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Watson v. Yavapai County

United States District Court, D. Arizona

June 29, 2016

Theresa Watson and Thomas Watson, wife and husband, Arizona residents, Plaintiffs,
Yavapai County, a political subdivision of the State of Arizona, Defendant.


          Neil V. Wake United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 47) and the parties’ accompanying statements of facts and briefs. For the reasons that follow, the Motion will be granted.


         Theresa Watson has suffered from back and neck pain since a 2004 car accident. During her employment with Yavapai County (“the County”), this pain required her to take frequent breaks at work or sometimes stay home altogether.

         In February 2013, Watson’s boss assigned her to a different position in an effort to meet a looming deadline. In March 2013, Watson’s pain drastically increased. Conflict arose between Watson and her boss. Watson requested more breaks and time off, and she frequently complained to her boss and Human Resources. Watson’s boss met with her, reorganized her break schedule, and admonished her negative attitude. In May 2013, Watson was fired.

         Watson claims the County discriminated against her because of (1) her disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), (2) her ADA-protected activity, (3) her use of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and (4) her FMLA-protected activity.

         The County seeks summary judgment on all these claims. In the County’s view, Watson’s disability was accommodated to the extent her doctor instructed, and Watson was fired for discourtesy and insubordination.


         A motion for summary judgment tests whether the opposing party has sufficient evidence to merit a trial. Summary judgment should be granted if the evidence reveals no genuine dispute about any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A material fact is one that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, and a factual dispute is 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).

         The movant has the burden of showing the absence of genuine disputes of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). However, once the movant shows an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case, the burden shifts to the party resisting the motion. The party opposing summary judgment must then “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial” and may not rest upon the pleadings. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256. To carry this burden, the nonmoving party must do more than simply show there is “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).

         In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, must not weigh the evidence or assess its credibility, and must draw all justifiable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Where the record, taken as a whole, could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587.


         The following facts are drawn from the County’s Statement of Facts (Doc. 48) and Watson’s Statement of Facts (Doc. 52), though they are presented in a sequence different from that of either party’s Statement. Unless otherwise indicated, these facts are undisputed. All evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to Watson.

         A. Watson’s employment and doctor’s notes before 2013

         In 2000, Watson was hired as a clerk in the Yavapai County Assessor’s Office (“the Office”). In 2004, she injured her back and neck in a car accident. She has experienced episodes of pain ever since.

         In 2005, Watson visited Dr. Terry Bagley to address her pain. Dr. Bagley prescribed daily stretching exercises and medication. (Doc. 48-3 at 44.) He also certified that Watson “may need 2-3 days per month off of work.” (Doc. 48-4 at 2.)

         In 2007, Dr. Bagley prescribed work restrictions for Watson, including “no sitting > 1½ - 2 hours at a time” and “frequent stretch breaks (15 min. every 2 hours).” (Doc. 48-5 at 63.) These restrictions were “permanent.” (Id.)

         In 2009, Pam Pearsall took office as the elected County Assessor. Watson’s job at that time required her to answer phone calls from angry customers. Watson asked to be relieved from constantly answering phones. In response, Pearsall created a new position combining customer service with other duties. In this new position, Watson continued to complain, and Watson’s supervisor reported her negative attitude to Pearsall.

         That same year, Dr. Bagley certified Watson’s possible need for “2-3 days” of work leave every “1-2 months.” (Doc. 48-5 at 56.) He re-certified this work leave in 2010, 2011, and 2012. (Doc. 48-4 at 12, 19; Doc. 52-2 at 23-24.)

         In 2010, Pearsall assigned Watson to a “floater” position, designed to assist different departments in the Office as needed. Watson’s new supervisor, Tina Bourdon, received reports from other employees about Watson’s negative comments and reported Watson’s negative attitude to Pearsall.

         That same year, Dr. Bagley prescribed updated work restrictions for Watson, including “frequent stretch breaks (few minutes every hr.).” (Doc. 48-4 at 15.)

         In 2011, Watson asked to work from home. At Bourdon’s suggestion, Pearsall approved a work-from-home arrangement in which Watson needed to come in to the office only one day per week.

         In December 2012, Pearsall offered Watson a new position in the Office’s Business and Personal Property section (“the Property section”). Watson declined, in part because the position would require her to come in to the office more often. Pearsall then offered the position to someone else, who accepted.

         B. Watson’s return to working in the office, failure to attend a workshop, and 30-hour suspension

         In early 2013, the Property section supervisor, Karen Parker, asked Pearsall for additional personnel to help the section meet a deadline. Accordingly, Pearsall assigned Watson to the Property section for her one day of in-office work per week. Parker then asked Pearsall for more of Watson’s time. Accordingly, on February 7, Pearsall changed Watson’s work-from-home arrangement to require her to come in to the office two days per week, to help the Property section. (Doc. 48-2 at 26.)

         On February 12, the Department of Revenue held a workshop in Phoenix regarding property tax issues. Members of the Property section were invited. Watson told Parker she would like to attend, and Pearsall approved Watson’s attendance. However, Watson did not attend.

         Upon learning of Watson’s absence, Pearsall interviewed Watson and her co-workers. She concluded that Watson deliberately skipped the workshop because she was angry about having to come in to the office an additional day each week. In response, on February 25 Pearsall rescinded the work-from-home arrangement entirely, and on February 28 she decided to suspend Watson for 30 hours without pay. (Doc. 48-2 at 34, 36.) Pearsall gave Watson a “Notice of Intent” to suspend her, along with a “Statement of Facts” in support of suspension. (Id. at 36-42.) According to the statement, Watson “demonstrated insubordination towards several supervisors when she refused to attend an assigned workshop.” (Id. at 39.) The statement also noted that Watson had recently made “negative comments” to co-workers about her work assignment, her supervisor’s decisions, and one of her co-workers. (Id.)

         C. Watson’s increased FMLA leave, complaint to Human Resources, and meetings with her boss

         In March 2013, Watson’s back pain drastically increased. She took a week of FMLA leave starting March 3. During that week she visited Dr. Bagley. Dr. Bagley wrote a note stating that Watson “may need several days off per week at her discretion, ” to be “re-evaluated in 30 days.” (Doc. 48-4 at 25.) Upon receiving this note, the Office’s Human Resources department amended Watson’s FMLA status, noting her “leave circumstances have changed considerably.” (Doc. 52-2 at 26.)

         On March 9, Watson wrote a fourteen-paragraph letter to the Office’s Human Resources director, Alan Vigneron.[1] (Doc. 48-3 at 15-16.) The letter purports to be a “continuation” of Watson’s “first formal complaint dated June 8, 2009.” (Id. at 15.) The letter complains about a multitude of perceived wrongs, most of which are not unlawful. For example, the letter claims that the Office has created a “hostile work environment pursuant to Yavapai County policy, ” has engaged in “a pattern of harassment against [Watson], due to a personality conflict, ” has written comments about Watson based on old information that “has been proven to be false, ” has held Watson “to a different standard then [sic] other employees in the office, due to a personality conflict, ” has demonstrated “hostility towards any employee who questions or rebuts any statements or policies, ” and has disciplined Watson based on “false accusations” and incomplete “research.” (Id.) The letter also claims that Watson was well-regarded under the Office’s 2005 administration, but that in 2007 she was viewed as “the worst employee” because she criticized the Office’s new procedures for business and personal property. (Id.) The letter further claims that Pearsall falsely accused Watson of writing about an article in the newspaper, retaliated against Watson for asking why she was assigned to the Property section, and created a “toxic work environment” by hiring family and friends. (Id. at 15- 16.) Only after making all these claims does the letter refer to unlawful activity: namely, that Pearsall threatened to demote Watson “due to [her] having an ADA, which [Pearsall] stated made other employees more valuable.” (Id. at 16.)

         On March 14, Vigneron showed Watson’s letter to Pearsall. That same day, Pearsall emailed Vigneron asking whether Watson has an ADA accommodation, “to make sure we don’t violate any accommodation that we are suppose [sic] to be providing her.” (Doc. 52-2 at 34.) Vigneron replied that Watson had an accommodation as of 2008 and that they “need to go through the interactive process again.” (Id.)

         On March 18, Pearsall contacted Watson to schedule daily meetings with her.

         On March 22 through March 25, Watson took four more days of FMLA leave.

         On March 26, Watson’s daily meetings with Pearsall began. According to Watson, these meetings were spent discussing her requests for accommodations and work restrictions, and the meetings also gave Pearsall an idea of how often Watson used FMLA leave. (Doc. 52, ¶¶ 31, 33, 36, 56.)

         D. Watson’s continued FMLA leave, additional complaint to Human Resources, verbal warning from her ...

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