U.S. E.E.O.C. v. RITE AID CORP. Civil Action No. CCB-08-2576.
750 F.Supp.2d 564 (2010)
U.S. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, et al. v. RITE AID CORPORATION.
United States District Court, D. Maryland.
November 10, 2010.
James A. Rothschild, Anderson Coe and King LLP, Baltimore, MD, Michael J. Carlson, Law Office of Michael J. Carlson, Severna Park, MD, for Rite Aid Corporation.
CATHERINE C. BLAKE, District Judge.
The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") and Christopher Fultz have sued Rite Aid Corporation ("Rite Aid") under the Americans with Disability Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and Maryland anti-discrimination laws, Md.Code Ann., State Gov't § 20-601 et seq., for discrimination, harassment and hostile work environment, retaliation, and failure to accommodate. Now pending before the court is the defendant's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.
Christopher Fultz was diagnosed with epilepsy at age six. During childhood, he began taking anti-seizure medications, which lessened the frequency and severity of his seizures. Because the seizures were not fully eliminated through medication, in 2002 Mr. Fultz underwent a right temporal lobectomy to remove the part of his brain believed to be the source of his seizures. Unfortunately, the surgery did not eliminate
In 1998, Rite Aid hired Mr. Fultz to work in its distribution center in Perryman, Maryland. Mr. Fultz fully disclosed his epilepsy to Rite Aid at the time he was hired. According to the record currently before the court, during his first five years of employment with Rite Aid, Mr. Fultz experienced only two seizures at work. One of those seizures occurred while Mr. Fultz was operating a fork lift, and, as a result, Rite Aid restricted him from operating heavy machinery.
In 2004, Mr. Fultz suffered two grand mal seizures at work. After Mr. Fultz's first seizure that year, Rite Aid ordered him to undergo a fitness exam with Dr. Barry Rowecamp, whose occupational health practice was under contract with Rite Aid to provide basic medical services for the Perryman facility. On May 12, 2004, Mr. Fultz's own neurologist, Dr. Ronald Lesser, director of the Johns Hopkins Epilepsy Center, cleared Mr. Fultz for work without height restrictions. On November 4, 2004, Mr. Fultz suffered his second seizure, this time on the second floor of the warehouse. Based on this incident, Dr. Rowecamp advised Rite Aid to restrict Mr. Fultz from working on the second floor. Mr. Fultz transferred to the Pharmacy Department where he was assigned to an area on the first floor called the Cooler, where refrigerated drugs are stored at a required temperature. From 2004 through mid-2006, Mr. Fultz experienced no seizures at work.
Starting in mid-2006 through the end of the year, Mr. Fultz experienced between four and five grand mal seizures. During one of these seizures, Safety Manager Corey Williams ordered security officers to pin Mr. Fultz to the ground. Neither Mr. Fultz nor any other Rite Aid employee was injured during these seizures. Following these seizures, Mr. Fultz returned to Dr. Lesser for an evaluation, and was cleared once again to participate in all his occupations at work, including working at heights. Based upon this recommendation, Mr. Fultz requested the 2004 height restriction imposed by Dr. Rowecamp be removed. His request was denied.
In 2006, Mr. Fultz also applied for a promotion to a Pharmacy Lead position. On August 6, 2006, he interviewed for the job, but was not selected for the position. Based on this denial and alleged harassment he experienced in the workplace due to his epilepsy, Mr. Fultz filed an EEOC charge of discrimination on September 17, 2006.
On January 8, 2007, Mr. Fultz contacted Rite Aid's employee hotline to make a complaint regarding how management at the Perryman facility was treating him based on his epilepsy. Mr. Fultz alleged that management would interrogate him about the cause of his seizures even while he was experiencing a seizure and accuse him of willfully bringing on his seizures by not following his doctor's advice. In response, Rite Aid scheduled a fitness for duty exam with Dr. Allan Krumholz, a professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the Maryland Epilepsy Center. Dr.
On August 20, 2007, the EEOC issued a Letter of Determination finding that Rite Aid violated the ADA by subjecting Mr. Fultz to unequal terms and conditions of employment, including a hostile work environment, and by denying him an opportunity for promotion. Less than a month after the EEOC's decision, Rite Aid asked Dr. Krumholz to reconsider his recommendation to lift the height restriction imposed against Mr. Fultz. Dr. Krumholz refused. Rite Aid then approached Dr. Rowekamp, its contract physician with no experience treating epilepsy, to conduct a third fitness for duty examination of Mr. Fultz. On January 23, 2008, Dr. Rowekamp issued a letter to Rite Aid declaring Mr. Fultz unfit for duty.
On February 8, 2008, Rite Aid placed Mr. Fultz on administrative leave. On February 20, 2008, Mr. Fultz filed an EEOC charge alleging that his termination amounted to retaliation by Rite Aid. During the next several months, Mr. Fultz made several requests, all of which were supported by Dr. Lesser, to be reinstated to his position at Rite Aid. Rite Aid failed to respond to any of his requests. On May 14, 2008, the EEOC issued a determination finding that Rite Aid violated the ADA by terminating Mr. Fultz. On October 2, 2008, Rite Aid offered to reinstate Mr. Fultz. Mr. Fultz refused the offer.
On September 30, 2009, the EEOC filed suit against Rite Aid in this court. On December 12, 2009, Mr. Fultz filed a motion to intervene in the suit. On March 29, 2010, Rite Aid filed a motion for summary judgment. The EEOC and Mr. Fultz have opposed the motion.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) provides that summary judgment "should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2). The Supreme Court has clarified that this does not mean that any factual dispute will defeat the motion. "By its very terms, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,
"A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment `may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [his] pleadings,' but rather must `set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc.,
A. Disability Requirement
Rite Aid contends that the plaintiffs' ADA claims fail as a matter of law because Mr. Fultz is not considered "disabled" within the meaning of the ADA.
The determination of whether an individual is disabled under the ADA is an "individualized inquiry, particular to the facts of each case." EEOC v. Sara Lee Corp.,
It is uncontested that Mr. Fultz suffers from grand mal seizures, as well as complex partial seizures and relatively minor episodes when he "zones out" and stares for a few minutes.
Alternatively, there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Rite Aid regarded Mr. Fultz's epilepsy as substantially limiting the major life activity of working when it placed him on administrative leave. Under the ADA, an employee is "regarded as" being disabled "when the employer `mistakenly believes that an actual, nonlimiting impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities.'" Wilson v. Phoenix Specialty Mfg. Co., Inc.,
Finally, Rite Aid contends that even if Mr. Fultz is "disabled" under the ADA, it was permitted to place him on administrative leave because he posed a direct threat of harm to himself and to his co-workers.
B. Failure to Accommodate
There also exists a genuine dispute of material fact concerning whether Rite Aid refused to accommodate Mr. Fultz's epilepsy. To establish a prima facie case for failure to accommodate, a plaintiff must show: "that he was an individual who had a disability within the meaning of the statute; (2) that the [employer] had notice of his disability; (3) that with reasonable accommodation he could perform the essential functions of the position ...; and (4) that the [employer] refused to make such accommodations." Rhoads v. Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp.,
C. Retaliation Claim
A genuine dispute of material fact also exists concerning whether Rite Aid's placement of Mr. Fultz on administrative leave on February 8, 2008 constituted an act of retaliation under the ADA. To establish a prima facie case of retaliation under the ADA, "a plaintiff must show that: (1) she engaged in a protected activity; (2) her employer acted adversely against her; and (3) her protected activity was causally connected to her employer's adverse action." Rhoads, 257 F.3d at 392. An indefinite suspension or removal without pay can amount to retaliation even if the employee is eventually rehired and given back pay. See Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White,
D. Hostile Work Environment Claim
To establish a hostile work environment claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must show: "(1) he is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) he was subjected to unwelcome harassment; (3) the harassment was based on his disability; (4) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter a term, condition, or privilege of employment; and (5) some factual basis exists to impute liability for the harassment to the employer." Fox v. Gen. Motors Corp.,
The court will assume for purposes of this motion that Mr. Fultz subjectively perceived the alleged harassment to be "severe or pervasive," and will focus its attention on the objective component of the element. Whether harassment is objectively "severe or pervasive" "is not, and by its nature cannot be, a mathematically precise test." Sunbelt Rentals, 521 F.3d at 315. A court must weigh all the circumstances of the harassing conduct, including "the frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance." Id. This standard prohibits an employment atmosphere that is "permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult" but does not make actionable conduct that amounts to "simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious)." Id.
The plaintiffs point to three forms of conduct by Rite Aid employees and managers that they allege amount to "severe and pervasive" harassment: (1) attempts by Rite Aid employees to restrain Mr. Fultz while he was experiencing a seizure; (2) Rite Aid employees allegedly blaming Mr. Fultz for having seizures; and (3) placing work restrictions on Mr. Fultz despite the opinions of his neurologist that such restrictions were unnecessary. (See Pls.' Opp'n to Summ. J. at 54). Viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the evidence does not indicate that Mr. Fultz suffered harassment due to his epilepsy that was "persistent, demeaning, unrelenting, and widespread." The record reflects that Rite Aid employees attempted to restrain Mr. Fultz during his seizures on a few occasions, either by physically restraining him or blocking him
The plaintiffs also contend that Rite Aid managers consistently blamed Mr. Fultz for having seizures and accused him of not following his doctor's orders. The record demonstrates that Human Resources Director Dan McDaniel ordered his Safety Manager Corey Williams to investigate why Mr. Fultz was having an increased number of seizures at work. (See McDaniel Dep. 123:2-12). But, Mr. McDaniel made his request only after hearing from Mr. Fultz himself that he had consumed alcohol despite his doctor's order to refrain from doing so, and a separate report that he was not taking his medication. (See id. at 123:13-21). The plaintiffs also argue that on one occasion, Mr. Williams "got in Fultz'[s] face and repeatedly questioned Fultz about whether he had consumed alcohol the evening prior to the seizure." (See Pls.' Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. at 54). Although Mr. Williams did ask Mr. Fultz while he was coming out of his seizure whether he had been drinking the previous evening, a review of the record demonstrates that Mr. Williams only asked Mr. Fultz the question twice. (See Warren Dep. 39:5-21). This conversation occurred after Mr. Fultz admitted that his doctor had advised him not to consume alcohol, to help control his seizures. No reasonable jury could find that this conduct constituted "severe or pervasive" harassment sufficient to alter a term of employment.
Likewise, Rite Aid's restriction of Mr. Fultz's movements throughout the facility despite his neurologist's opinion that he did not require any restrictions does not constitute "severe or pervasive" harassment. The plaintiffs provide no evidence that Rite Aid's decision to place Mr. Fultz on restricted duty was motivated by any intent to intimidate or ridicule him because of his epilepsy. While these actions may support some other aspect of Mr. Fultz's discrimination claims, they are not sufficient to establish a hostile work environment.
The plaintiffs also highlight as evidence of harassment one incident during which Mr. McDaniel ordered Human Resources Training Manager Gail Boyle to photograph Mr. Fultz while he was having a seizure. (See Pls.' Opp'n to Summ. J. at 54). During this particular seizure, Mr. Fultz removed his pants and was photographed by Ms. Boyle in his boxer shorts. The court recognizes that a reasonable juror could find this incident to be objectively offensive and humiliating. Because it was an isolated occurrence, however, the incident is not sufficient to sustain the plaintiffs' hostile work environment claim. Accordingly, the defendant's motion for summary judgment on the hostile work environment claim will be granted.
E. Failure to Exhaust
The defendant also contends that the court should dismiss Mr. Fultz's claim for compensatory damages because he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. Rite Aid relies on Fitzgerald v. Sec'y,
For the foregoing reasons, the defendant's motion for summary judgment will be denied, except as to the hostile work environment claim. A separate Order follows.
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