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GASKINS v. RUNYON

March 29, 1994

ALBERTA P. GASKINS, Plaintiff
v.
MARVIN T. RUNYON, Postmaster General, Defendant.


HAROLD H. GREENE, United States District Judge


The opinion of the court was delivered by: GREENE

This case came before the Court for a bench trial. With the benefit of the full record now before the Court, including Proposed Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law presented by both plaintiff and defendant, this case is ripe for a decision on the merits.

 I

 Plaintiff began her employment with the United States Postal Service in 1963 as a "Distribution Clerk" and was later promoted to the position of "Special Distribution Clerk" or "Review Clerk." These positions essentially involved the sorting of mail while standing in front of a metal "case" that contained various slots for receiving mail. However, the duties of these positions also involved considerable physical activity, including lifting, pushing, and pulling large quantities of mail.

 In 1979, plaintiff allegedly injured her back while on the job. *fn1" As a result, plaintiff was absent from work a significant amount of time from 1979 through 1983. During 1983 she was terminated by the Postal Service. Subsequently, however, an arbitrator ordered defendant, pursuant to her rights under the then existing collective bargaining agreement in effect between her union and the Postal Service, to re-employ plaintiff in a position which could be performed in a chair with a back support. As a result, plaintiff returned to work in January 1985 and was assigned a position as a Review Clerk in the Rehabilitation Unit, a unit that had been established and designated especially for postal employees with back problems; employees who required reduced work loads, and positions that could be accomplished through the use of chairs with back supports.

 While working in the Rehabilitation Unit during 1985 and 1986, plaintiff was not required to engage in heavy lifting or other strenuous activities normally required of a Review Clerk. In addition, employees in the Rehabilitation Unit worked in front of shorter "cases" than those ordinarily used by Review Clerks. This allowed the clerks to perform their sorting functions while seated.

 Sometime prior to plaintiff's return to work in 1985, a number of "blue" chairs were purchased specifically for use in the Rehabilitation Unit. These chairs were purchased for that unit based upon their alleged "orthopedic" characteristics. After these chairs were purchased, it became defendant's policy to require all employees in the unit to use the chairs. However, several employees, plaintiff among them, apparently disliked the "blue" chairs and requested the use of other chairs available in the facility. Specifically, plaintiff repeatedly requested the use of an "orange" chair apparently available in the cafeteria. This request was denied.

 Plaintiff alleged that the "blue" chair she was required to use worsened her back condition and caused her great pain. She further alleged that as a consequence, she was forced to miss substantial periods of work in 1985 and 1986, and eventually to leave the Postal Service in May 1986, never to return. Plaintiff retired based upon disability in 1989.

 Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 29 U.S.C. §§ 791 and 794 (sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act) alleging that defendant's refusal to accommodate her request to use the "orange" chair, or any chair other than the mandated "blue" chair, represented discrimination on the basis of her handicap. She further alleged that defendant's actions in this regard caused her "constructive discharge" and forced her into a disability retirement in 1989. *fn2" The complaint sought, inter alia, back-pay for work allegedly missed due to defendant's wrongful behavior, reinstatement to her former or a comparable position, and attorney's fees.

 II

 To establish a prima facie claim under the Rehabilitation Act, an employee must first establish (1) that she is a "handicapped person," (2) that she is "otherwise qualified," and (3) that defendant's practices which prejudiced her were motivated "solely by reason of her handicap or caused by a handicap-related disparity." *fn3" See Matzo v. Postmaster General, 685 F. Supp. 260, 262 (D.D.C. 1987), aff'd, 274 U.S. App. D.C. 95, 861 F.2d 1290 (D.C. Cir. 1988); Guerriero v. Schultz, 557 F. Supp. 511, 513 (D.D.C. 1983).

 A

 The initial inquiry, then, is whether plaintiff was a "handicapped person" during 1985 and 1986, the period in question, for purposes of the Rehabilitation Act. A handicapped person is "any person who (i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person's major life activities, (ii) has a record of such an impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment." 29 U.S.C. § 706(7)(B). *fn4" "Physical or Mental impairment" is defined, in pertinent part, as:

 any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfiguration, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: Neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genito-urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endoctrine . . . .

 29 C.F.R. § 1613.702(b)(1). "Major life activities" is defined as "functions, such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, ...


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