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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. ValleyLife

United States District Court, D. Arizona

January 19, 2017

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Plaintiff,
ValleyLife, Defendant.


         Pending before the Court are Defendant ValleyLife's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 88), and Plaintiff Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (“EEOC”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, (Doc. 90). The EEOC also filed a Motion to Strike, (Doc. 96), and ValleyLife filed a Motion for Leave to File a Sur-Reply, (Doc. 103). For the following reasons, the Court denies the EEOC's motion to strike as moot, denies ValleyLife's motion for leave to file a sur-reply, and denies both parties' motions for summary judgment.


         ValleyLife provides services to disabled individuals living in the greater Phoenix area. (Doc. 89 at 1.) ValleyLife's managers, supervisors, and employees receive no formal training on the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). (Doc. 89, Ex. 2 at 133-38; Doc. 92 at 2, Ex. 2 at 30.) ValleyLife's new hires, however, do receive some general information on the FMLA and the ADA during orientation. (Doc. 89 at 2, Ex. 4 at 32-33.) Nancy Glossa, the manager of ValleyLife's human resources (“HR”) department, received ADA training from a previous source other than ValleyLife. (Doc. 89, Ex. 2 at 133-138.) At meetings and luncheons, Glossa would discuss such topics as the requirements of a reasonable accommodation or the interactive process with ValleyLife's employees. (Id.) Glossa advised ValleyLife managers, supervisors, and employees to speak with her if any ADA-related issue arose with regard to them personally or with regard to ValleyLife employees they supervised. (Id.; Doc. 92 at 2, Exs. 2 at 28, 4 at 29.) In 2015 ValleyLife's employee handbook was revised to include a description of ADA protections for employees with disabilities. (Doc. 92 at 3, Ex. 1 at 318.)

         Glenn Stephens was a group home supervisor for ValleyLife at the “Tonto” home. (Doc. 89 at 2; Doc. 92 3-4, Ex. 12 at 8.) The physical demands required of a group home supervisor, per the ValleyLife job description, included the “[a]bility to lift 40-60 pounds a distance of four feet” multiple times per day. (Doc. 89 at 2, Ex. 5.) This requirement existed at all of Valley Life's homes including the Tonto home, at which the clients were ambulatory. (Doc. 89 at 2, Ex. 5 at 37; Doc. 92 at 4, Ex. 12 at 17, 14.) By Stephens' own admission he lifted 40 to 60 pounds up to 25% of the time as a supervisor, including the time between his injury described below and his resulting surgery. (Doc. 89 at 2, Ex. 5 at 37.)

         In May 2009, while Stephens was working at the Tonto home, a patient struck him in the chest. (Doc. 89 at 2, Ex. 5 at 30.) Stephens filled out an incident report at the time but continued working. (Id.; Doc. 92 at 4, Ex. 12 at 29, 13.) In October 2009, Stephens's physician recommended that he undergo surgery to repair his sternum. (Doc. 92 at 4, Ex. 15.) An October 15, 2009 medical assessment confirmed that Stephens should not lift, but he could stand, bend, and kneel, and he could work a 40-hour week. (Doc. 92 at 4, Ex. 17.) Jamie Saragosa, Stephens's direct supervisor at the time, and Juanita Shaver, the Program Director at ValleyLife, both contacted Glossa regarding Stephens's surgery. (Doc. 92 at 4, Ex. 1 at 155, 157.) Stephens also spoke to Glossa directly and requested leave for his surgery and his recovery, but Glossa denied his request for FMLA leave because Stephens had already used his 12 weeks of leave within the prior 12-month period. (Doc. 92 at 5, Exs. 1 at 166, 11, 12 at 59-60.) Stephens also requested, and was denied, unpaid personal leave. (Doc. 92 at 5, Ex. 12 at 60.) On October 16, 2009, Saragosa sent Stephens a letter informing him that he would be allowed to work on “light duty” until his surgery, but then he would have to resign. (Doc. 92 at 5, Ex. 18.) ValleyLife admitted that it asked Stephens to resign in its October 16, 2009 letter because “[u]pon learning of Mr. Stephens' pending surgery and subsequent leave[, ]” ValleyLife investigated and determined that Stephens had exhausted his allotted FMLA leave for the previous 12-month period and he would not be eligible for any more FMLA leave until December 17, 2009. (Doc. 92 at 3, Ex. 11.)

         On October 26, 2009, Stephens's physician supplied ValleyLife with a physician's statement informing ValleyLife that Stephens's surgery was scheduled for November 4, 2009, he would be hospitalized for 5-7 days, and he would need 4-6 weeks to recover. (Doc. 92 at 6, Ex. 19.) Stephens has not yet been cleared to lift 40-60 pounds, and he does not believe that he could, or should, lift that much weight. (Doc. 89 at 3─4, Ex. 5 at 47-48.)

         Christiana Mitchell worked for ValleyLife as a caregiver in a private home assisting a single client. (Doc 89 at 6, Ex. 11 at 6.) On November 8, 2010, while at her home in between one of her two split-shifts, Mitchell injured her ankle. (Id., Ex. 11 at 10.) Mitchell was put on FMLA leave following the accident. (Id., Ex. 11 at 17.) Over the course of her FMLA leave, Mitchell kept in contact with her supervisor Linda Rabe and expressed an apprehension to return to her original client; however, towards the end of her leave, Mitchell stopped communicating with Rabe altogether. (Id. at 7, Ex. 12 at 63-64.) As her return date approached, Rabe contacted Mitchell and asked whether she would be able to return to work the next week. (Doc. 92 at 7, Ex. 21 at 16.) Mitchell explained that she was meeting with her doctor in the coming days, and that her doctor had suggested that she undergo physical therapy. (Id.) Mitchell did not believe she could have returned to her previous position at ValleyLife until she completed physical therapy. (Doc. 89 at 6, Ex. 11 at 17, 20-21.) According to Mitchell, Rabe informed her that if she could not return to work the following week, she would be terminated. (Doc. 92 at 7, Ex. 21 at 16.) Rabe, however, testified that Mitchell was terminated because she stopped communicating with Rabe. (Doc. 89 at 7, Ex. 12 at 63-64; Doc. 92 at 7, Ex. 22.) ValleyLife terminated Mitchell's employment on January 11, 2011. (Doc. 92 at 7, Ex. 21 at 61.) A few days later, on January 14, 2011, Mitchell's physician approved her for light duty work. (Id., Ex. 23.)

         Cynthia Ballesteros worked for ValleyLife in the home- and community-based services division from May 29, 2012 until June 5, 2012, caring for a single client at his home. (Doc. 89 at 7, Ex. 13 at 16; Doc. 92 at 8, Ex. 24 at 14.) Ballesteros has epilepsy and suffers from seizures; as a result, she needs 8 hours of sleep per night. (Doc. 92 at 8, Ex. 24 at 11.) Accordingly, Ballesteros indicated in her ValleyLife job application and during her interview that she would prefer to work a day shift. (Doc. 92 at 8, Ex. 24 at 11.) Ballesteros understood that ValleyLife offered two shifts, a morning shift from 7:00 am until 4:00 pm and an afternoon shift from 4:00 pm until 12:00 am. (Doc. 89 at 7, Ex. 13 at 10-11.) At the time, only afternoon shifts were available, and thus ValleyLife hired Ballesteros for the afternoon shift. (Id.) Ballesteros took care of a very difficult client, which, in conjunction with her late hours, caused her great stress. (Doc. 89 at 8, Ex. 13 at 15, 17.) As a result, after only two days on the job, Ballesteros requested that she be placed with another client and/or that her shift be changed to the morning. (Doc. 89 at 8, Ex. 13 at 31-32; Doc. 92 at 8, Ex. 24 at 13.) She was told that no other positions were available at the time. (Doc. 89 at 8, Ex. 13 at 32.) On June 4, 2012, her third day of work, Ballesteros suffered a seizure while caring for her client; her client called 9-1-1 and she was taken to the hospital. (Doc. 92 at 8, Ex. 24 at 36.) After her seizure, Ballesteros again contacted an individual at ValleyLife and requested a change in client and/or shift; again, her request was denied due to lack of availability. (Doc. 92 at 9, Ex. 24 at 38, 60- 62.) Because there were no other clients or shifts available, Ballesteros stopped showing up for her shift; however, Ballesteros does not classify her actions as quitting since she would have continued to work for ValleyLife if they could have accommodated her need to change clients and/or shifts. (Doc. 89 at 8, Ex. 13 at 59-62.) Although Ballesteros never returned to her original shift, she called ValleyLife numerous times over the next few weeks unsuccessfully seeking a different shift; at some point, ValleyLife stopped returning her calls. (Doc. 92 at 9, Ex. 24 at 87.)

         Ibrahim Mansaray[1] worked at ValleyLife as a caregiver and driver. (Doc. 89 at 9, Ex. 14 at 13.) His daily tasks included driving ValleyLife clients to their day programs as well as assisting with basic needs like feeding them, changing them, and helping them move. (Doc. 92 at 9, Ex. 30 at 13.) On February 5, 2009, Mansaray injured his left knee while lifting a ValleyLife client. (Doc. 89 at 9, Ex. 14 at 24-26, 85). Mansaray underwent surgery for his left knee injury and returned to work on light duty. (Doc. 89 at 9, Ex. 14 at 24; Doc. 92 at 10, Ex. 30 at 63.) However, not long after returning to work, Mansaray injured his right knee while at home, which again required surgery. (Doc. 89 at 9, Ex. 14 at 31-32.) After the surgery, Mansaray informed ValleyLife that his recovery would be lengthy. (Doc. 92 at 10, Ex. 30 at 71.) Nevertheless, Mansaray believed that he could have returned to ValleyLife on light duty even after his second knee injury. (Doc. 89 at 10, Ex. 14 at 48.) On June 16, 2010, Mansaray received a letter from ValleyLife, signed by Glossa, informing him that as of June 14, 2010, his 12 weeks of FMLA leave would be exhausted, that his employment status did “not mandate additional leave rights beyond this time period, ” that he had exhausted all of his accrued PTO, and that ValleyLife does not offer unpaid leave, thus his “leave options have now been exhausted.” (Doc. 92 at 10, Ex. 32.) ValleyLife's “Employee Termination Form” recorded Mansaray's termination reason as he “did not return from FMLA.” (Id., Ex. 33.)


         I. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, demonstrates “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Substantive law determines which facts are material and “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “A fact issue is genuine ‘if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'” Villiarimo v. Aloha Island Air, Inc., 281 F.3d 1054, 1061 (9th Cir. 2002) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). Thus, the nonmoving party must show that the genuine factual issues “‘can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.'” Cal. Architectural Bldg. Prods., Inc. v. Franciscan Ceramics, Inc., 818 F.2d 1466, 1468 (9th Cir. 1987) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250).

         Although “[t]he evidence of [the non-moving party] is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [its] favor, ” the non-moving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). The nonmoving party cannot avoid summary judgment by relying solely on conclusory allegations unsupported by facts. See Taylor v. List, 880 F.2d 1040, 1045 (9th Cir. 1989). “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . . or other materials; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). “A trial court can only consider admissible evidence in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, ” and evidence must be authenticated before it can be considered. Orr v. Bank of Am., 285 F.3d 764, 773-74 (9th Cir. 2002).

         II. Analysis

         The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against a disabled employee by “not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business of such covered entity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A). “The ADA defines a ‘qualified individual with a disability' as ‘an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.' 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8).” Barnett v. U.S. Air, Inc., 228 F.3d 1105, 1110-11 (9th Cir. 2000) (footnote omitted) vacated on other grounds sub nom. U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391 (2002). The words “holds or desires” allows the definition of a “qualified individual” to encompass individuals who, even if they could not perform the essential functions of their current position with or without accommodation, could “perform the essential functions of another position in the company which he [or she] ‘desires[.]'” Id. at 1111.

         In their respective motions for summary judgment, both ValleyLife and the EEOC assert that they are entitled to summary judgment on the issue of whether the Individuals are qualified individuals under the ADA. (Doc. 88 at 4; Doc. 90 at 11.) The EEOC also asserts that it is entitled to summary judgment due to ValleyLife's alleged failure to engage in the interactive process with the Individuals and the availability of potential reasonable accommodations. (Doc. 90 at 7-17.) ValleyLife counters by arguing that it had no duty to engage in the interactive process, and asserting that it is entitled to summary judgment as to the third and fourth claims because the EEOC cannot demonstrate that it had an inflexible leave policy. (Doc. 88 at 12.) ValleyLife concludes by requesting summary judgment on its behalf regarding the EEOC's request for punitive damages. (Id. at 13.) Both parties move for summary judgment on a record replete with disputes of material fact, and therefore the Court denies both motions.[2]

         A. Summary Judgment as to Claims 1 and 2 is Unavailable at This Time for Either Party Given the Factual Disputes Still Prevalent in the Record

         “To prevail on an ADA claim, a plaintiff must establish: (1) that she has a disability; (2) that she was a qualified individual capable of performing the essential functions of the job either with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) that she was unlawfully discriminated against because of her disability.” McGregor v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 187 F.3d 1113, 1115 (9th Cir. 1999).

         The plaintiff bears the burden of showing that he is a qualified individual under the ADA. Bates v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 511 F.3d 974, 990 (9th Cir. 2007). Determining whether an employee is qualified is a two-step inquiry: (1) the plaintiff must show that he “satisfies the requisite skill, experience, education and other job-related requirements of the position” and (2) “[t]he court then considers whether the individual can perform the essential functions of such position with or without a reasonable accommodation.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). Essential functions are the “the fundamental job duties of the employment position the individual with a disability holds or desires. The term ‘essential functions' does not include the marginal functions of the position.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(1).

         A plaintiff may still be a qualified individual under the ADA even if he cannot perform the essential functions of his current position, so long as he can perform the essential functions of “another position in the company which he desires.” Barnett, 228 F.3d at 1111. Therefore, a plaintiff is protected under the ADA provided that he “could perform the essential functions of a reassignment position, with or ...

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