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Duran v. County of Clinton

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

July 3, 2019

THOMAS V. DURAN, Plaintiff
v.
COUNTY OF CLINTON, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM

          CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER, CHIEF JUDGE.

         The parties filed a bevy of pretrial motions in advance of their upcoming civil trial. Defendant County of Clinton (the “County”) filed an omnibus motion (Doc. 70) in limine seeking to preclude certain testimony and evidence as well as two motions (Docs. 90, 93) to quash trial subpoenas. Plaintiff Thomas V. Duran (“Duran”) filed a motion (Doc. 68) in limine to exclude expert witness testimony and a motion (Doc. 79) for spoliation sanctions.

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History[1]

         The County is governed by a three-member Board of Commissioners that was comprised at all relevant times of former defendants Robert Smeltz, Joel Long, and Jeffrey Snyder (“Commissioner Snyder”). Duran, 2019 WL 1424572, at *1. The commissioners were members of the seven-person Clinton County Prison Board (the “Prison Board”) which oversees the Clinton County Correctional Facility (the “Facility”) and recommends Facility personnel decisions to the Board of Commissioners for approval. Id. at *2. Commissioner Snyder was the Prison Board chairman in 2012, and Duran served as warden of the Facility pursuant to a five-year employment contract that expired on November 5, 2012. Id.

         Duran experienced numerous and significant health issues during his tenure as warden. Id. Between 2008 and 2011, he required multiple periods of time away from work to recover from eight surgeries. Id. Duran notified the Prison Board by interoffice memo dated October 5, 2012, that he scheduled a shoulder surgery for October 29 and required corresponding medical leave. Id. at *5. At a public meeting on October 24, 2012, the Prison Board voted to suspend Duran with pay for the duration of his employment contract and then terminate him. Id. The County contends that Duran was fired because of his poor management of the Facility and its finances. Id.; see id. at *2-4. Duran believes his termination stemmed from Commissioner Snyder's discriminatory animus toward Duran's disabilities and age.

         Duran commenced this action on October 23, 2014. After Rule 56 motion practice, this matter is proceeding to trial on the following claims against the County: retaliation in violation of the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. (Count I), discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (Counts III, IV), and discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (Counts V, VI). Jury selection and trial are scheduled for August 12, 2019. Duran and the County have each filed several pretrial motions.

         II. Discussion

         The County moves to preclude Duran from introducing evidence or testimony relating to: (1) a former employee's termination from the County's employ; (2) Duran's anticipated position that he occasionally worked from home as an ADA accommodation; (3) Commissioner Snyder's purported discriminatory animus toward Duran on account of his disabilities; and (4) the destruction of County emails in June 2014.[2] Duran requests spoliation sanctions and an adverse inference against the County concerning this alleged intentional destruction. The County also moves to quash trial subpoenas issued to witnesses whose proffered testimony would concern the former employee's discharge and the destruction of the County's emails. We take these issues in turn.

         A. Evidence Concerning Treatment of Similarly Situated Employee

         Duran has identified Connie Eck (“Eck”) as a similarly situated employee against whom he believes the County also discriminated on the basis of disability. The County seeks to exclude any evidence pertaining to Eck's termination from trial. (Doc. 71 at 4). It contends that the evidence is irrelevant to Duran's claims that the County, through its Prison Board, retaliated against him for requesting medical leave, in violation of the FMLA and the ADA, and otherwise discriminated against him because of his disability. (See Doc. 55 ¶¶ 58, 74, 80-81, 88, 96).

         To prevail on his FMLA and ADA claims, Duran must establish that the County's proffered justifications for firing him were pretext for discrimination. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 804-05 (1973); Lichtenstein v. Univ. of Pittsburgh Med. Ctr., 691 F.3d 294, 302 (3d Cir. 2012); Shaner v. Synthes, 204 F.3d 494, 500-01 (3d Cir. 2000). “Evidence of an employer's conduct towards other employees” is both relevant and admissible to prove pretext. Ansell v. Green Acres Contracting Co., 347 F.3d 515, 521 (3d Cir. 2003); Becker v. ARCO Chem. Co., 207 F.3d 176, 194 n.8 (3d Cir. 2000) (collecting cases). This evidence tends to fall into two categories of proof: “that the [County] treated other, similarly situated persons out of [Duran's] protected class more favorably, or that the [County] has discriminated against other members of [Duran's] protected class or other protected categories of persons.” Ansell, 347 F.3d at 521 (quoting Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 765 (3d Cir. 1994)).[3]

         Duran contends that Eck falls in the second category, that is, that she was likewise discriminated against by the County on the basis of disability. By way of background, Eck was initially hired as a corrections officer in 2004 and later became the Facility's laundry supervisor. (Doc. 72-3, Eck Depo 11:12-15).[4] In March 2012, the laundry supervisor position was eliminated and Eck returned to a corrections officer role working six days a week on the night shift. (Id. at 11:21-12:5, 12:21-14:9, 14:21-25, 15:11-19, 15:24-16:3). According to a doctor's note dated March 26, 2012, Eck suffered from “longstanding anxiety and depression” and the severity of her symptoms limited her to a “40-hour work week” schedule. (Id. at 17:17-18:2). A second doctor's note dated April 18, 2012-which Eck testified that she gave to a supervisor at the Facility-attributed a worsening of her health conditions to “the change in hours, change in responsibilities[, ] and increased interactions with inmates” associated with her new corrections officer position. (Id. at 19:3-16, 19:25-20:17). On April 26, 2012, the Board of Commissioners voted to confirm the termination of Eck effective April 20. (See id. at 21:25-22:17). A notice dated April 22, 2012, indicates that Eck's last day of employment at the Facility was April 16 and that she was terminated because “she could not perform the job.” (Doc. 72-4 at 1; Eck Dep. 26:17-28:18).

         The evidence reflects notable similarities between the Prison Board's treatment of Duran and of Eck. In October 2012, the Prison Board suspended Duran with pay for the duration of his employment contract and then terminated him approximately three weeks after Duran provided notice of his shoulder surgery and his need for medical leave. Duran, 2019 WL 1424572, at *5. Six months prior, the County terminated Eck's employment as a corrections officer effective two days after she provided the Facility with a doctor's note indicating that her new work schedule and responsibilities were exacerbating her mental and physical health issues. (Eck Dep. 19:3-20:17, 21:25-22:17). Eck's discharge notice states that her last day of employment was April 16, 2012, two days before she supposedly furnished the Facility with her doctor's note. (Doc. 72-4 at 1; Eck Dep. 22:1-13, 26:17-28:3). Both Duran and Eck were fired in close temporal proximity to when they identified their disabilities and need for accommodations, and their respective discharges were approved by the same commissioners acting on behalf of the County.

         We find that the parallels between the County's termination of Eck and Duran support admission of Eck's testimony and documentary evidence as relevant to prove the County's discriminatory posture toward individuals with disabilities. We are unpersuaded by the County's blanket assertion that introduction of such evidence will “likely [] create a trial within a trial.” (Doc. 71 at 4). Eck's testimony and related documentary evidence are probative of the County's discriminatory intent, and the mere fact that such evidence may be harmful to the County's case does not render it unfairly prejudicial. For all of these reasons, we will deny the County's motion in limine to exclude evidence and testimony concerning Eck's ...


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