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Watson v. County of Yavapai

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 7, 2017

Theresa Watson, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
County of Yavapai, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Neil V. Wake Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs Theresa and Thomas Watson sued Theresa Watson's former employer, defendant Yavapai County (“the County”), alleging various injuries under the Family Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. On June 30, 2016, this Court granted summary judgment on all counts in favor of the County. Watson v. Yavapai County, No. CV-14-08228-PCT-NVW, 2016 WL 3548765, at *1 (D. Ariz. June 30, 2016). Now before the Court is the County's Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Non-Taxable Costs (Doc. 66), the response (Doc. 67), and the reply (Doc. 69).

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The summary judgment order in this case (Doc. 63) states all the underlying facts. While familiarity with that order is assumed here, the following material facts are reiterated for ease of reference.

         A. Pre-Litigation

         In 2004, four years after beginning work at the Yavapai County Assessor's Office, Theresa Watson (“Watson”) injured her back and neck in a car accident. Pain has plagued her on and off ever since. From 2005 through 2013, she received periodic physician recommendations that she work less and take stretch breaks at varying intervals in order to manage her condition. Watson accordingly submitted to the County a number of workplace accommodation requests during this time seeking, among other things, adjustments to her break intervals and permission to work from home several days per week. The County granted all her requests.

         In February of 2013, Watson's supervisor, Yavapai County Assessor Pam Pearsall, formally disciplined Watson for deliberately skipping a professional workshop she had requested to attend. That was not her first work-related scrape. Since at least 2009, Pearsall received numerous complaints about Watson's negative comments made to coworkers. A month after receiving formal discipline, however, Watson began taking Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) leave due to increased back pain. Upon returning to work from her first stint away, she submitted a fourteen-paragraph letter to the County's human resources department accusing Pearsall of pervasive workplace hostility toward her. Buried among the mostly conclusory, ad hominem attacks was a single accusation that Pearsall had threatened to demote her because of her disability accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Pearsall responded by scheduling daily meetings with Watson to provide direction and to adjust her accommodations as necessary.

         For the next two months, Pearsall met with Watson regularly and tweaked her accommodation several times in response to recommendations from Watson's doctor. One day late in April, however, Watson and Pearsall hit an impasse over permissible bathroom break intervals, to which Watson responded by interrogating her coworkers about their bathroom use, submitting a complaint letter to Pearsall, and refusing to participate in further daily meetings. The next day Watson received a “Final Written Warning” admonishing her for all of these things, as well as for making personal phone calls during work. At a subsequent performance evaluation, Pearsall described Watson as “often unpleasant when dealing with others, ” prone to submitting “accusatory” notes to her supervisors, “spread[ing] misunderstood events to coworkers thus creating negative work environments all around her, ” “not interact[ing] in a professional and courteous manner at all times, ” and “not readily accept[ing] responsibility for her inappropriate behavior.” (Doc. 48-2 at 55-56.) Watson received a verbal warning a few days later for similar behavior, including not engaging in conversation during her daily accommodation meetings and using office printers for personal use.

         Unsatisfied with the County's break schedule accommodations (to which she had previously assented), Watson wrote a flurry of complaint letters over the course of the next month filled with accusations of malice. Among other examples, she cited Pearsall's failure to give her full and unfettered discretion over her break schedule. By the middle of May, the County Assessor's Office initiated proceedings to terminate Watson by giving her an official notice with a statement of facts, citing that she was insubordinate, displayed a negative attitude, made unwarranted demands, and failed to appropriately respond to reasonable directives. Watson was given several days' notice to attend a pre-action meeting but insisted she could not attend because of her husband's chemotherapy treatment. She then asked for FMLA or paid leave on the date of the meeting, which was denied. She was terminated from her position.

         Watson appealed her suspension and termination to the Yavapai County Employees' Merit System Commission, which, after a full hearing, determined that the actions taken against her were “not arbitrary or capricious.” (Doc. 48-3 at 30-31.) After being denied unemployment benefits, too, Watson appealed to the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which upheld the denial on grounds that she was fired for “misconduct.” (Doc. 48-3 at 33-40.) Watson subsequently filed this action against the County.

         B. Litigation

         Watson filed her complaint on November 25, 2014, alleging interference and retaliation under the FMLA, and discrimination and retaliation under the ADA. (Doc. 1.) For ADA discrimination, she asserted that the County “fail[ed] to provide her with a reasonable accommodation, fail[ed] to engage in the interactive process, and terminated her due to her disabilities and complaints.” (Doc. 1, ¶ 102.) The County denied all allegations of wrongdoing and made an offer of judgment in the amount of $50. (Doc. 65 at 6.) Watson filed an amended complaint on April 10, 2015, with essentially the same allegations. (Doc. 26.) Extensive discovery ensued. This Court granted summary judgment in favor of the County in June 2016. The County now moves for attorneys' fees against Watson.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         The ADA provides:

In any action or administrative proceeding commenced pursuant to this chapter, the court or agency, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing part]y, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee, including litigation expenses, and costs, and the United States ...

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