carpal tunnel symptoms while performing her CPT duties and took a medical leave of absence starting that day. She was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome shortly thereafter.

         On October 22, 2015, Defendant's Manager of Benefits and Absence Management, Richard West, wrote a letter to Plaintiff which included FMLA leave paperwork. Plaintiff completed and submitted the paperwork on November 1, 2015. Defendant approved Plaintiff's leave request on November 3, 2015 for the period of October 21, 2015 through November 1, 2015. Plaintiff does not recall receiving an approval letter. Defendant allowed Plaintiff to remain on medical leave after November 1, 2015, specifically until September 2016. Defendant hired a temporary employee to cover the CPT position and ultimately hired a permanent replacement on August 26, 2016.

         At various points during her leave period, West requested status updates from Plaintiff's physicians asking, inter alia, how her medical condition would affect her work. In response to these requests, and on their own initiative, Plaintiff's physicians supplied numerous notes indicating either that Plaintiff could not return to work or could return to work with certain limitations such as no heaving lifting or pushing or pulling, and no fine manipulation, simple grasping, or keyboarding with her right hand. The Court will remark on only a few of the individual notes which are particularly relevant.

         On January 18, 2016, West asked Castle whether Plaintiff's restrictions regarding lifting could be accommodated in the CPT position. Castle responded that the Cytology Department could not accommodate those restrictions. The only possible modification to equipment identified by Castle was that “maybe” Defendant could purchase a hands-free vortexer, but that it was “prohibitively expensive.” West discussed potential accommodations with Human Resources as well. West knew that Plaintiff's doctors repeatedly advised that she could not resume her full job duties and that she did not have a projected return date.

         After her neurosurgeon cleared her for unrestricted work on February 12, 2016, Plaintiff attempted to come back to work full time on February 22, 2016. However, she left after two hours stating that she was incapable of performing her duties. Plaintiff then remained on leave. On April 4, 2016, Plaintiff had surgery on her right wrist and elbow.

         On June 7, 2016, Defendant sent Plaintiff a letter indicating that her medical leave of absence would not be extended until her physician completed a physical capabilities worksheet and a medical update form. On June 30, 2016, Plaintiff submitted a doctor's note indicating that she would not be able to return to work until further notice. On July 6, 2016, Plaintiff's primary care physician opined that she could not lift over ten pounds, push or pull, or use her right upper extremity. In a July 8, 2016 medical update, Plaintiff's orthopedic surgeon opined that Plaintiff was unable to use her right upper extremity and could not perform the essential functions of her job until a time “TBD.”

         On July 11, 2016, West emailed the Director of Labor and Employee Relations, Cheryl Devose, and Albert D'Attilio noting that Plaintiff had been on medical leave since August 28, 2015, that Plaintiff had failed to submit a long-term disability claim, and that based on her ADA forms, it did not appear as though Defendant could continue accommodating her disability. West asked whether Defendant could terminate her employment, noting that more than six months of leave had elapsed and that employees have no additional rights beyond six months.

         At West's behest, on August 19, 2016, Plaintiff's orthopedic surgeon completed another medical update form concluding that Plaintiff was “unable to resume performing the essential functions of her position” because she was “unable to use [her] right upper extremity.” The surgeon also provided that the restrictions would remain in place until a time “TBD.”

         On August 29, 2016, West sent Plaintiff a letter indicating that her physician had opined that she could not perform the essential functions of her CPT job and did not provide an expected date when she would be able to perform those functions. The letter continued that indefinite leave was not a reasonable accommodation. The letter asked Plaintiff whether she wanted Defendant to consider any additional accommodations. The letter also explained that Plaintiff could apply for other open positions as a form of accommodation.

         West followed this letter up with a September 1, 2016 phone call. During the phone call, Plaintiff stated that she knew of no accommodations that would allow her to return to the CPT position. West contends that he advised Plaintiff during this call that she could apply for other positions for which she was qualified. Plaintiff disputes that West advised her of this accommodation.

         Nonetheless, also on September 1, 2016, Plaintiff applied for a Medical Technologist: Microbiology position. However, Defendant closed that position without filling it. On the same day, Plaintiff applied for a Medical Technologist: Blood Bank position. Rather than Plaintiff, Defendant hired a prior Temple employee for that position who had extensive blood bank experience. The job description for the Blood Bank position indicates that it requires significant manual dexterity, the ability to write legibly, and requires lifting up to ten pounds up to two-thirds of the day and 25 pounds up to a third of the day. It also provides that the position requires a bachelor's degree in medical technology, biological sciences, or chemistry.

         West memorialized the details of the September 1, 2016 phone call in a September 7, 2016 email to Plaintiff. The email repeated that Plaintiff told him she was unaware of any relevant accommodations and stated that, as discussed, Defendant would terminate her employment if no accommodations could be found.

         After being unable to identify appropriate accommodations for Plaintiff and having no indication when she would be able to perform the essential functions of the CPT position, Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment on September 7, 2016.

         According to her testimony, during the interactive accommodation process Plaintiff inquired whether the reagents with which she worked could be purchased in smaller containers. She also testified that she asked about purchasing a machine that would help with the preparation of glass specimen slides but learned that it would be expensive. During her deposition, Plaintiff suggested that Defendant could have accommodated her by having someone else lift objects more than five pounds and by letting her use her left non-dominant hand for writing, grasping, pushing, pulling, and fine manipulation.

         II. SUMMARY ...

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