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Bramwell v. Blakey

May 24, 2006

ELLEN BRAMWELL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MARION BLAKEY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Ellen Bramwell*fn1 sues Marion Blakey, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and Norman Mineta, Secretary of Transportation in their official capacities (collectively the "FAA"), alleging discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act (the "Rehab Act"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 791-794e.*fn2 She claims that the FAA failed to reasonably accommodate her disability during her employment and that the FAA terminated her due to her disability. The FAA has filed a motion to dismiss or in the alternative for summary judgment. The Court will grant the FAA's motion for summary judgment because the FAA did not know Ms. Bramwell was disabled until December 5, 2000, and reasonably accommodated her both before and after discovering her disability. Further, after December 5, 2000, Ms. Bramwell was not a "qualified" individual because she was not available for work.

I. BACKGROUND

Ms. Bramwell's alleged disability arose from an incident that occurred while she worked as an air traffic controller ("ATC") for the FAA at the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Cleveland, Ohio (the "Cleveland Center"). Defs.' Ex. 1, Bramwell Deposition ("Bramwell Dep."), at 24. The incident occurred on June 23, 1998, when Ms. Bramwell was responsible for a sector in which the greatest number of airplanes should be fifteen. Due to bad weather and errors elsewhere in the system, Ms. Bramwell suddenly had twenty-six airplanes in her sector. As a result, two planes passed much too closely to each other. The incident was anonymously reported to the National Transportation and Safety Board (the "NTSB"). NTSB investigated, and its initial conclusion was that the incident was caused by Ms. Bramwell's operational error. Two months later, after completing a fuller investigation, the NTSB cleared Ms. Bramwell of fault. The two events - the incident itself and then being blamed for it - caused Ms. Bramwell great emotional turmoil that was eventually diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because she was prescribed Prozac and other psychotropic drugs for her emotional distress, Ms. Bramwell lost her medical certificate to work as an ATC. Bramwell Dep. at 24, Defs.' Ex. 2, Dr. Bruhn's Report at 2-3. After the 1998 incident, Ms. Bramwell filed a claim for and received worker's compensation. Id. at 2.

Following her medical decertification, the Cleveland Center placed Ms. Bramwell in various temporary positions. Bramwell Dep. at 25-26. On December 9, 1999, Ms. Bramwell's psychologist, Dr. John Stratton, recommended to the Facility Manager at the Cleveland Center that Ms. Bramwell be permitted to work six-hour days, as she was unable to put in an eight-hour day due to anxiety and difficulty focusing. Defs.' Ex. 8, Letter from Stratton. The Cleveland Center followed this recommendation, Pl.'s Appendix ("Pl.'s App.") at 1, Bramwell Decl., while it tried to find a non-ATC position for Ms. Bramwell but no permanent job was identified in Cleveland. Ms. Bramwell then approached Jeffrey Griffith, Director of Air Traffic Planning and Procedures Division, regarding employment at FAA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Defs.' Ex. 4, Griffith Decl. She did not tell Mr. Griffith that she was disabled. Bramwell Dep. at 111. Ms. Bramwell applied for a position as a staff specialist, a level GS14 position, at FAA headquarters. She obtained the job and moved to the D.C. area, away from her family and friends who had provided her emotional support.

Ms. Bramwell started her new position in June 2000. Bramwell Dep. at 40. From June 2000 to September 2000, her supervisor was Kenneth Davis. Ms. Bramwell never told Mr. Davis that she was disabled, Defs.' Ex. 21, Pl.'s Admissions #4, and she never gave him a copy of Dr. Stratton's 1999 letter recommending that she work six-hour days. Bramwell Dep. at 97. She never signed a general release regarding the medical records associated with her disability, and she never authorized the FAA to share her medical records or documents that she submitted in support of her workman's compensation claim with her first or second line supervisors. Id.; Pl.'s Admissions #1-2.

Mr. Davis stated in an affidavit that he was aware Ms. Bramwell was struggling with emotional issues, but he did not know that her situation constituted a legal disability:

I was aware [Ms. Bramwell] was struggling with emotional issues due to an operational error she experienced at the Cleveland Center. It was my understanding she was struggling with emotional trauma as a result of the operational error and had difficulty coming back to work full strength. However, I was never given any formal or official medical notice qualifying her trauma as a handicap. She made me aware of her decision to continue with the [worker's compensation] process she had begun prior to arriving at Headquarters. Therefore, when she first arrived, she mentioned that she needed flexibility in her schedule and would be required to work shorten [sic] hours and possibly telecommute, but she didn't say it was related to a handicap, just that she was still working through some difficulties from the operational error. [Ms. Bramwell] mentioned that her doctor didn't want her to return to work full time, but she said she would work as much as she could because she wanted to work and would keep me posted. I was fine with her suggestion and I didn't have any objection to her working 6 hour days or whatever was a reduced schedule, so long as I was kept informed. As a matter of fact, many times she worked, on her own longer than six hour days and there were also instances when she would call me at 2:00 p.m. to indicate that she wasn't coming in that day at all. I didn't have access to her case file nor did I attempt to review this information. I had not received a request for a reasonable accommodation from any of my employees.

Pl.'s App. at 29, Davis Decl.

Nonetheless, Mr. Davis extended great flexibility to Ms. Bramwell and allowed her to take part or whole days off as needed. Defs.' Ex. 6, Davis Decl.; Bramwell Dep. at 40-41. Her time records show that she was on a "maxi flex" or "variable"schedule. Pl.'s App., Time Records at 13-24. While sometimes she worked an eight- to ten-hour day, Ms. Bramwell's time records reflect than in every week of her time at headquarters, except the four weeks she attended the Airspace and Procedures training course in Oklahoma City, Ms. Bramwell took whole or part days off, attributed as sick leave, annual leave, and leave without pay. Id.

While Mr. Davis knew that Ms. Bramwell left Cleveland Center due to loss of her medical certificate, this is common in the ATC profession and he did not believe it was relevant to her ability to perform her job at FAA headquarters. Defs.' Ex. 6, Davis Decl. ¶ 2. Similarly, Mr. Davis did not believe that Ms. Bramwell's pursuit of a worker's compensation claim or her taking Prozac was relevant to her ability to perform a staff job at FAA headquarters. Id., Davis Decl. ¶¶ 3 & 4.

In September 2000, Christopher Metts became Ms. Bramwell's supervisor. Defs.' Ex. 7, Metts Decl. ¶ 1. Ms. Bramwell never told Mr. Metts that she was disabled, Defs.' Ex. 21, Pl.'s Admissions #3, and she never gave him a copy of Dr. Stratton's 1999 letter recommending that she work six-hour days. Bramwell Dep. at 97. She continued to work a "maxi flex" and "variable" schedule until she failed to report to work on December 5, 2000. She never reported to work again. Bramwell Dep. at 116.

After Ms. Bramwell failed to report to work, Mr. Metts received a letter from Ms. Bramwell's psychiatrist, Dr. Michael A. Glasser, dated December 5, 2000. The letter indicated that Ms. Bramwell was suffering from depression and that she had been diagnosed with Major Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in March 1999. Defs.' Ex. 10, Glasser Letter. Dr. Glasser noted that Ms. Bramwell's depression had become progressively worse since she moved from Ohio to Washington, D.C. Id. He wrote, "When I spoke to her on the phone, 12/04/00, she was extremely distraught and I advised her to take off the next two weeks from work to concentrate on her moods and counseling. At the end of those two weeks we will be re-evaluating her." Id. Ms. Bramwell requested sick leave until January 9, 2001. Defs.' Ex. 11, Bramwell Letter. Mr. Metts granted the request. Bramwell Dep. at 111. He designated her time as six hours per day of sick leave and two hours per day leave without pay. Pl.'s App. at 24; Defs.' Ex. 7, Metts Decl. ¶ 7.

In January or February 2001, Mr. Metts spoke to Ms. Bramwell by phone. She requested six-hour workdays and to be assigned only "single tasked or structured assignments." Id., Metts Decl. ¶ 8. Ms. Bramwell defines "single tasked" assignments as those that have only one step and "structured assignments" as those where the objective and outcome are explained and the resources that are available to reach the expected outcome are explained. Bramwell Dep. at 84-85. Mr. Metts asked Ms. Bramwell to come to work to discuss which projects could be "single tasked." Bramwell Dep. at 114. Ms. Bramwell did not report to work. Bramwell Dep. at 116. She believed that Mr. Metts had not investigated her file*fn3 or addressed her concerns. She stated, "[S]eeing that he hadn't responded to ...


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