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WILLIAMS v. EASTSIDE LOMBERYARD AND SUPPLY COMPANY INC.

March 23, 2001

ED WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF,
V.
EASTSIDE LUMBERYARD AND SUPPLY COMPANY, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Phil Gilbert, U.S. District Judge.

    MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Ed Williams ("Williams") is suing his former employer, Defendant Eastside Lumberyard Supply Company ("Eastside"), for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., and Illinois law prohibiting retaliatory discharge. Williams claims that, after work-related injuries, Eastside failed to reasonably accommodate those injuries by not awarding him a permanent light-duty position (Count 1), and by later firing him because of his accommodation request (Count 2). Williams also claims Eastside fired him because he attempted to exercise his rights under the Illinois worker's compensation statutes (Count 3). Now before this Court is Eastside's summary judgment motion, Williams' response, and Eastside's reply (Docs. 21, 25, 26, 29). For the following reasons, Eastside's motion for summary judgment on the ADA claims is granted, and Williams' state retaliatory discharge claim is remanded back to state court.*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

Eastside supplies building materials to about 150 lumberyards and other companies in Southern Illinois. Its business employs about 10 to 12 warehouse employees to pack and ship upwards of 100 to 200 shipping orders daily. In March, 1993, Eastside hired Williams as a Driver/Warehouseman. On September 1, 1998, Eastside placed him on inactive job status and ultimately fired him on April 6, 1999. Williams claims that Eastside's behavior violated the reasonable accommodation and the anti-retaliation provisions of the ADA and constituted the tort of retaliatory discharge under Illinois law.

A. The Driver/Warehouseman Position

Eastside hired Williams as a Driver/Warehouseman. Drivers and Warehousemen work side by side at Eastside. Both must be able to load and unload trucks with the same products in the Eastside warehouse. Thus, the essential functions of the Driver and Warehouseman positions are essentially identical, save for one caveat: Drivers have commercial drivers' licenses and Warehousemen do not. So Drivers must be able to drive semi-trucks as well as be able to load and unload the deliveries, while Warehousemen stick to the loading and unloading.*fn2 There are various essential job functions common to both Drivers and Warehousemen.

First, a Driver/Warehouseman must be able to load and unload trucks by hand. Eastside stores its products (e.g., vinyl molding, aluminum roof vents, Styrofoam, windows, cabinets, roof shingles, nails and screws) on pallets or in stacks which may be on the floor of its warehouse. Drivers pull their trucks up to the loading area to pick up a delivery. Warehousemen load the truck by forklift and by hand. Drivers must be able to do the lifting themselves because, while normally two people participate in loading a truck, sometimes other employees are unavailable to help the Driver load his truck. After arriving at the delivery stop, Drivers sometimes have to unload their truck.

Customers also show up at the Eastside facility where Drivers and Warehousemen have to wait on them. Because customers sometimes order less than a full pallet of goods (which would apparently be loadable by forklift), Drivers and Warehousemen must be able to load the purchased goods by hand. This requires both lifting the products up from the floor and putting them on fresh pallets and manually moving items from the stacked pallet of goods to a clean pallet on which various items can be stacked, wrapped for delivery, and moved onto the truck.

Eastside's goods are heavy and require manual lifting. Some of the items that Drivers and Warehousemen must be able lift by hand include: 5-gallon buckets of adhesive (50-60 pounds); boxes of nails (50 pounds); vinyl sheeting (20-100 pounds); flats of roof shingles (60 — 80 pounds); and vinyl siding (70-80 pounds).*fn3 These products must be lifted when they are brought to the Eastside warehouse, taken off the trucks and put into inventory, and pulled to fill customer orders.

Eastside customers generally assist in unloading their orders. However, because their help is sometimes unavailable, Drivers must be able to unload the goods to ensure that the Eastside materials brought to a customer's facility are taken off his truck.*fn4 Some customers have no forklift, so their orders must be unloaded by hand. Customers buy a variety of products, items such a shingles, nails, paneling or molding, which are unloaded by hand. In the case of shingles, once delivered to a customer, the shingles would have to be unloaded from the truck by manually stacking them down on the ground or on a pallet. And, though items such as garage doors, gutters, steel and aluminum normally take two people to unload, occasionally a Driver will have to unload these items himself.

In sum, the most essential job function of both the Driver and Warehouseman positions is the physical ability to handle, carry, and stack items weighing up to 75 to 80 pounds, i.e., the physical ability to do heavy lifting.

Second, Drivers/Warehousemen have to twist, bend, squat, and move about too. Williams' job required twisting and bending, and lifting by squatting. Once items are stacked on clean pallets, they are shrink-wrapped. Shrink wrapping secures the items in place and involves a lot of moving up and down the load to ensure it is bound by the wrap.

Third, a Driver, as was Williams, must be able to have the ability to drive between 200 and 400 miles a day. In Williams' case, he would drive 800 miles in a typical week.

These essential functions for Drivers/Warehousemen positions were committed to writing by Eastside in 1995 or 1996. Williams acknowledges that Eastside's list accurately sets forth the essential job functions for Drivers/Warehousemen.

B. The Injury And Initial Medical Treatment

In October, 1995, Williams was unloading vinyl siding and hurt his back. Afterward, Williams received some initial medical treatment, which culminated in the removal of two herniated discs by Dr. Sherwyn Wayne in December, 1995. While recuperating from surgery, Dr. Wayne gave Williams lifting restrictions and released him to go back to work. Eventually, Dr. Wayne released Williams to full duty in July or August, 1996.

After three days of working at full duty, Williams asked to be returned to light duty, which involved a 25-pound lifting restriction given by another one of Williams' physicians, Dr. Parks. Assuming that William's inability to go back to full duty was only temporary, Eastside assigned Williams various light-duty tasks. For example, Eastside allowed Williams to load drywall on trucks using a forklift and then to deliver drywall to customers. This "drywall delivery" task required no manual lifting and permitted Williams to work part-time, picking up some 20 to 30 hours a week.

Williams continued to see doctors to treat his back injury from 1996 to 1998, and in the fall of 1997, Williams started receiving vocational rehabilitation as part of his workers' compensation benefits.

C. August 31, 1998 and September 1, 1998

On August 31, 1998, Williams was seen for the first time by Dr. Matthew Gornet, a neurosurgeon. Dr. Gornet recommended Williams stop driving because that could do further damage to his lower back. Williams told Fran Whipps, his rehabilitation counselor, that as a result of his medical condition, he did not think he should continue his job searching activities. Whipps contacted Eastside. When Whipps contacted Eastside, Eastside was unaware of any new injury, need for treatment, or restrictions.

On September 1, 1998, Williams met with David Reis, Don Reis, Sr., and Don Reis, Jr., of Eastside. At that time, Williams did not disclose Dr. Gornet's recommendation that he discontinue driving for Eastside because he thought it was none of their business. That day, Williams was placed on inactive job status.

D. The Second Surgery, Current Medical Condition, And Functional Capacity

In November, 1998, in a two-part surgical procedure conducted over several days, Dr. Gornet performed a back fusion operation on Williams. In this procedure, Williams had titanium screws and hardware placed into his back along with portions of his hipbone. As a result of this surgery, Williams was further limited. Williams is (1) at high risk to sustain further injury and disability if he returns to work as a Driver, (2) medically restricted from lifting greater than 25 pounds, (3) medically restricted from repetitive bending, (4) medically restricted from bending from a squatting position, and (5) medically restricted from repetitive twisting and turning.

Dr. Gornet's restrictions are accurate, valid, and now permanent. Williams can lift only items weighing less than 25 pounds, and he requires the assistance of a "lifting helper" if he wants to carry anything over 25 pounds. Williams is unsure, given his restrictions, whether he could do the shrink wrapping required to secure goods loaded onto pallets.

E. Events of April 5, 1999 and April, 6, 1999

On April 5, 1999, Williams returned to Eastside and presented a letter from Dr. Gornet addressed to the attorney handling Williams' workers' compensation claim stating:

Because of his type of work, I believe [Williams] would be at high risk to sustain further injury and disability if he returned to work as a truck driver. Currently I would place the following restrictions on him[:] no lifting greater than 25 pounds, no repetitive bending, no ...

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