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Ward v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 30, 2016

YEETTA L. WARD, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Tanya S. Chutkan United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Yeetta Ward brings this action against the District of Columbia pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq.; Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA"), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 12111, et seq.; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794; the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), D.C. Code § 2-1401.01, et seq.; and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. § 1981a, for failure to provide reasonable accommodations, retaliation, and hostile work environment. Following the close of discovery, Defendant moved for summary judgment. For the reasons stated herein, Defendant's Motion will be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is a former employee[1] of the District of Columbia's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services ("DYRS") who, during the period at issue, worked as a Youth Correctional Officer, alternatively known as a Youth Development Representative. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 12-13). In this position, she was responsible for supervising youth who were in the care and custody of the Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services. (Pls. Statement of Material Facts (hereinafter Pls. SMF) ¶ 2). Plaintiff has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and panic disorders, all of which are controlled with medication and psychotherapy. (Pls. SMF ¶ 1; Am. Compl. ¶ 15).

         Plaintiff alleged that two DYRS co-workers-Jeffery McInnis and Sharon White-Pulley-harassed her based on her gender in 2005 and 2006. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against DYRS in 2010, raising retaliation and hostile work environment claims, but the court rejected her claims and granted summary judgment for DYRS. See Ward v. District of Columbia, 950 F.Supp.2d 9, 11-13, 23 (D.D.C. 2013).[2]

         From approximately 2011 through 2012, Plaintiff apparently did not encounter either of the alleged harassers at work, but on or around April 30, 2012, Plaintiff suffered a "mental breakdown" after she came in contact with McInnis at work. (Ward Dep. 49). Following the mental breakdown, Plaintiffs therapist informed DYRS that Plaintiffs condition warranted her taking leave, and Plaintiff notified DYRS that she would be using her earned sick leave. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 17-18).

         Contemplating her return to work, on August 3, 2012, Plaintiff requested workplace accommodations from DYRS. Specifically, Plaintiff sought: (i) to avoid work that placed her in contact with McInnis or White-Pulley; (ii) to take liberal leave for the purpose of attending medical appointments; (iii) exemption from working overtime in excess of her normal eight-hour shift; and (iv) exemption from working weekends. (Defs. Ex. A). On August 30, 2012, Satina Smith, a DYRS Management Liaison Specialist, sent a letter denying Plaintiffs request for exemption from overtime and weekend work, citing DYRS's Overtime Draft Procedures. (Defs. Ex. B). Instead, DYRS offered to transfer Plaintiff to an eight-hour midnight shift (10:45 p.m. -6:45 a.m.) as a reasonable accommodation, reasoning that this would give Plaintiff the time and flexibility to attend medical appointments, and allow her to avoid working with McInnis and White-Pulley (who both worked daytime shifts). (Id.) Smith also advised Plaintiff that DYRS would consider her absent without leave if she did not return to work on September 2, 2012. (Id.) Smith concluded the letter by asking Plaintiff to make contact so that they could "discuss further arrangements to return to work." (Id.)

         Plaintiff informed DYRS that, pursuant to her doctor's orders, she would not be able to return to work on September 2 and therefore requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") so that she would not be considered absent without leave. (Am. Compl. ¶ 27). Approximately one week later, on September 7, 2012, Plaintiffs therapist sent a letter to DYRS explaining that Plaintiff was "unable to work any [shifts of longer than eight hours] until she [was] mentally and emotionally stronger." (Pls. Ex. 13). The therapist also explained that Plaintiffs medical team was trying to stabilize her sleep patterns with medication, and such a goal could not be achieved if she were to work on the night shift. (Id.) Finally, the therapist recommended that DYRS allow Plaintiff to work from 6:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday, which would allow her to keep her medical appointments and stabilize her sleep patterns. (Id.)

         Plaintiff testified at her deposition that she was able to work the Sunday through Thursday shift, but working on those days still exposed her to McInnis and White-Pulley. (Ward Dep. 51-52). In both her Complaint and her brief, Plaintiff contends that the solution to this problem would have been to transfer her to another position or location. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 35-37; Pls. Br. 25; see Ward Dep. 45, 100; Ohler Dep. 26-28).

         After receiving Plaintiffs FMLA request, DYRS determined that she had sufficient medical documentation to support her request and informed her that the leave would be applied retroactively to April 30, 2012-the date of her emotional breakdown. (Pls. Ex. 26). However, on September 16, 2012, Plaintiff reported for the midnight shift, under what she construed as a "threat of disciplinary action." (Pls. SMF ¶ 19). The shift supervisor told Plaintiff that DYRS had no information regarding her changing to the midnight shift and sent Plaintiff home. (Pls. Ex. 27; Ward Dep. 61). Subsequently, DYRS sent an email to Plaintiff explaining that since she had not responded to Smith's offer to move Plaintiff to the midnight shift, no scheduling changes were ever made. (Pls. Ex. 27; see Defs. Response to Pls. SMF ¶ 19).

         What happened next is unclear, but Plaintiff alleges that at some point after the midnight shift incident, DYRS placed her on what she describes as "administrative leave." (Ward Dep. 66, 74). DYRS then required that Plaintiff undergo a "Fitness-for-Duty Examination" before she could return to work. (See Ex. 20; Pls. SMF ¶¶ 15, 30). According to Plaintiff, DYRS did not impose such a requirement on other employees. (Pls. SMF ¶¶ 15, 30).

         Plaintiff returned to work on October 18, 2012, after which DYRS required that she work more than eight hours per day and denied her requests for leave to attend medical appointments. (Am. Compl. ¶ 34; Ward Dep. 8-9, 72-73, 76). During this time, DYRS frequently transferred her to various positions and, approximately one year later, reassigned her to the position of Transportation Dispatcher. (Pls. Ex. 3, Interrog. 5; Am. Compl. ¶ 35). It is unclear from the record whether this new assignment involved relocation to another facility, but the transfer allowed Plaintiff to work eight-hour weekday shifts. (Am. Compl. ¶ 35). The parties do not indicate whether this new assignment also allowed Plaintiff to avoid contact with McInnis and White-Pulley. Plaintiff filed this action shortly after the final transfer, alleging that DYRS: (1) discriminated against her by failing to provide reasonable accommodations; (2) retaliated against her; and (3) created a hostile work environment.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no disputed genuine issue of material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court must view all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). The moving party bears the "initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits . . . which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323 (internal quotation marks omitted). The non-moving party, in response, must "go beyond the pleadings and by [its] own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324 (internal quotation marks omitted). "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50 (1986) (citations omitted). "[A]t the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 249.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Disability Discrimination for Failure to Accommodate (Count I)

         Plaintiff first alleges that DYRS discriminated against her by failing to reasonably accommodate her disability. An employer violates the ADA when it fails to make "reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A). "The term 'qualified individual with a disability' means '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.'" Woodruff v. Peters, 482 F.3d 521, 527 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8)). Therefore, to survive a motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff must "come forward with sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to conclude that (i) she was disabled within the meaning of the [law]; (ii) her employer had notice of her disability; (iii) she was able to perform the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation; and (iv) her employer denied her request for a reasonable accommodation of that disability." Solomon v. Vilsack, 763 F.3d 1, 9 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (citations omitted). DYRS asserts that Plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of her job and that DYRS did provide her with a reasonable accommodation, which she declined.

         1. Essential Functions of Plaintiffs Job

         DYRS argues that Plaintiff was unable to perform the essential functions of her job with or without a reasonable accommodation because all YDR employees are required to work overtime and weekends as a condition of employment. Plaintiff disputes that overtime and weekend work are essential functions of her employment.

         "Employers enjoy 'substantial deference' in defining essential functions." Floyd v. Lee, 85 F.Supp.3d 482, 510 (D.D.C. 2015) (citation omitted). Under 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(3):

[e]vidence of whether a particular function is essential includes, but is not limited to: (i) The employer's judgment as to which functions are essential; (ii) Written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job; (iii) The amount of time spent on the job performing the function; (iv) The consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function; (v) The terms of a collective bargaining agreement; (vi) The work experience of past incumbents in the job; and/or (vii) The current work experience of incumbents in similar jobs.

         a. Overtime Work

         In support of its argument that overtime work (more than eight hours per day) is an essential function of Plaintiff s job, DYRS proffers a document entitled "Overtime Draft Procedures." (Defs. Mot. for Summ. J. 7; Defs. Ex. C, Section II). While the Procedures provide that "all [staff] are required to work mandatory overtime as a condition of employment, " (Defs. Ex. C, Section II), Human Resources representative Catherine Ohler testified that exceptions to the overtime draft policy are made "on a case-by-case . . . basis." (Ohler Dep. 32). Additionally, DYRS documents in the record indicate that the agency exempted at least eight employees from the overtime requirement. (Pls. Exs. 5-7). In light of this evidence, the court finds that a genuine issue of material fact exists with respect to whether the overtime requirement was an essential function of Plaintiff s job.[3]

         b. Weekend work

         Unlike the overtime issue, summary judgment is appropriate on the issue of Plaintiff s request to avoid weekend work because she ultimately withdrew that request. In response to DYRS's August 2012 letter offering an accommodation in the form of night-shift work, Plaintiffs therapist sent a letter to DYRS rescinding Plaintiffs request to avoid weekend work. In that letter, the therapist explained that Plaintiffs treatment would be jeopardized by working the night shift, working more than eight hours in a day, as well as exposure to McInnis and White-Pulley. (Pls. Ex. 13). On the other hand, the therapist indicated that working on weekends would not hamper Plaintiffs treatment:

I have spoken with Ms. Ward about her work schedule and she has advised that her previous work schedule was conducive and acceptable to the continue[d] treatment needed, which is 6:30 am to 3:00 pm Sunday [through] Thursday. I believe Ms. Ward is able to work this shift without any problems. This shift allows her to keep her medical appointments and stabilize her sleep patterns.

(Id.) (emphasis added). At her deposition, Plaintiff admitted that she agreed with the therapist's observation about working the Sunday through Thursday shift "without any problems, " except to the extent it exposed her to McInnis. (Ward. Dep. 51-52). Given this evidence, the court finds that Plaintiff does not have a viable failure to accommodate claim with regard to her request to avoid ...


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