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
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.
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
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. ¶
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