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Belton v. Snyder

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 23, 2017

WILLIE D. BELTON, Plaintiff,
v.
ROBERT D. SNYDER, in his official capacity as Acting Secretary of the U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          REGGIE B. WALTON United States District Judge.

         The plaintiff, Willie D. Belton, who was employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (“Veterans Affairs”) until his termination in December 2011, claims that the defendant, Robert D. Snyder, in his official capacity as the Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs, [1] engaged in discriminatory and retaliatory acts in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (2012), in connection with the plaintiff's request for a reasonable accommodation for his alleged disability and his subsequent termination. See generally Complaint (“Compl.”) ¶¶ 36- 41. Currently pending before the Court is the defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Def.'s Mot.”) and his accompanying Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 28 (“Def.'s Mem.”), along with the defendant's Supplemental Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 34 (“Def.'s Supp. Mot.”), which the Court permitted the defendant to file on September 1, 2015. Upon careful consideration of the parties' submissions, the Court concludes that summary judgment must be granted in the defendant's favor.[2]

         I. BACKGROUND

         The lengthy background of this case, which involves events spanning several years embodied in a series of letters, is based on the following facts, which are undisputed unless otherwise noted.[3] The plaintiff was employed as an electrician at a Veterans Affairs medical facility located in the District of Columbia. Compl. ¶¶ 5-6. “On or about April 5, 2003, [the p]laintiff submitted a handwritten request for a non-specific reasonable accommodation due to [his] job related illness.” Def.'s Facts ¶ 1; see Def.'s Mem., Exhibit (“Ex.”) 1 at ¶ 000060.[4]Shortly thereafter, on April 16, 2003, the plaintiff's attorney faxed a handwritten memorandum to the plaintiff's supervisors, Pedro Garcia and Michael Slagle, stating that it enclosed a one-page “medical report f[or] Willie Belton from his doctor recommending [a] specific work assignment, ”[5] Def.'s Facts ¶ 2, which was accompanied by the one-page report, Def.'s Mem., Ex. 2 at ¶ 000059. The medical report, signed by Stefan Lund, Ph.D., indicated that the plaintiff received treatment on April 11, 2003, that his diagnosis was “confidential, ” but that “[i]t [was] strongly recommended that [the plaintiff] . . . be assigned to do work as an electronics technician in the Biomedical section.” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 2 at ¶ 000059; see also Def.'s Facts ¶ 2.

         In a letter dated May 9, 2003, regarding “the request from [the plaintiff] received on May 5, 2003, ” Mr. Garcia stated, “the information . . . provided is insufficient for . . . [Veterans Affairs] to determine if you are currently a qualified individual with a disability” and that “[w]ithout the necessary medical documentation, . . . [Veterans Affairs] cannot make an informed assessment of [the plaintiff's] request for an accommodation.” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 3 at ¶ 000051; see also Def.'s Facts ¶ 3. The letter set forth a list of the “information needed to determine if [the plaintiff was] a qualified individual with a disability, including a detailed description of [the plaintiff's] exact medical condition(s), ” “[c]linical findings, ” “[a]n explanation of the impact of the stated medical condition on [the plaintiff's] overall health and activities, ” and “[a] detailed description of the precise accommodation recommended by [the plaintiff's] health care provider, including the basis of the recommendation and an explanation of how the proposed accommodation will allow [the plaintiff] to perform the particular job duty at issue.” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 3 at ¶ 000051.

         Several months later, on or about August 27 or 28, 2003, after “request[ing] sick leave and provid[ing] his supervisor a doctor's note, ” and alleging an illness “due to acute agitation from workplace stress, ” the plaintiff “never returned to work.” See Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 4-5; see also Def.'s Mem., Ex. 4 at ¶ 000050. On August 28, 2003, a medical doctor, Daniel O'Connell, signed an attending physician's report finding that the plaintiff suffered from “depression, tension, [and] agitation in [the] setting of work stress” caused or aggravated by “perceived harassment and threats by supervisors.” Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 5. The report indicated that the plaintiff had been treated with medication and psychotherapy. Id. But see Def.'s Response to Pl.'s Facts ¶ 1 (disputing the plaintiff's characterization of the attending physician's report).

         About a month later, on September 30, 2003, the plaintiff submitted a handwritten letter addressed to a “human resources specialist” and regarding “requested information, ” which enclosed a two-paragraph letter from Dr. Lund, who is identified as a psychotherapist. Def.'s Mem., Ex. 5 at ¶ 000049. The plaintiff's letter recounted the following:

On August 27, 2003, I was working on the condinsate [sic] return system, I rebuilt the whole system with new operating parts, I had to modify certain things because the parts were no longer available. I got the system up and running and [it] is still on line to this date. I was working on the other condinsate [sic] system getting it back online. I showed [illegible] a control panel operator that I had gotten half of that system on line but it was still a little bit more that I had to do. I was trying to explain this to my superior Mike Slagle who refused to listen. . . . [T]his is one of those rageful [sic] moments I've had within the pas[t] [two] years. I'm not employed b[y] anyone and I am currently seeking mental health to help me deal with this stressful environment. On August 27 03 from 1130 to 330 I took sick leave to August 29, 03[, ], Annual leave from Sept 2, 03 to Sept 9, 03[, and] Leave without pay from Sept 10, 03 to the present.

         Def.'s Mem., Ex. 5 at ¶ 000047-48. In addition, the attached letter from Dr. Lund, dated September 26, 2003, stated that the plaintiff “has experienced significant stress from his work environment” “since [December 20, 2001], ” that the plaintiff's efforts “to develop strategies by which the situation at work would be more tolerable” were “unsuccessful, ” and as a result, “we have been forced to recommend disability from [August 27, 2003].” Id. at ¶ 000049; see Def.'s Facts ¶ 7 (Dr. Lund “recommended that [the p]laintiff be placed on disability effective August 27, 2003”). Shortly thereafter, in late September 2003, the plaintiff filed a worker's compensation claim with the United States Department of Labor. Def.'s Facts ¶ 6.

         On October 7, 2003, Mr. Garcia sent a letter to the plaintiff informing him that he had been absent without leave since September 10, 2003, and directing the plaintiff to return to work. See Def.'s Facts ¶ 8; Def.'s Mem., Ex. 6 at ¶ 000046. The letter also cautioned that “[c]harges of [absent without leave] can be used as a basis for disciplinary action being initiated against [the plaintiff], up to and including removal from emplacement with . . . Veterans Affairs.” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 6 at ¶ 000046. The plaintiff responded in an October 20, 2003 letter stating that he had previously requested leave without pay pending the Department of Labor's review of his worker's compensation case, that he was renewing that request, and that he was “unable to return to a duty status at this time . . . .” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 7 at ¶ 000044; see also Def.'s Facts ¶ 9.

         The plaintiff was asked in response to his letter to provide more detailed medical information because the September 2003 note from Dr. Lund was “not clear enough to make a determination of [the plaintiff's] disability.” See Def.'s Mem., Ex. 8 at ¶ 000042-43 (November 3, 2003 letter requesting “detailed medical documentation” and providing a list of the documentation to be provided by November 24, 2003); see also Def.'s Facts ¶ 10. The response also indicted that the plaintiff's status had been restored to “leave without pay.” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 8 at ¶ 000043. On November 20, 2003, the plaintiff provided a one-page report indicating that the plaintiff was treated by Dr. O'Connell on November 12, 2003, who concluded that the plaintiff's return to regular work was “uncertain” and advised that the plaintiff needed “accommodation in [the] form of [a] supporting work environment free from harassment.” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 10 at ¶ 000039; see also Def.'s Facts ¶ 12. In the interim, however, Veterans Affairs, in a letter dated November 13, 2003, denied the plaintiff's May 2003 reasonable accommodation request due to the lack of medical documentation “required to determine if [the plaintiff was] a qualified individual with a disability.” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 9 at ¶ 000041.

         Almost a year later, on October 12, 2004, Mr. Garcia sent a letter to the plaintiff stating that the plaintiff's worker's compensation claim before the Department of Labor had been resolved earlier that year in March 2004, but that the plaintiff failed to make contact with his supervisors or return to work. See Def.'s Facts ¶ 15; see also Def.'s Mem., Ex. 11 at ¶ 000035. Mr. Garcia directed the plaintiff to return to work within two weeks, and cautioned that “failure to do so will result in disciplinary action . . . up to and including removal from employment . . . .” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 11 at ¶ 000035. The plaintiff responded in a letter stating that, in accordance with his doctor's assessment, he was “disabled, until further notice” and that he would “notify [Mr. Garcia] when [his] doctor's assessment is different than expressed . . . .” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 12 at ¶ 000031; see also Def.'s Facts ¶ 16; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 5; Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 12. Included with the plaintiff's response was the August 2003 attending physician's report by Dr. O'Connell. See Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 12.

         Mr. Garcia again requested more detailed medical evidence from the plaintiff to substantiate the plaintiff's claimed disability in a letter dated January 3, 2005, see Def.'s Facts ¶ 17; Def.'s Mem., Ex. 13 at ¶ 000023-24; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 6, and warned the plaintiff that his “absences had continued beyond a reasonable time” and that “adverse action may be taken . . . .” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 13 at ¶ 000023. The plaintiff responded in a January 25, 2005 letter, stating that he was “not trying to retire at this time, ” but instead was “requesting [a] reasonable accommodation in the matter in which both of [his] physicians ha[ve] suggested, ” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 14 at ¶ 000018; see also Def.'s Facts ¶ 18; Pl.'s Facts ¶ 7, and with the letter submitted a one-page verification of treatment report signed by Dr. O'Connell, Pl.'s Opp'n, Ex. 14. The verification of treatment report stated that the plaintiff's “prognosis was favorable once [the] recommended accommodation has been provided, ” that the plaintiff could “resume regular work . . . when [the] recommended accommodation has been provided, ” and “strongly recommended that [the plaintiff] be transferred away from the [Veterans Affairs] medical center and reassigned in an administrative capacity.” Id.

         The director of the Veterans Affairs medical center, Sanford Garfunkel, having received the plaintiff's January 25, 2005 letter, informed the plaintiff that he “ha[d] not provided the proper medical documentation for . . . [Veterans Affairs] to make a reasonable accommodation determination” and that he had failed to return to duty as directed by Garcia on several previous occasions. Def.'s Mem., Ex. 16 at ¶ 000014; see also Def.'s Facts ¶ 20. The letter also informed the plaintiff that “[Veterans Affairs] will forward the release of medical information [the plaintiff] mailed to us to [the plaintiff's] healthcare provider and give them thirty days upon receipt to produce the requested information, ” and that his accommodation request would be reviewed upon receipt of that information. Def.'s Mem., Ex. 16 at ¶ 000015. A separate letter was also sent to Dr. O'Connell seeking further information regarding the plaintiff's accommodation request, but a response was not provided. See Def.'s Facts ¶¶ 21-22; Def.'s Mem., Ex. 17 at ¶ 000012-13 (March 10, 2005 letter seeking within thirty days additional information from Dr. O'Connell).

         After the plaintiff denied in a letter dated April 19, 2005, knowing that the medical information he had already provided was deemed insufficient, see Def.'s Facts ¶ 23; Def.'s Mem., Ex. 18 at ¶ 000010 (“[T]his is the first time that I have been made aware that the medical docume[nta]tion that I submitted from my physicians wasn't enough to make a determination”), Mr. Garfunkel informed the plaintiff in a letter dated May 16, 2005, that his absences were a “separate issue from [his] request for [a] reasonable accommodation” and that “[a]ny decision regarding the [absent without leave charges] will not be delayed because of [the] request for a reasonable accommodation, ” Def.'s Mem., Ex. 19 at ¶ 000009; see also Def.'s Facts ¶ 24.

         On August 28, 2005, now two years after the plaintiff stopped reporting for work, the plaintiff provided a two-page letter from Dr. O'Connell that described the plaintiff's medical condition, treatment, and prognosis. See Def.'s Facts ¶ 26; Def.'s Mem., Ex. 21 at ¶ 000003-04; Pl.'s Facts ¶¶ 8-9. Dr. O'Connell's letter stated that the plaintiff had been his patient since December 2001, was diagnosed with “Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Anxiety and Depression, ” and was “maintained on a regimen of ...


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