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Coady v. Chao

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 26, 2019

BRIAN COADY, Plaintiff,
v.
ELAINE CHAO, Secretary of Transportation, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DABNEY L. FRIEDRICH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Brian Coady brings this action against his former employer, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Coady alleges that DOT discriminated against him based on his sex and disability, retaliated against him, and subjected him to a hostile work environment. Compl. ¶¶ 49–84, Dkt. 1. Before the Court is DOT’s Motion for Summary Judgment, Dkt. 24. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Brian Coady began working at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a subdivision of DOT, in 2009. Coady Decl. ¶ 1, Dkt. 26-2. His first year of employment passed without any apparent misconduct or problems. See Id . ¶ 2. But Coady’s relationships with his supervisors began to deteriorate in summer 2010 when he was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis, lumbar disc herniation, and other serious back conditions. Id. ¶ 4.

         In June 2010, Coady’s physician warned him that he could become substantially disabled if he failed to undergo a fusion surgery on his back. Id. To be eligible for the procedure, the doctor required Coady to attend three physical therapy appointments per week for six consecutive weeks. Id.; see also DOT’s Statement of Material Facts ¶ 6, Dkt. 24-1. Coady agreed with that treatment plan and scheduled the surgery for September 2010. Id.

         The demands of Coady’s work prevented him from complying with the treatment plan. Coady alleges that he was forced to cancel a number of physical therapy appointments to avoid missing difficult-to-predict meetings because his supervisor, Kelly Leone, “harassed” and “reprimanded” him for missing meetings. Coady Decl. ¶ 6. He also alleges that when he described his diagnosis, the restrictions on his movement, and his need to take time off of work, Leone responded in an “annoyed, ” “dismissive, ” and “aggressive[]” manner. Id. ¶ 9; see, e.g., Id . ¶ 8 (recounting an incident in which Leonne described a hospital visit as a “stunt”). Coady further asserts that his promotion in August 2010 to Information Technology Development Chief led to increased work responsibilities that made it even more difficult to attend physical therapy appointments three times each week. Coady’s Resps. to DOT’s First Set of Disc. Reqs. at 21, Dkt. 26-3. Eventually, Coady had to cancel the September surgery. Coady Decl. ¶ 6.

         In the ensuing months, Coady’s condition worsened, and he rescheduled the surgery for January 2012. Id. ¶ 10; see also Coady’s Resps. to DOT’s First Set of Disc. Reqs. at 23. Coady made a series of medical appointments to prepare for the procedure, but when he requested sick leave, his new supervisor, Mary Clapp, repeatedly objected to the documentation provided in his doctor’s notes. Coady Decl. ¶¶ 10–20. For example, in late November 2011, she demanded that he provide both pre- and post-appointment doctor’s notes specifying the date and time of any appointment, his diagnosis, and the treatment plan. Id. ¶ 12. His doctors, however, would not sign pre-appointment letters. Id.

         In November 2011, Coady requested permission to telework until his surgery. Id. ¶ 15. In support of his request, Coady provided Clapp with a brief note from the Virginia Spine Institute stating that he “should telework until his spine surgery on 1/9/12” because of an “ongoing medical condition.” First Virginia Spine Institute Letter, Dkt. 24-5. But Clapp objected that Coady’s doctor could not specify how DOT should accommodate his condition, and she requested another letter detailing his diagnosis and limitations. Coady Decl. ¶ 15. Coady then submitted two additional letters. First, he submitted a Department of Veteran’s Affairs letter stating that he could return to work as early as December 5, 2011 with the following “reasonable accommodations: no lifting > 20 lbs., [and] no extended periods of walking or standing.” Veterans Affairs Letter, Dkt. 24-6; see also Coady Decl. ¶ 16. Second, he submitted another, more detailed letter from the Virginia Spine Institute that stated, “[Coady] feels that he is unable to continue commuting to work and that this is causing him too much pain and discomfort to function. Based upon his diagnostic studies and his physical examination, I feel that it is reasonable for him to telework as opposed to driving to the office.” Second Virginia Spine Institute Letter at 1, Dkt. 24-6. According to the Virginia Spine Institute, although “sitting for one-hour duration aggravates [Coady’s] pain severely, ” he can “produce an eight-hour work day over an extended period of time” with the ability to change positions, stretch, and relax. Id.

         Unpersuaded, Clapp requested a specific explanation for why Coady could not change positions at the office rather than at home, how long Coady needed to relax in between breaks, and what the length of the extended work day would be. Coady Decl. ¶ 16; Email Re: Request for Medical Documentation, Dkt. 24-8. At this point, the Virginia Spine Institute refused to provide any further documentation to Clapp, although it did release a copy of Coady’s medical records to him. Coady Decl. ¶¶ 17, 20. Coady also obtained and submitted a January 3, 2012, letter from George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates indicating, among other things, that he could not perform “work requiring walking, standing[, ] or sitting without a break every 60 minutes.” George Washington Med. Faculty Assocs. Letter, Dkt. 24-10. But Clapp remained unconvinced that Coady’s medical condition required him to telework because the letter “did not clarify [Coady’s] need for full-time telework.” Email Re: Accommodation Request at 1, Dkt. 24-11. Clapp then formally denied his telework request, stating, “I am unable to make a disability determination based upon the information that you have provided at this time. I am therefore closing your request for [an] accommodation. If you would like to be reconsidered or to reopen your request, please let me know.” Id. at 2. Clapp did, however, offer Coady other accommodations, including a standing desk, an ergonomic chair, and a cot for his office. DOT’s Statement of Material Facts ¶ 17; see also Email Re: Special Seating Fitting, Dkt. 24-12.

         At around the same time that Coady was seeking increasingly detailed doctor’s notes, he sought Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counseling. Counselor’s Report at 2 n.2, 36, Dkt. 24-2; Coady’s Opp’n at 21, Dkt. 26. On November 28, 2011, he informally alleged sex and disability discrimination, and on February 22, 2012, DOT notified Coady of his right to file a formal discrimination complaint. Counselor’s Report at 2 n.2, 36; Coady’s Opp’n at 21. When Coady failed to do so, DOT closed his informal complaint. Counselor’s Report at 2 n.2, 36; Coady’s Opp’n at 21.

         Nevertheless, Coady continued to clash with his colleagues. In December 2011, Clapp reassigned Coady to work as a Business Intelligence Advisor. Coady Decl. ¶ 36. But according to Coady, she repeatedly denied his requests for training “[i]n an attempt to set [him] up to fail in [his] new position.” Id.

         Coady also sought reimbursement in December 2011 for three business trips in August and September 2011. Coady Decl. ¶¶ 32, 34. Although one DOT employee originally told Coady that he could submit the requests in the following year, another employee told him that his requests were not timely. Id. In the end though, he received the requested reimbursements. Id. ¶ 34.

         Meanwhile, Coady’s medical conditions continued to create scheduling and other problems. In January 2012, Coady’s back surgery was again canceled because he failed to complete the required physical therapy treatment. Id. ¶ 21. Coady alleges that at a January 9, 2012 pre-operation appointment, he requested a “return-to-work” form that would excuse his absence from work. Coady’s Resps. to DOT’s First Set of Disc. Reqs. at 19. Because it allegedly did not have a “return-to-work” form, the hospital provided him with only a print out of his appointment schedule. Id. Clapp refused to accept this documentation and threatened to cancel Coady’s preapproved leave for his surgery unless he provided her with his medical records. Id. Coady does not allege that Clapp made good on this threat.

         Tensions further escalated in late February 2012, when Coady allegedly suffered from either the flu or food poisoning. Coady Decl. ¶ 24. The illness caused Coady to sleep for nearly the entirety of two days and to go to the emergency room on the third day. Id. ¶¶ 24–25, 27, 29. Clapp initially refused to accept Coady’s documentation, which included emergency room discharge papers, and she charged him with being away without leave (AWOL). DOT’s Statement of Material Facts ¶ 29–31; Coady’s Statement of Disputed Material Facts ¶ 6–7, Dkt. 26-1. After Coady provided additional documentation, however, the ...


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