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Baker v. Potter

December 10, 2002

ESSIE J. BAKER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, DEFENDANT.



Document No.: 45

MEMORANDUM OPINION

DENYING THE DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR LEAVE TO WITHDRAW ADMISSIONS AND SUBSTITUTE LATE-FILED RESPONSE

I. INTRODUCTION

This case presents the classic situation in which the application of a rule of federal civil procedure will have a substantive impact on the underlying litigation. John E. Potter, *fn1 named in his official capacity as Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service ("the defendant" or "Postal Service"), asks the court for leave to withdraw matters that, by operation of Rule 36 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, are deemed admitted for purposes of the underlying discrimination claim, including the defendant's pending motion for summary judgment. Essie J. Baker ("the plaintiff"), a Postal Service letter carrier, urges the court to deny the defendant's motion and allow the admissions to stand. For the reasons that follow, the court denies the defendant's motion.

II. BACKGROUND

Initially filed as two complaints but now consolidated into one, the case before the court involves two separate actions taken by the Postal Service that the plaintiff believes were discriminatory. Specifically, she alleges that the defendant twice violated federal anti-discrimination law: first, by altering her employment status from carrier to clerk, and second, by denying her a promotion to the position of Acting Supervisor. Compl. (00-0786) at 1-2; Compl. (00-1104) at 1; Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Opp'n") at 1.

The first action stems from a wrist injury sustained by the plaintiff in 1995 while she was delivering mail. Opp'n at 14. After a period of recuperation, she returned to work in 1996, signing a contract known as a Rehabilitation Job Offer that established her position as a "Modified Carrier." Id. Within a few months, however, she noticed that her pay stubs reflected the position of "Modified Part-Time Flexible Clerk" ("PTF Clerk"). Id. After requesting a copy of the contract, she discovered that her Modified Carrier title had been "whited-out" and replaced with the PTF Clerk title, a change that the plaintiff alleges amounted to a demotion. Id. at 14-15; Compl. (00-0786) at 1. These events prompted the plaintiff to file an Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") complaint in March 1997 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Opp'n at 15, Ex. 38 at 1. Her complaint alleged discrimination based on disability and retaliation for prior EEOC activity. Id. In September 1999, after an administrative law judge ruling, the Postal Service issued a final agency decision finding no discrimination and closing the case. Id. Ex. 38 at 1.

The second action arises out of a separate, long-running dispute between Ms. Baker and the Postal Service regarding her opportunity for promotion to the position of Acting Supervisor. The plaintiff states that despite her expressed interest in the position, and despite a settlement under which the defendant agreed to afford her the opportunity to serve in that position as long as her physical limitations allowed it, the Postal Service continuously refused to appoint her as an Acting Supervisor. Opp'n at 3-5, Ex. 10. In September 1992, the plaintiff filed an EEO complaint alleging discrimination based on disability, gender, and retaliation. Id. at 6, Ex. 22 at 3. In February 2000, after several years involving the complaint's withdrawal and reinstatement as well as multiple appeals, the EEOC issued a final decision that dismissed the plaintiff's claims. Id. Ex. 22 at 4.

In informing the plaintiff of their final decisions, both the Postal Service and the EEOC included a notice of right to file a civil action in federal court (a "right-to-sue" letter). Id. Exs. 38 at 1-2 and 22 at 5. With the letters in hand, the plaintiff *fn2 filed two complaints *fn3 in the spring of 2000. Mirroring her EEOC claims, the first complaint alleged discrimination based on disability and retaliation; the second, discrimination based on disability, gender, and retaliation. Compl. (00-0786) at 1-2; Compl. (00-1104) at 1. Although the initial complaints did not identify the statutory bases for the actions, the parties' subsequent submissions indicate that the claims are premised on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and Sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 791 et seq. See, e.g., Opp'n at 21, 31, 35.

The defendant moved to dismiss both complaints for failure to timely file the complaints, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. Mot. to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summ. J. (00-0786); Mot. to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summ. J. (00-1104). After concluding that the plaintiff effectively had filed within the relevant deadlines, this court denied both motions to dismiss. Mem. Op. (00-0786) dated April 6, 2001; Mem. Op. (00-1104) dated March 27, 2001. Determining that the defendant's motions for summary judgment were premature, the court denied those motions without prejudice. Id.

Shortly thereafter, the court consolidated the two cases into one, and set a schedule for discovery and briefing. Order dated June 4, 2001. The final deadline for discovery was set for May 15, 2002. Order dated April 8, 2002.

On February 25, 2002, during the discovery process, the plaintiff served the defendant with 20 requests for admission pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 36. Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Motion for Leave to Withdraw ("Withdrawal Opp'n") at 5-6, Ex. 13; Opp'n Ex. 27. Among the requested admissions were several relating to the plaintiff's alleged disability. Opp'n Ex. 27. The defendant did not respond within the Rule's 30-day deadline. Id. at 23; Def.'s Mot. for Leave to Withdraw ("Withdrawal Mot.") at 1. On May 15, 2002, at the close of discovery, the defendant filed a belated response denying several of the requested admissions, including most of those pertaining to the plaintiff's alleged disability. Opp'n at 23 n.9; Def.'s Reply to Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Reply") at 2 n.2, Ex. 1.

Approximately five weeks after discovery closed, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that the plaintiff had failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Mot. for Summ. J.) at 1. As part of its argument, the Postal Service reiterated that Ms. Baker had failed to show that she was an individual with a disability. *fn4 Id. at 12-14. On July 22, 2002, the plaintiff filed an opposition indicating that because the defendant had failed to timely respond to her February 25 requests for admissions, the defendant had admitted that the plaintiff was an individual with a disability. Opp'n at 23-25, 36. On August 6, 2002, the defendant replied, repeating its view that the plaintiff was not a qualified individual with a disability, and stating that the defendant had in fact responded, albeit belatedly, to the plaintiff's requests for admissions. Reply at 2 & ...


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