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Mullen v. Northampton Township

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

November 7, 2019



          JOSHUA D. WOLSON, J.

         While driving a snowplow for Northampton Township, Robert Mullen used the plow to clear a drive-thru at a local McDonald's and then to move the snow pile that he had created. Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, the Township fired Mullen for using Township property to benefit a private property owner. Mullen claims that justification was a pretext, and that the Township fired him because he had a disability and had taken leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. While one might find the Township's action unforgiving, Mullen has not adduced evidence to demonstrate that it was illegal. The Township is therefore entitled to summary judgment.

         I. FACTS

         This case stems from Northampton Township's decision to fire Robert Mullen after he was caught using a Township plow truck to plow snow in a McDonald's drive-thru during a snowstorm on January 4, 2018. None of those facts are in dispute. Mullen, however, contends that the Township fired him for discriminatory reasons and as an act of retaliation.

         Mullen worked for the Township as a laborer in the Department of Parks and Recreation since May 2006. In this role, Mullen cut grass, performed various maintenance assignments, and plowed snow in the winter, among other things. The Township does not have any written disciplinary records pertaining to Mullen. Over the years, Mullen suffered from ailments such as vertigo, a hernia, and a knee injury. Because the vertigo episodes tended to occur while he was driving at night, Mullen requested an accommodation to be excused from snowplow duties at night time. The Township granted this request in the 2016 and 2017 snow seasons and permitted Mullen to stop plowing once it got dark. With respect to the hernia, the Township provided help to Mullen and allowed him to return to work on light duty after he had corrective surgery in July 2016.

         In March 2017, Mullen slipped on ice and injured his knee while working. He filed a formal work-injury report with the Township's Human Resources in May 2017 and sought treatment at that time. Because summer is a busy time of year for Mullen, work wise, he opted to have his knee surgery on August 3, 2017. The Township's Director of Parks and Recreation thanked Mullen for holding-off on his knee surgery while it was busy. Following surgery, Mullen was out on medical leave for several weeks. He returned to work in November 2017. The Township terminated Mullen on January 18, 2018. The Township explained that Mullen was being fired for plowing private property on January 4, 2018, though there was no formal policy prohibiting such conduct. Mullen claims that this proffered reason was pretext for discrimination and retaliation due to his disability and taking medical leave.

         On July 25, 2018, Mullen filed the instant lawsuit against the Township for violations of the Rehabilitation Act (the “Rehab Act”), the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”). After discovery, the Township moved for summary judgment on each of Mullen's claims. The motion is now ripe for disposition.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) permits a party to seek, and a court to enter, summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “[T]he plain language of Rule 56[(a)] mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (quotations omitted). In ruling on a summary judgment motion, a court must “view the facts and draw reasonable inferences ‘in the light most favorable to the party opposing the [summary judgment] motion.'” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007) (quotation omitted). However, “[t]he non-moving party may not merely deny the allegations in the moving party's pleadings; instead he must show where in the record there exists a genuine dispute over a material fact.” Doe v. Abington Friends Sch., 480 F.3d 252, 256 (3d Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). The movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law when the non-moving party fails to make such a showing. Dodson v. Coatesville Hosp. Corp., No. 18-3065, ___Fed. App'x ___, 2019 WL 2338461, at *2 n.6 (3d Cir. June 3, 2019) (quotation omitted).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Discrimination Claims

         “With limited exceptions, the same legal principles govern ADA and RA claims.” C.G. v. Pennsylvania Dep't of Educ., 734 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2013). Thus, under the familiar McDonnell Douglas framework, Mullen must first establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination by demonstrating that “(1) he is a disabled person within the meaning of the [Rehab Act and] ADA; (2) he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and (3) he has suffered an otherwise adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination.” West v. Northampton Clinic Co., LLC, No. 18-cv-3132, ____Fed. App'x ___, 2019 WL 3814558, at *3 (3d Cir. Aug. 14, 2019) (quotation omitted). After the Township proffers a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment decision-Mullen's termination-Mullen must then come forward with evidence that the Township's proffered explanation is pretextual. Id.

         Mullen can survive summary judgment by “point[ing] to some evidence, direct or circumstantial, from which a factfinder could reasonably either (1) disbelieve the employer's articulated legitimate reasons; or (2) believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the employer's action.” Id. (quotation omitted). “[T]he prima facie case and pretext inquiries often overlap. … [E]vidence supporting the prima facie case is often helpful in the pretext stage, and nothing about the McDonnell Douglas [sic] formula requires [the Court] to ration the evidence between one stage or the other.” Doe v. C.A.R.S. Prot. Plus, Inc., 527 F.3d 358, 370 (3d Cir. 2008). The Township contends, and the Court agrees, that Mullen cannot survive summary judgment because he has not made a showing sufficient to establish that the Township terminated him because of his disability. He also has not shown that the Township's proffered reason for doing so was a pretext for discrimination.

         Because the prima facie case and pretext inquiries tend to overlap, Mullen relies on much of the same evidence in an attempt to satisfy both aspects of the McDonnell Douglas formula that the Township has challenged. To satisfy the third prong of his prima facie case, the causation element, Mullen must prove that the Township treated him differently based on his disability. See C.G., 734 F.3d at 236. That is, he must show that his disability “played a role in the [Township's] decisionmaking process and that it had a determinative effect on the outcome of that process.” Kelly v. Univ. of Pennsylvania Health Sys., No. 16-cv-618, 2016 WL 4149991, at *9 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 2, 2016), aff'd, 708 Fed.Appx. 60 (3d Cir. 2017). To make this showing, Mullen points to: (i) the temporal proximity of his termination, (ii) the lack of a formal policy against using a Township plow truck to plow on private property, (iii) the lack of a written disciplinary record, and (iv) a stray ...

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