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PLUTA v. FORD MOTOR COMPANY

August 25, 2000

SCOTT PLUTA, PLAINTIFF,
V.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Milton I. Shadur, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Scott Pluta ("Pluta") sues his ex-employer Ford Motor Company ("Ford"), claiming that his firing by Ford violated the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA," 42 U.S.C. § 12101 to 12117).*fn1 Ford has moved for summary judgment, and both sides have complied with this District Court's LR 56.1.*fn2 Ford's motion is therefore fully briefed and ready for decision. For the reasons stated in this memorandum opinion and order, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

Summary Judgment Standards

Familiar Rule 56 principles impose on Ford the burden of establishing the lack of a genuine issue of material fact (Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986)). For that purpose this Court must "read[ ] the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party," although it "is not required to draw unreasonable inferences from the evidence" (St. Louis N. Joint Venture v. P & L Enters., Inc., 116 F.3d 262, 265 n.2 (7th Cir. 1997)). As Pipitone v. United States, 180 F.3d 859, 861 (7th Cir. 1999) has more recently quoted from Roger v. Yellow Freight Sys., Inc., 21 F.3d 146, 149 (7th Cir. 1994):

A genuine issue for trial exists only when a reasonable jury could find for the party opposing the motion based on the record as a whole.

As McCoy v. WGN Continental Broad. Co., 957 F.2d 368, 370-71 (7th Cir. 1992) has said, that "general standard is applied with added rigor in employment discrimination cases, where intent is inevitably the central issue." But neither "the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties" (Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986)) nor the existence of "some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts" (Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574. 586 (1986)) will defeat a summary judgment motion.

What follows in the Facts section (and in the later factual discussion) is culled from the parties' submissions. And as with every summary judgment motion, this Court accepts Pluta's version of any disputed facts where it is arguably supported by the record. Whenever any reference is made to Ford's different version on any subject, its inclusion is purely informational — Pluta's scenario is credited here even when this opinion's factual recital does not expressly say so.

Facts

On March 13, 1994 Pluta began work at Ford's Chicago Parts and Distribution Plant as a warehouse technician (F. St. ¶¶ 2, 8). Warehouse technicians perform multiple functions at three different "stations" located alongside a conveyer system. First, at the induction station "the warehouse technician sorts small automotive parts into plastic containers ("totes")*fn3 (id. ¶ 9). Next, at the stock picking station*fn4 "the warehouse technician is responsible for picking individual customer orders and stocking the parts accurately into rotating stock bins and/or placing them into plastic totes" (id.). Finally, at the packaging station the parts are pulled from the bins and put in boxes for individual customer orders" (id.). While warehouse technicians typically report to a particular station, rotations occur based on workflow and absences (id. ¶ 10).

On November 10, 1994 Pluta strained his back while lifting a tote at the stock picking station (F. St. ¶ 11, p. st. ¶ 10). He returned to work less than four weeks later (F. St. ¶ 14) and says that he did not need and did not request an accommodation at that time (P. St. ¶ 10). Then on June 13, 1995 Pluta picked up a 40 pound tote at the induction station and heard something pop in his back (P. St. ¶ 11). After reporting to his supervisor, Pluta went to Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a "severe lumbar strain" (P. Resp. ¶ 16). Two days later Pluta visited his personal physician, orthopedic surgeon Avi Bernstein, who prescribed time off from work and analgesics (F. St. ¶ 17, P. St. ¶ 12). Based on an August 25, 1995 MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan, Dr. Bernstein diagnosed Pluta as having a small central disc herniation at the L3/4 and L4/5 levels (P. St. ¶ 13, F. Resp. ¶ 13). On November 13, 1995, after conducting further tests and considering other options, Dr. Bernstein recommended that Pluta undergo two level spinal fusion surgery (P. St. ¶ 16). But a month later orthopedic surgeon Dr. Thomas Rodts counseled against surgery (F. St. ¶ 19).*fn5

Pluta did not return to work in 1995 except for ¶ one or two days" between October and December (F. St. ¶ 20). On one of those occasions, though, Pluta asserts that Brian Plemel ("Plemel"), an employee relations associate of Ford, refused Pluta's request to be placed on a light duty assignment such as the induction station*fn6 (P. St. ¶¶ 19-20). Pluta also claims that Plemel told him there were no light duty positions (id. ¶ 21). That statement is credited for present purposes, even though Plemel denies that any such conversation took place (F. Resp. ¶¶ 19-20).

Pluta says his condition today is the same as at the time of his 1995 injury (Pluta Dep. 169). He further says the injury "substantially limits"*fn7 his ability to perform his job primarily because of the repetitive twisting, lifting and reaching (id. 169-70). Dr. Bernstein believes that Pluta's injuries were an aggravation of "a pre-existing condition of a degenerative disease in his low back . . ." (Bernstein Dep. 15)

Dr. Bernstein saw Pluta several times over the succeeding months and ultimately requested a functional capacity evaluation, which was conducted on March 1, 1996 at Ford's expense (P. St. ¶ 23-25, F. St. ¶ 23). That evaluation stated in relevant part (F. St. ¶ 23):

Results reveal a generally deconditioned individual who demonstrated the ability to perform at the Light/Medium physical demands level. Self limiting due to pain reports which it is felt were excessive and at times inconsistent with activities being performed may comprimise [sic] the validity of this assessment as a true indicator of his maximal effort.

It went on to discuss several tests and observations that were believed to be inconsistent with the subjective pain expressed by Pluta. Because the evaluation felt that Pluta's demonstrated "ability to perform at the Light/Medium level [did] not represent [ ] true maximal effort," it recommended "[c]ounseling to address the psychological component of his reported pain and related issues . . ." (F. St. ¶ 23).*fn8

On December 16, 1996 Dr. Bernstein recommended another functional capacity evaluation "in an effort to get an independent third-party evaluation of [Pluta's] functional ability, and to release him to restrictions based on that evaluation" (F. St. ¶ 24). That second evaluation said that Pluta gave an overall reasonable effort" and listed a few minor restrictions (F. St. Ex. C-1 at 52). One month later independent third-party orthopedic surgeon" Dr. Julie Wehner examined Pluta and opined that he could "return to his regular job as a warehouse technician without restrictions" (F. St. ¶ 25). Dr. Bernstein testified that on February 3, 1997 he told Pluta that he could return to work with reduced hours*fn9 and a 15 to 20 pound lifting restriction (Bernstein Dep. 21).*fn10

Pluta returned to work on February 11, 1997 and was assigned to the stock picking station (P. St. ¶ 27). Pluta asserts (although Ford denies — a denial this Court must now discredit) that he had asked Plemel to be "assigned to induction or as a truck driver delivering parts" (id., F. Resp. ¶ 27). On that first day back Pluta re-injured his back and went to Oak Park Hospital (P. St. ¶ ...


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