United States District Court, D. Columbia
December 14, 2005.
RUTHIE M. GOODMAN, Plaintiff,
JOHN E. POTTER, Defendant.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICHARD LEON, District Judge
This employment discrimination case is before the Court on
Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on the remaining claim
brought under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et
seq. See Memorandum Opinion ("Mem. Op.") and Order of February
14, 2005 (dismissing all other claims). Plaintiff Ruthie M.
Goodman has opposed the motion and cross moved for summary
judgment. Upon consideration of the parties' submissions and the
entire record, the Court will grant defendant's motion and
dismiss the case.
Ms. Goodman is a former mail carrier who suffered a dog bite
while delivering mail in June 1987. She was diagnosed with nerve
damage, required surgery, and finally diagnosed as "having
sustained a permanent impairment." Complaint at 4. During her
tenure with the Postal Service after the injury, Ms. Goodman was
assigned to light or limited duty at its Ward Place Station,
where she worked the day shift from December 1989 until May 1994.
In May 1994, Ms. Goodman was assigned to a night shift at
defendant's Cleveland Park Station. She "refused the detailed
assignment offer" because "the night shift did not meet the
requirements of her physical limitations and violated the U.S. Postal Service Collective
Bargaining Agreement of her working out of schedule." Id.
In July 1994, Ms. Goodman filed an equal employment opportunity
("EEO") charge "for reasonable accommodation to remain in a day
shift position." Id. at 5. After a hearing (and apparent
decision) in 1998, Ms. Goodman eventually received a notice of
removal dated June 21, 1999. The notice cited her for "failure to
be regular in attendance and  failure to follow official
instruction." Id. at 6. Ms. Goodman filed an EEO charge for
wrongful termination in June 1999 "based on her left leg
disability [and] other U.S. Postal Service violations. . . ."
Id at 7. The agency issued its final decision on September 30,
2003. Id. at 8.
Ms. Goodman's Rehabilitation Act claim is based on defendant's
alleged failure to accommodate her disability by assigning her to
a day shift. Defendant moves for summary judgment on the bases
that Ms. Goodman is not a qualified individual as defined by the
Act and that she failed to provide timely notification of her
need for accommodation and to provide medical documentation to
substantiate that need.
Summary judgment is warranted if "the pleadings, depositions,
answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with
the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to
any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). When
evaluating a summary judgment motion, the Court must view the
evidence in favor of the nonmoving party and believe and give
benefit of all reasonable inferences drawn from the nonmoving
party's evidence. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,
477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). As a general rule, "[i]n deciding whether there
is a genuine issue of fact before it, the court must assume the truth of all statements proffered by the
party opposing summary judgment." Greene v. Dalton,
164 F.3d 671, 674 (D.C. Cir. 1999). "If material facts are at issue, or,
though undisputed, are susceptible to divergent inferences,
summary judgment is not available." Tao v. Freeh, 27 F.3d 635,
638 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (citing Alyeska Pipeline Serv. Co. v.
United States Envtl. Protection Agency, 856 F.2d 309, 314 (D.C.
Cir. 1988)). Material facts are those "that might affect the
outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson,
477 U.S. at 248.
Summary judgment is appropriate in an employment discrimination
case "where either the evidence is insufficient to establish a
prima facie case, . . . or, assuming a prima facie case, there is
no genuine issue of material fact that the defendant's
articulated nondiscriminatory reasons for the challenged decision
is pretextual." Paul v. Federal Nat'l Mortgage Ass'n,
697 F. Supp. 547, 553 (D.D.C. 1988) (citations omitted); see Phillips
v. Holladay Property Services, Inc., 937 F. Supp. 32, 34 (D.D.C.
1996), aff'd No. 96-7202, 1997 WL 411695 (D.C. Cir. Jun 19,
1997). It is often difficult for a plaintiff to offer direct
proof of an employer's discrimination. For that reason, summary
disposition of such cases is not favored and the court "must be
extracareful to view all the evidence in the light most
favorable" to the plaintiff. Ross v. Runyon, 859 F. Supp. 15,
21-22 (D.D.C. 1994), aff'd per curiam, No. 95-5080, 1995 WL
791567 (D.C. Cir. Dec. 7, 1995). Nonetheless, summary judgment is
appropriate if a plaintiff relies on "[e]vidence of
discrimination that is `merely colorable,' or `not significantly
probative.'" Johnson v. Digital Equip. Corp., 836 F. Supp. 14,
15 (D.D.C. 1993) (citation omitted). The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provides that "[n]o otherwise
qualified individual with a disability . . . shall, solely by
reason of his or her disability . . . be subjected to
discrimination . . . by any Executive Agency." See
29 U.S.C. § 794(a). The language "solely by reason of" requires plaintiff to
establish a "causal link . . . [that] the employer . . . acted
with an awareness of the disability itself." Crandall v.
Paralyzed Veterans of America, 146 F.3d 894, 897 (D.C. Cir.
1998). To survive defendant's summary judgment motion, Ms.
Goodman must proffer sufficient evidence establishing that (1)
she is disabled within the meaning of 29 C.F.R. § 1614.203(a),
(b); (2) her employer was aware of her disability; (3) with
reasonable accommodation she could perform the essential
functions of the position; and (4) she was denied a reasonable
accommodation. Scarborough v. Natsios, 190 F. Supp. 2d 5, 19
(D.D.C. 2002) (citations omitted). For the following reasons, she
has not done so.
1. Plaintiff's Alleged Disability
The Rehabilitation Act defines a disability as a "physical or
mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major
life activities." 29 U.S.C. § 705(9)(B). "Major life activities"
are defined by regulation as "functions, such as caring for
oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing,
speaking, breathing, learning, and working."
29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(i). The Act's terms are "interpreted strictly to create a
demanding standard for qualifying as disabled." Toyota Motor
Manufacturing Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184, 197
(2002).*fn1 In analyzing the issue, the Court must "ask
whether [plaintiff's] impairments prevented or restricted her from performing tasks
that are of central importance to most people's daily lives."
Id. at 187. A determination of disability is analyzed on a
case-by-case basis of how the impairment affects the life of the
individual. Id. at 198; Sutton v. United Air Lines,
527 U.S. 471, 483 (1999) ("whether a person has a disability under the ADA
is an individualized inquiry."). Ms. Goodman therefore must
proffer "`evidence that the extent of the limitation [caused by
(her) impairment] in terms of [her] own experience . . . is
substantial.'" Toyota, 534 U.S. at 198 (quoting Albertson's
Inc. v. Kirkingburg, 527 U.S. 555, 567 (1999)) (brackets in
Ms. Goodman asserts that since the injury, she "suffers pain,
swelling and spasms each day of her life."*fn2 Plaintiff's
Answer to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Pl.'s Opp.")
at 8. She claims that her left foot "is moderately swollen each
day[,] some days are better than others. The pain is more
extensive during weather changes, late evening hours, walking,
standing and sitting." Id. To relieve the pain and swelling,
plaintiff states that she must wear shoes one size larger than
her normal size. She cannot walk, stand, or sit for any prolonged
period of time without pain or spasms and therefore claims that
she cannot "work any sedentary jobs such as cashiers or any job
that has to do with prolong walking, standing and sitting without
pain." Id. Ms. Goodman claims that she is substantially limited
in performing manual tasks, doing housework, lifting, and
"playing with her grandchild or children."*fn3 Id. at 9. She shops with the use of a cane
or by leaning on the shopping cart, rides public transportation,
albeit in discomfort, and drives. Id. at 8-9. To avoid pain and
spasms while driving, Ms. Goodman "must keep her left leg
constantly moving and or extended outward." Id. at 9. Ms.
Goodman states that she can no longer enjoy "leisure life as she
once had, such as play tennis, dancing, bike ride, run, and walk
because of the pain and swelling in her left foot and leg." Id.
"[T]o be substantially limited in performing manual tasks, an
individual must have a [permanent or long-term] impairment that
prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing
activities that are of central importance to most people's daily
lives." Toyota, 534 U.S. at 198. This includes such activities
as performing "household chores, bathing, and brushing one's
teeth." Id. at 202. Such lifestyle changes as avoiding
sweeping, quitting dancing, "occasionally" seeking help dressing,
and reducing "how often [one] plays with her children, gardens,
and drives long distances . . . [do] not amount to such severe
restrictions in the activities that are of central importance to
most people's daily lives that they establish a manual task
disability as a matter of law." Id. By her own admission, Ms.
Goodman worked through her pain in order to "to stay gainfully
employed with the Defendants." Pl.'s Opp. at 9. Although most of
her alleged restrictions are the type of "lifestyle changes" the
Supreme Court has implicitly rejected as supporting a disability,
defendant has failed to support its motion on this element of the prima facie case with any
contradicting evidence. At the least, Ms. Goodman has created a
genuine issue of material fact on whether she is disabled under
the Act. Her claim nonetheless fails on the remaining elements.
2. Defendant's Awareness of the Disability and Accommodation
Defendant asserts that Ms. Goodman failed to provide timely
notice of her need to work the day shift and failed to report to
work after the reassignment in May 1994. Ms. Goodman disputes
both facts, albeit confusingly. In her opposition, Ms. Goodman
counters that she "did in fact reported [sic] to the Cleveland
Park Station, and gave notice to acting supervisor about her
inability to work the night shift. The supervisor was given a
detailed medical report of the Plaintiff['s] medical condition
and restrictions." Pl.'s Opp. at 4. In her complaint, Ms. Goodman
alleges that "she was issued a detail assignment order by acting
supervisor, Steve Jones," on June 23, 1994, and "in the same day"
spoke with her immediate supervisor, Verly Burton, about the
reassignment. Complaint at 4. Defendant agrees that Ms. Goodman
provided medical documentation of her condition on June 23, 1994,
Def't Fact ¶ 11, but asserts that it occurred nearly one month
after the effective date of the reassignment (May 28, 1994). Ms.
Goodman does not dispute defendant's evidence establishing that
she was to report to the Cleveland Park site on May 28, 1994 at
10:30 p.m, see Def't's Exh. 4 ("Assignment Order), nor has she
claimed that she did not receive timely notice of the
Defendant may be liable under the Act only for adverse
decisions taken with knowledge of the disability. "Reports about
which the defendant employer had absolutely no knowledge nor access prior to [acting] cannot serve as the sole evidentiary
basis of establishing an element of a prima facie case of
disability discrimination." Weigert v. Georgetown University,
120 F. Supp.2d 1, 8 (D.D.C. 2000). "An underlying assumption of
any reasonable accommodation claim is that the plaintiff-employee
has requested an accommodation which the defendant-employer has
denied." Flemmings v. Howard University, 198 F.3d 857, 861
(D.C. Cir. 1999). No reasonable juror could find from this record
that at the time of its reassignment decision, defendant was
aware of Ms. Goodman's need to work the day shift and
nevertheless denied her request.
3. Defendant's Reasonable Accommodation
A qualified individual with a disability is defined as "an
individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable
accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the
employment position that such individual holds or desires."
Sutton v. United Air Lines, 527 U.S. 471, 478 (1999) (internal
citation and quotation marks omitted). Ms. Goodman asserts that
despite her impairments, she continued to work during the day
shift. Although defendant disputes Ms. Goodman's claim of being
disabled, it has not claimed that Ms. Goodman was unable to
perform the essential functions of her job with reasonable
accommodation. To the contrary, it is undisputed that in response
to the dog bite injury, defendant assigned Ms. Goodman to a
limited duty, sedentary position beginning in 1989. Def.'s Exh.
13, Declaration of Rodney Payne ("Payne Decl.) ¶¶ 5-6. She
remained on a day shift until 1994, when the agency decided to
centralize operations "to enable the Agency to better monitor
that the employees were not working outside of their
restrictions." Payne Decl. ¶ 8. Effective May 28, 1994, Ms.
Goodman was reassigned to perform the same work at a different
location and between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 7 a.m. She "refused the
detailed assignment offer" because, inter alia, "the night
shift did not meet the requirements of her physical limitations."
Complaint at 4.
In light of defendant's undisputed evidence that it did provide
a reasonable accommodation, Ms. Goodman "has the burden of going
forward with the evidence concerning possible [additional]
accommodations to rebut the employer's evidence." Carter v.
Bennett, 651 F. Supp. 1299, 1301 (D.D.C. 1987), aff'd.
840 F.2d 63 (D.C. Cir. 1988). Her sole support is a letter dated June 23,
1994, to the workers' compensation office in which her doctor
diagnosed her as having permanent partial disability and
restricted her from "prolonged sitting, standing, climbing stairs
and lifting or carrying over 20 pounds." Def't's Exh. 5. He also
"recommended" that "Ms. Goodman continue her physical therapy on
Saturdays and Sundays and work the hours of 6 am to 3:30 pm to
avoid the climate of evenings which causes her extensive pain and
swelling." Id. The letter contains no medical documentation
that reasonably explains why the evening climate (no matter the
season) exacerbates Ms. Goodman's condition. A reasonable
deduction therefore is that it was based solely on Ms. Goodman's
prompting. In any event, the recommendation is not significantly
probative of the question of whether Ms. Goodman could perform
the essential functions of her job, which presumably were
confined indoors. It is undisputed that the initial accommodation
involved reassignment to a "position [that] was sedentary and
involved working with mail that was `undeliverable as addressed'
and `return to sender.'" Def't's Facts ¶ 5. The job functions did
not change when Ms. Goodman was reassigned to the night shift.
Id. ¶ 9; Def't's Exh. 3. Ms. Goodman's admission that she
worked the day shift despite her impairments, Pl.'s Opp. at 9,
belies a claim that limiting her hours to the day shift was "necessary for adequate performance of [her] job,"
Carter v. Bennett, 651 F. Supp. at 1301, where there was no
change in her job functions. "The government is not obligated
under the statute to provide plaintiff with every [requested]
accommodation, but only with reasonable accommodation as is
necessary to enable [her] to perform [her] essential functions."
Id. Ms. Goodman has not proffered any evidence from which a
reasonable juror could find that the shift from day to night
adversely affected her ability to perform the essential functions
of her job. Defendant's motion for summary judgment will be
granted on the failure to accommodate claim.
4. Wrongful Termination
Ms. Goodman also claims that she was wrongfully terminated in
June 1999 because of her disability. To prevail on this claim,
Ms. Goodman must show in addition to her disability that she was
otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of her job
and that her employer was aware of her disability, but either
refused to accommodate her or terminated her because of the
disability. Carr v. Reno, 23 F.3d 525, 529 (D.C. Cir. 1994);
Chinchillo v. Powell, 236 F. Supp.2d 18, 21 (D.D.C. 2003)
Ms. Goodman admits that she "refused" the reassignment because
it did not meet the requirements of her physical limitations and
allegedly violated the U.S. Postal Service Collective Bargaining
Agreement. Complaint at 4. She also admits that shortly after the
reassignment, she became ill and remained at home on bed rest.
Ms. Goodman "maintained communication by telephone and letters
with her supervisor, manager and postmaster to stay gainfully
employed at Ward Place Station or any station in a daytime
position [but] her calls were never returned and she never
received a response to her letters to this date." Id. at 5.
Apparently, rather than reporting for duty at the Cleveland Park
Station, Ms. Goodman sat at home awaiting "a reassignment order letter or telephone call returning her back to
work at Ward Place Station . . ."*fn5 Pl.'s Opp. at 6;
Def't's Exh. 6. Five years later, she was terminated for "failure
to be regular in attendance and failure to follow official
instructions." Def't's Facts ¶ 13 (citing Complaint). Defendant
has not argued that it terminated Ms. Goodman for legitimate
non-discriminatory reasons. As a matter of law, however, no
reasonable juror could find from this record that Ms. Goodman was
terminated "solely by reason of . . . her disability."
29 U.S.C. § 794(a).*fn6
For the preceding reasons, defendant's motion for summary
judgment is granted. A separate Order accompanies this Memorandum
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