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May 28, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Hibbler, District Judge


John Christner sued his former employer, American Eagle Airlines, Inc., its corporate parent, AMR Corporation, and an affiliate, American Airlines, Inc., alleging that they failed to accommodate his disability and retaliated against him for objecting to discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 1201 et seq. The Defendants move for summary judgment. For the reasons stated herein, the Court GRANTS summary judgment in favor of all Defendants.

I. Factual Background

Christner began working for Simmons Airlines*fn1 on December 9, 1991 and was based at Chicago, Illinois, O'Hare International Airport. Christner began with Simmons' fleet service and his responsibilities entailed handling passenger luggage in the bag room. Shortly thereafter, Christner became the lead agent in the bag room and from that position Simmons promoted him to crew chief in the ramp area by October 1992. In October 1994, Christner became a ground support supervisor, and in 1996 was made the ground support director. As the ground support director, Christner supervised the day-to-day operations of the ground support facility. His responsibilities included scheduling employees, addressing payroll issues, scheduling and managing work completion, processing equipment repair orders, ordering pads, handling billing from outside vendors, keeping personnel records, procuring vehicles for use in ground support, disposing of obsolete equipment, disciplining employees and overseeing compliance with OSHA and EPA rules in the ground support facility. The majority of Christner's responsibilities as the ground support director involved office work.

The single event that led to Christner's termination occurred on April 9, 1997. On that day, mechanic Jerry Ishak, an employee whom Christner supervised, returned to work from a medical leave of absence. Ishak had taken a brief medical leave after he suffered a head injury at work. Christner did not believe that Ishak had sufficient medical verification to justify the leave. According to Ishak and at least one other Simmons employee, Christner chastised him in front of other Simmons employees, calling him pathetic and stating "I don't know what hurt more, your head or the pain in my asshole." Christner denies mocking Ishak, but admits that shortly after seeing Ishak that morning, he banged his head into a metal file cabinet, leaving a dent in the file cabinet. Ishak claims that Christner remarked that "[he was] not running to medical." Christner denies that statement but admits that he told Ishak, "See, no bump, no bruise, and I'm not taking two weeks off."

After Christner's demonstration, Ishak filed a complaint with his union representative, alleging that he was harassed and intimidated by Christner's statements and actions. Ishak's union representative forwarded his complaint to Kathleen Kelleher, Senior Representative, Employee Relations for American Eagle at O'Hare. Kelleher along with Christner's immediate supervisor Larry Terrazas then conducted an investigation of the April 9 incident. The investigation included taking witness statements and conducting interviews with the relevant parties including Christner and Ishak. Two witnesses corroborated the headbutting incident, one of whom corroborated the derogatory statements that Ishak alleged Christner to have made. Kelleher and Terrazas also reviewed Christner's employee record, which revealed a less-than-stellar performance history. For example, in April 1994, Christner received a performance review that rated his overall performance as a ramp supervisor as "marginal." The 1994 review stated that the Christner, "does not take direction well" and that he `lets emotions get the better of him when dealing under stress.' More importantly, Kelleher and Terrazas learned that Christner had previously had charges lodged against him for improper behavior. In October 1994 Mario Saladino, a mechanic who reported to Christner, accused Christner of making racially derogatory statements and addressing him with clenched fists. After considering the evidence from the investigation and based on Christner's past record, Kelleher and Terrazas determined that Christner should be demoted from his management position.

Kelleher and Terrazas informed Christner of their decision to demote him and gave him sixty days to find a non-management position. It is normal practice for American Eagle to provide a manager with sixty days to find another position within the company when they are demoted from a management position. Christner challenged his demotion through American Eagle's internal appeal procedures. His appeal was denied after a review of the facts from the April 1997 incident.

But here is the twist that forms the basis of Christner's claims in this suit. In 1996, Christner had suffered an on-the-job injury when he fell off the back of a tow truck. Although Christner required surgery on both arms as a result of the accident, he missed but four days of work and never requested a medical leave. Kelleher and Terrazas knew about Christner's 1996 injury, but were not aware of the nature or extent of those injuries. Nevertheless, Kelleher and Terrazas wanted to ensure that Christner had ample opportunity to find another position within American Eagle so they decided to allow Christner to go on medical leave if he did not find a position within the normal sixty day period. American Eagle's medical leave policy allows an employee up to two years to identify a position that they are physically able to perform before they are terminated. To assist Christner's job search, Terrazas informed Christner that he could use the computer in his office to search for a new position within the company. Christner never used the computer in Terrazas' office nor did he apply for another position at American Eagle during the sixty-day period or the additional two-year medical leave. During the medical leave, Christner did request that he be allowed to return to his position as ground support supervisor, but never informed American Eagle that he was seeking reinstatement to his position as an accommodation for his disability. Because of the incident with Ishak, American Eagle declined to place Christner in a supervisory position. After failing to land another position within the company, American Eagle terminated Christner in July 1999 at the conclusion of his medical leave.

Christner had filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on July 10, 1998, a year prior to his termination. In his charge, Christner complained that American Eagle: (1) harassed him after his 1996 injury; (2) discriminated against him based on his disability when it demoted him in April 1997; and (3) refused to accommodate his disability when it failed to reinstate him as a ground support supervisor or comparable management position in March 1998 when his doctor cleared him to work light duty. Christner did not indicate in his July 1998 EEOC charge that American Eagle had retaliated against him. After receiving a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, Christner filed this suit alleging that American Eagle refused to accommodate his disability when his doctor cleared him to return to light duty in March 1998 and that American Eagle retaliated against him for filing a claim with the EEOC by refusing to restore him to a ground support supervisor position.

II. Standard of Review

Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a motion for summary judgment shall be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on flue, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issues as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986); Bragg v. Navistar Int'l Trans. Corp., 164 F.3d 373 (7th Cir. 1998). In determining whether to grant summary judgment, the Court construes the facts and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Bombard v. Fort Wayne Newspapers, Inc., 92 F.3d 560 (7th Cir. 1996).

The initial burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and that the judgment as a matter of law should be granted in the moving party's favor. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986); Larimer v. Dayton Hudson Corp., 137 F.3d 497 (7th Cir. 1998). A question of material fact is a question which will be outcome determinative of an issue in the case. The Supreme Court has instructed that the facts which are considered material in a specific case shall be determined by the substantive law controlling the given case or issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Once the moving party has met the initial burden, the opposing party "must go beyond the pleadings" and "designate" specific facts showing that there is a genuine [material] issue for trial. Id.

III. Analysis

A. American Airlines and ...

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