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Zeigler v. Potter

August 13, 2009

JAMES E. ZEIGLER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL, U.S. POSTAL SERVICE, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

James E. Zeigler, a Vietnam War veteran suffering from depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ("PTSD"), filed this lawsuit against his former employer, the United States Postal Service ("USPS"), alleging that USPS failed to accommodate his disability, discriminated against him on the basis of his disability, and retaliated against him for requesting accommodations, all in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ("Rehabilitation Act"), 29 U.S.C. § 791 et seq. Compl. [Dkt. # 1]. In a Memorandum Opinion dated September 6, 2007, the Court dismissed his claims of discrimination and failure to accommodate, leaving only his retaliation claim. See Dkt. # 14. USPS now moves for summary judgment as to Mr. Zeigler's retaliation claim. Dkt. # 34. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant USPS's motion.

I. FACTS

In February 2000, Plaintiff James Zeigler, a USPS employee, took extended leave from work for medical reasons. Compl. ¶¶ 19-21. In March 2000, Mr. Zeigler's physician sent a letter to the USPS stating that Mr Zeigler's "long history and recurrent symptomology [were] consistent with a diagnosis of Major Depression," a "chronic, recurrent" condition. Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for S.J. ("Pl.'s Opp'n") [Dkt. # 38], Ex. 26 (March 27, 2000 Letter from Dr. Sukachevin). Over the next several months, other physicians who treated Mr. Zeigler sent letters to his employer on his behalf, describing his medical condition. See id., Ex. 26 (Letters from various physicians). Nonetheless, Mr. Zeigler was terminated in October 2000 for being Absent Without Leave ("AWOL") from work. See Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mem.") [Dkt. # 34] at 3. Mr. Zeigler appealed his termination in October 2000 and USPS reversed the decision the following month. See id.

In the following months, Mr. Zeigler continued medical treatment and therapy. Compl. ¶ 37. In August 2001, his psychologist, Dr. Jayson, sent USPS a letter stating that Mr. Zeigler was ready and able to return to work in a limited duty status, subject to certain accommodations. Id. ¶ 38. USPS responded to Mr. Zeigler in a letter stating that his requests could not be accommodated. Id. ¶ 39. Dr. Jayson sent at least three more letters on Mr. Zeigler's behalf, the last of which was in direct response to questions from USPS. Id. ¶¶ 40-43. The final letter stated that Mr. Zeigler's condition was improving and it had "no significant impact on his major life activities." Def.'s Mem., Ex. A-5 (Sept. 27, 2001 Letter from Dr. Jayson). Thereafter, the USPS Reasonable Accommodation Committee ("RAC") denied Mr. Zeigler's request for accommodations and notified him of his right to file an EEO complaint. Id., Ex. A-6 (Mar. 15, 2002 Letter from USPS RAC).

Mr. Zeigler filed an EEO complaint on September 20, 2002, alleging that USPS (1) discriminated against him on the basis of disability when it denied him reasonable accommodations and failed to make payments to him from his reserve account balance and (2) retaliated against him for filing Office of Workers Compensation Program claims. Id. at 5. He filed a second EEO complaint in August 2003, alleging that USPS discriminated against him by requesting medical documentation dating back to March 2000 to support his leave. See Def.'s Mem. at 5-6; Compl. ¶ 57. USPS consolidated Mr. Zeigler's two complaints, accepting only two claims: discrimination on the basis of mental disability and retaliation, both in connection with the March 2002 denial of his request for reasonable accomodation. Def.'s Mem. at 6. Mr. Zeigler received a letter acknowledging receipt of his complaint and advising him of his right to seek review of the dismissal of his other claims. Id., Ex. C-1 (April 6, 2005 Acknowledgment and Order) at 2. He did not choose to do so. Def.'s Mem. at 6.

On April 26, 2006, an Administrative Law Judge issued a decision in favor of USPS, finding that Mr. Zeigler had failed to demonstrate that he had a disability as defined by the Rehabilitation Act and that he had failed to make a prima facie case of retaliation. Id., Ex. C-2. This lawsuit followed. USPS moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The Court granted the motion in part, dismissing Counts 1 and 2 of the Complaint, discrimination on the basis of disability and hostile work environment, leaving only Count 3, retaliation. See Sept. 6, 2007 Mem. Op. [Dkt. # 14]. After conducting discovery, USPS renewed its motion for summary judgment with respect to Mr. Zeigler's retaliation claim.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Summary Judgment

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment must be granted when "the pleadings, deposition, 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); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Furthermore, the court should grant summary judgment against a party who "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion . . . 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).

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must draw "all justifiable inferences" in favor of the nonmoving party and accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The nonmoving party, however, must establish more than "the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of its position." Id. at 252. In addition, the nonmoving party may not rely solely on allegations or conclusory statements. Green v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999). Rather, the nonmoving party must present specific facts that would enable a reasonable jury to find in its favor. Id.

B. Retaliation Under the Rehabilitation Act

"The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 governs employee claims of handicap discrimination against the Federal Government. Its basic tenet is that the Government must take reasonable affirmative steps to accommodate the handicapped, except where undue hardship would result." Barth v. Gelb, 2 F.3d 1180, 1183 (D.C. Cir. 1993). Because the Rehabilitation Act explicitly incorporates the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. 12111 et seq., see 29 U.S.C. ยง 794(a), courts have found that it provides a cause of action for retaliation, which prohibits employers from taking negative action towards "any individual because such individual has opposed any act or practice made unlawful by this Act. . . ." Duncan v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 214 F.R.D. 43, 49 (D.D.C. 2003). To make a prima facie showing of retaliation, Mr. Zeigler must show that (1) he engaged in protected conduct, (2) a reasonable employee ...


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