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Matos v. Devos

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 13, 2018

ANAMARIA P. MATOS, Plaintiff,
v.
ELISABETH DEVOS, Secretary, Department of Education, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Anamaria Matos suffers from a sensitivity to fragrances which made it difficult for her to come into the office without feeling ill. Unfortunately for Matos, her job as an IT manager at the U.S. Department of Education required at least some physical presence in the office. The Department tried to find Matos an equal-paying position that would allow her to work from home and, when that effort failed, provided her a specialized filter and mask that she indicated would alleviate her symptoms. Nonetheless, Matos sued the Department, alleging that it failed to accommodate her condition and created a hostile work environment based on her disability status. The Department has moved for summary judgment. Because Matos has presented insufficient evidence to support her claims, the Court will grant the motion.

         I. Factual Background

         Plaintiff Anamaria Matos began working for the Department of Education as a Federal Student Aid IT Security Compliance Manager in 2010. Def.'s Mot. Dismiss & Summ. J. (“Def.'s MSJ”) Ex. 1 (“Matos Dep.”), at 8:4-9, 8:24-9:3. At the start of her tenure, Matos had a “4-10” schedule, meaning she worked four days a week for ten hours a day. Id 11:6-8, 12:24-13:1. Her schedule was eventually changed in November 2013-after Dr. Linda Wilbanks became Matos's supervisor-to a traditional five-day weekly schedule because Matos needed to attend meetings on Fridays that she had been missing. Id. 15:7-11, 16:5-9.

         In early 2011, Matos began experiencing symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivity, a condition marked by headaches, nausea, and dizziness brought on by exposure to perfumes and other fragrances. Id. 9:11-24, 10:20-11:2. She informed her supervisor and, upon her request, was transferred from a cubical to a private office with a door. Id. 12:5-20. She requested no other accommodations at that time. Id. at 12:21-23. Following construction work on her office building in January and February 2014-during which Matos and the other employees teleworked, Id. 18:9-13-Matos's condition worsened. Id. 18:20-19:16. She reported feeling lightheaded and nauseous and experienced headaches whenever she came into the office. See Pl.'s Opp'n Def.'s MSJ (“Pl.'s Opp'n”) Ex. 5 (emails from Matos describing her symptoms).

         On March 26, 2014, Matos submitted a formal request for an accommodation related to her condition. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 9 (March 26, 2014 accommodation request). (The Court apologizes for all the dates; as will be apparent later, they are relevant to Matos's claims and hopefully will aid in any appellate review.) In it, Matos requested that she be assigned a 100% telework schedule. Id. The Department referred Matos's request to the Federal Occupational Health service (“FOH”), an agency within the government that provides job-related health services for federal employees. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 14. While FOH evaluated the request, the Department sent Matos letters updating her on its status and permitted her to telework as much as her job duties allowed. See Def.'s MSJ Ex. 16 (May 5, 2014 letter); Id. Ex. 18 (June 18, 2014 letter); id Ex. 19 (June 26, 2014 letter); Id. Ex. 20 (July 3, 2014 letter); see also Matos Dep. 27:21-28:4 (testifying that she was allowed to telework until June or July 2014); Def.'s MSJ Ex. 7, at 321, 325 (Wilbanks EEO Affidavit) (discussing Matos teleworking). However, as Matos's supervisor Wilbanks explained, some of Matos's job duties, such as training the employees she supervised or attending staff meetings, required her physical presence in the office. See Def.'s MSJ Ex. 15 (April 8, 2014 email).[2]

         FOH issued its report to the Department on July 8, 2014, concluding that Matos was a disabled individual. Def's MSJ Ex. 21. Matos received the report about two weeks later, on July 21, 2014. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 22 (July 2014 email chain). Wilbanks then met with Matos to discuss the report and noted that “the probability is that [Matos's] current position cannot accommodate 100% telework.” Id. Wilbanks and Matos discussed what sort of positions Matos might be able to assume that would enable her to have a full-time telework schedule. See Def.'s MSJ Ex. 23 (July 21, 2014 email). The Department also began a search for such a vacant position. See Def.'s MSJ Ex. 26 (January 22, 2015 letter).

         On September 4, 2014 the Department requested that FOH evaluate Matos's accommodation request further. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 24. It specifically asked FOH to inquire of Matos's doctors whether other accommodations, such as the use of masks and filters, would alleviate her symptoms and allow her to work in the office. Id. FOH provided a supplemental report on November 13, 2014, in which it reversed its earlier disability determination. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 25. FOH concluded that Matos had not sufficiently documented her disability in light of inconsistencies in the information she had provided, such as her work outside the office as a consultant for a skincare company that did not appear to sell hypoallergic or fragrance-free products. Id

         Following FOH's supplemental report, the Department formally denied Matos's request for 100% telework on January 22, 2015. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 26. The Department based its denial on two rationales: (1) that Matos had provided “insufficient information . . . to substantiate that [she was] a person who has a disability” and (2) that the “essential functions of [Matos's] position are not amenable to permanent, full-time telework.” Id. The denial letter also detailed additional accommodations the Department had proposed but that proved unsuccessful, namely (1) attempting to transfer Matos to another building, which Matos “indicated . . . did not work”; (2) allowing Matos to work in an office behind a closed door, which had not been successful as an accommodation; and (3) searching for a vacant position amenable to 100% telework to which Matos could transfer, which the Department had been unable to find. Id Matos unsuccessfully appealed the denial to a more senior supervisor. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 30.

         Later that month, Matos provided additional medical documentation to substantiate her condition, which triggered a new accommodation request. See Def.'s MSJ Ex. 31 (March 19, 2015 letter). Following an additional report from FOH, this request was denied on March 19, 2015 for the same reasons as Matos's prior request. Id. see also Def.'s MSJ Ex. 36 (March 9, 2015 FOH report). In response, Matos submitted yet more medical documentation in early April 2015. See Def.'s MSJ Ex. 42 (April 20, 2015 FOH report). Based on this latest round of documentation, FOH issued another report on April 20, 2015 concluding that Matos was a qualified person with a disability and recommending telework “if it is administratively compatible for her position.” Id.; see also Def.'s MSJ Ex. 43 (April 27, 2015 FOH report).

         After receiving the April 2015 FOH reports, the Department again concluded that Matos's current position was not amenable to a 100% telework schedule and began searching for a vacant full-telework position for which Matos was qualified. See Def.'s MSJ Ex. 44 (July 20, 2015 offer letter). On July 20, 2015, the Department concluded no such positions existed, created a new (albeit lower-paid) position that was amenable to full-time telework, and offered Matos a voluntary transfer to that position. Id[3] The Department asked Matos to accept or decline the offer within seven calendar days. Id.

         In June 2015, while the search for a vacant position was ongoing, Matos for the very first time suggested another possible accommodation.[4] She raised the possibility of obtaining equipment that would allow her to work at the office, specifically an air cleaner with a custom filter for her office and a respirator mask that would enable her to leave her office for short periods of time such as to attend a meeting. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 45 (June 2015 email chain). In response, Monifa Martin, the Department's reasonable accommodation program manager, indicated the Department would prefer instead to reassign Matos to a position that allowed for 100% telework because “there is no assurance that either item, or both combined items, would work in the office.” Id. Matos thanked Martin for the update. Id.

         After receiving the transfer offer on July 20, 2015, Matos again raised the possibility of purchasing the equipment. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 46 (July 2015 email chain). In response, the Department requested that Matos provide medical documentation showing that the equipment would remedy her condition. Id This documentation was particularly needed given that Matos and her doctors had been “adamant that nothing except full time telework would be an effective accommodation.” Id. see also Def.'s MSJ Ex. 47 (July 24, 2015 email from FOH Dr. Neal Presant recommending the Department require medical documentation).

         On July 27, 2015, Matos submitted a memorandum in response to the job offer. See Def.'s MSJ Ex. 48. In it, she expressed confusion about the lower salary for the position and inquired about the possibility of using the equipment instead. Id The Department responded in a July 30, 2015 email that reiterated the salary for the job and again requested Matos provide adequate medical documentation for the desired equipment. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 46 (July 2015 email chain). The email directed Matos to either submit medical documentation for the equipment or convey her decision on the reassignment offer within 15 days calendar days, by August 14, 2015. Id. On that date, Matos emailed indicating that she had met with her doctors and would have medical documentation “by the end of the week.” Def.'s MSJ Ex. 49 (August 2015 email chain). She again raised a question about the transfer position's salary. Id.

         By August 27, 2015, no further medical documentation had been received from Matos. See Def.'s MSJ Ex. 50 (August 27, 2015 letter). Nevertheless, the Department wrote to Matos reiterating the open transfer offer, responding to her question about salary, and giving her until September 4, 2015 to respond to the job offer, noting that a failure to respond would be considered a denial. Id Shortly thereafter, on August 31, 2015, Matos finally submitted medical documentation regarding the equipment. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 49 (August 2015 email chain).

         Matos arrived at the office for work on September 9, 2015, constructively rejecting the transfer offer. See Matos Dep. 73:19-20. That day, the Department informed her that it would obtain the equipment she had requested and would allow her to work remotely full-time while the items were being purchased. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 52 (Sept. 9, 2015 email). The equipment initially arrived on October 1, 2015. Def.'s MSJ Ex. 53 (Oct. 1, 2015 letter). However, it took several additional months and back-and-forth with Matos, until January 2016, to find the right configuration of equipment that worked to alleviate her symptoms. See Def.'s MSJ Ex. 54; id Ex. 55 (email chains regarding obtaining the equipment).

         The following fall, in October 2016, Matos filed suit against the Department. She alleged that it had discriminated against her on the basis of her disability by creating a hostile work environment and failing to provide a reasonable accommodation for her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12112, and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. Compl. ¶¶ 30-69. Her complaint sought monetary damages and equitable relief. Id ¶¶ 42, 69, 71. Discovery having closed, the Department has moved for summary judgment on all of Matos's claims.

         II. Legal Standard

         A party is entitled to summary judgment if it shows that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A factual dispute is “material” if the resolution “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law” and “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When, as here, the nonmoving party bears the burden of persuasion at trial, the moving party is entitled to summary judgment if it establishes the absence of evidence for an essential element of the non-moving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In analyzing a motion for summary judgment, the Court must “examine the facts in the record and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Robinson v. Pezzat, 818 F.3d 1, 8 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (internal quotation omitted).

         Both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act prohibit the federal government from discriminating against employees on the basis of disability. See 29 U.S.C. § 794; 42 U.S.C. § 12112. One such type of discrimination is the failure to provide an employee a reasonable accommodation for any disability. Typically, a plaintiff asserting such a claim under either the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act must prove that: (1) she has a disability within the meaning of the statute, (2) her employer had notice of her disability, (3) she was qualified to perform her job with a reasonable accommodation, and (4) her employer denied her such an accommodation. See, e.g., Solomon v. Vilsack, 763 F.3d 1, 9 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (Rehabilitation Act); Floyd v. Lee, 968 F.Supp.2d 308, 326 (D.D.C. 2013) (ADA).[5]

         In addition, both statutes prohibit employers from creating a hostile work environment for individuals based on their disability. See, e.g., Sanders v. Kelly, 180 F.Supp.3d 35, 44 (D.D.C. 2016) (Rehabilitation Act); Floyd v. Lee, 85 F.Supp.3d 482, 516 (D.D.C. 2015) (ADA). To prevail on such a claim, a plaintiff must show that “his employer subjected him to discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [his] employment ...


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