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Lee v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 20, 2014

JOSEPH LEE, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant. Re Document No. 83

MEMORANDUM OPINION

RUDOLPH CONTRERAS United States District Judge.

Denying Plaintiff’s Motion for a New Trial

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Joseph Lee, brought an action pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C §12101 (“ADA”), alleging that the District of Columbia denied his request for a reasonable accommodation to manage his diabetes, and intentionally discriminated against him by terminating his employment because of his disability. Plaintiff maintains that he is protected under the ADA because his Type II diabetes substantially limits his ability to eat, therefore qualifying as a “disability” within the meaning of the Act. At trial, the jury returned a special verdict, finding that Mr. Lee was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Plaintiff now moves for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a). Specifically he argues: 1) that the jury’s verdict is against the weight of the evidence presented at trial, and 2) that the Court gave the jury an improper jury instruction on the definition of the term “substantially limiting.”

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In 2008, Joseph Lee, a corrections officer assigned to guard inmates receiving treatment at Howard University Hospital, was fired by the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. The stated reason was neglect of duty. Brown Termination Letter, 1, Trial Ex. 3, June 26, 2008. At that time, Joseph Lee had Type II diabetes. Tr. Test. of Dr. John Lee, 21-22, Pl.’s Mot. New Trial, Ex. 1, ECF No. 83, Aug. 12, 2013. He took oral medication to manage his condition, was required to eat healthy meals on a regular schedule, and exercise. Id. at 28. If Mr. Lee did not properly manage his diabetes, he could become dizzy and faint or fall asleep. Tr. Test. Ms. Tonya Lee, 8, Pl’s. Mot. New Trial, Ex. 3. Mr. Lee alleges that he told several superiors within the Department of Corrections about his diabetes, including Kenneth Graham and Yvonne Perry. Tr. Test. Mr. Joseph Lee, 12-13, July 18, 2013, ECF No. 92.[1]

In March 2008, Mr. Lee was assigned to work an overnight shift at Howard University Hospital. He went on duty at 11:30 p.m. and completed his shift at 8:00 a.m. According to the recollection of his supervisors, he was found asleep on the job three times in a little more than two weeks. Perry Dep. Designation, 80-81, 83, Tr. Trial R. July 17, 2013, ECF No. 93. Mr. Lee denies that he was ever asleep on the job.

Mr. Lee did not receive a lunch break on March 27, 2008, Test. of Mr. Lee, 15, as Ms. Perry admits could sometimes happen. Perry Dep. Designation, 110-11. As Mr. Lee recalls, he called Mr. Graham on March 27, telling him that he desperately needed a lunch break. Tr. Test. Mr. Joseph Lee, 15. No relief ever arrived. Id. A little after 3:00 a.m., someone from the hospital called to report that Mr. Lee was sleeping on the job. As Ms. Perry recalls, Mr. Graham took the call and ordered her to go to the hospital and find out what was going on. Perry Dep. Designation, 115-16. On Ms. Perry’s account, she entered the room where Mr. Lee was stationed and shook Mr. Lee, who awoke briefly and then went back to sleep. Perry Dep. Designation, 117. She left the room and called Mr. Graham, who said that relief was on the way. Perry Dep. Designation, 119. She wrote a report of the incident, which, along with the incidents earlier that month, became the stated reason that Mr. Lee was fired. Perry Dep. Designation, 122-3. Ms. Perry’s account of that evening is contradicted by Mr. Lee, who denies he was ever asleep. Tr. Test. of Joseph Lee, 65.

Mr. Lee was placed on administrative leave, and then fired for neglect of duty. Brown Termination Letter at 1. After exhausting his administrative remedies, Mr. Lee filed this suit, alleging that the Department had failed to reasonably accommodate his diabetes, and had fired him because he was a diabetic.

This Court held a jury trial between July 15 and 19, 2013. At trial, Dr. John J. Lee, the Plaintiff’s former treating physician, and the Plaintiff himself testified that diabetes burdens his ability to eat. Test. of Dr. John Lee, 35; Test. of Mr. Lee, 41-44. Dr. Lee testified that he works for Kaiser Permanente and was Plaintiff’s treating physician for approximately six to eight years, until March 2013. During that time, Plaintiff had Type II diabetes. Dr. Lee instructed Plaintiff to follow a meal plan to manage his diabetes, along with exercising and taking an oral medication. Test. Dr. John Lee, 35. Plaintiff was required to eat three meals a day with a snack. Id. Each meal had to be “spread about five to six hours apart.” Id. at 28. Plaintiff also had to wait two hours after eating a meal to have a snack. Id.

At trial, Plaintiff testified that he maintained a sleeping and eating schedule when assigned to work shift number one at the hospital. Tr. Test. of Joseph Lee, 41-44. The schedule followed as thus: Plaintiff began his shift at 11:30 p.m. and ended his shift at 8:00 a.m. After getting off of work, Plaintiff went home and ate a meal. Id. He then slept. Plaintiff woke up around midday, and ate a meal around 12:00 or 1:00 p.m., around regular lunch time. Id. He then slept again. Plaintiff would eat another meal around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., before leaving for work. Id. Plaintiff would take his pills with his first meal at 8:00 a.m. and his third meal at 9:00 p.m. Id. According to Plaintiff’s testimony, he ate all three meals required by his diet plan outside of his shift hours.

At trial, this Court instructed the jury, in part, that:

A "disability” exists only where an impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity, not where it “might,” “could,” or “would” be substantially limiting if mitigating measures were not taken. A person whose physical or mental impairment is corrected by medication or other measures does not have an impairment that presently “substantially limits” a major life activity. To be sure, a person whose physical or mental impairment is corrected by mitigating measures still has an impairment, but if the impairment is corrected it does not “substantially limi[t]” a major life activity.

Tr. of Jury Trial/ Jury Deliberations, 29, Sept. 13, 2013, ECF No. 89. Plaintiff objected to this portion of the instruction, arguing that the language would confuse the jury as no evidence existed in the record to support the instruction. Tr. of Trial R., July 18, 2013. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the District of Columbia, finding that Plaintiff did not have a disability within the meaning of the ADA. Jury Verdict Form, ECF No. 74, July 19, 2013. Plaintiff now moves for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a). Specifically, he argues: 1) that the jury’s verdict is against the weight of the ...


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