United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
July 20, 2004.
JAVIER VALADEZ, Plaintiff,
STEINER CORP., a Nevada Corporation, d/b/a AMERICAN LINEN Defendant.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOAN GOTTSCHALL, District Judge
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Javier Valadez has sued his employer, Steiner Corp.
d/b/a American Linen ("American Linen"), for unlawfully
discriminating against him on the basis of his disability a
back injury in violation of the Americans with Disabilities
Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (the "ADA"). Valadez has also
brought a retaliation claim under Illinois law against American
Linen alleging that he was unlawfully terminated in retaliation
for bringing a workers' compensation claim against the company.
Before the court are the parties' respective motions for summary
judgment. In his motion for summary judgment, Valadez claims that
the undisputed facts establish that he is entitled to relief on
his discrimination and retaliation claims as a matter of law.
American Linen argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on
Valadez's ADA claims because the undisputed facts show that
Valadez is not a "qualified individual with a disability" within
the meaning of the ADA. Because the court agrees that Valadez is
not a "qualified individual" under the ADA, and therefore is not
entitled to the protection of that statute, Valadez's motion for
summary judgment is denied and American Linen's motion for
summary judgment is granted. BACKGROUND*fn1
American Linen supplies linen to restaurants, banquet halls and
hospitals throughout Cook County. In 1988, American Linen hired
Valadez as a "route driver." Route drivers were responsible for
delivering linens to American Linen's customers, picking up their
soiled linens and returning the soiled linens to American Linen's
plant in Chicago for cleaning. It is undisputed that the route
driver position was physically demanding. Drivers had to be
capable of constant heavy lifting and of driving 8-12 hours per
shift. Often, the bags of soiled linen that route drivers had to
carry weighed over 200 pounds. In 1997, Valadez was promoted to
Assistant District Manager ("ADM"). The ADM position involved the
same physically demanding tasks as the route driver position, but
also required Valadez to supervise other route drivers and
address customer complaints.
Valadez alleges that on May 1, 1998, he severely injured his
back when he lifted a linen bag. On May 13, 1998, Valadez was
diagnosed with a herniated disk. He attended physical therapy and
received epidural injections to recover from his injury. Valadez
alleges that, at least initially, he had trouble sleeping and
walking and that his injury eventually caused him to suffer
anxiety and depression.
Valadez spent the vast majority of the next two and a half
years on medical leave, interrupted by intermittent efforts to
return to work. Three months after the injury, in August of 1998,
Valadez was cleared by his doctor to return to light duty work
with no driving, heavy lifting, bending or stooping. Defendant
offered Valadez light duty work on a temporary basis, assigning
him to replace strings on empty linen bags. Valadez alleges that stringing the
bags was "a full time job" often assigned to injured workers. He
claims that the working conditions during his light duty
assignment were deplorable, alleging that he was (1) assigned to
a work area that was unbearably hot, crowded with other workers
and "infested with vermin," (2) forced to perform assignments
that exceeded his physician's restrictions, (3) barred from using
the elevator, (4) prevented from using the handicapped spot on
the premises, and (5) punished for speaking with other employees.
Valadez alleges that American Linen's harsh treatment was in
retaliation for Valadez's workers' compensation claim against the
company.*fn2 He claims that American Linen's retaliation
caused him to have a seizure on August 26, 1998 that required him
to be hospitalized.
A few days after his seizure, Valadez returned to medical leave
which lasted from September of 1998 through June of 1999. During
that prolonged leave, Valadez began seeing a back specialist, Dr.
Frank Phillips, recommended by the attorneys prosecuting
Valadez's workers' compensation claim. Dr. Phillips diagnosed
Valadez with a herniated disk and recommended that Valadez
continue physical therapy.
In addition to seeing Dr. Phillips, Valadez was instructed by
American Linen to see Dr. Charles Mercier, a physician retained
by American Linen's benefit administrator. Upon examining Valadez
in May of 1999, Mercier found that Valadez exhibited "extensive
false reporting to clinical testing" and noted that Valadez's
other physicians also found so-called "Wadell signs," i.e.
signs that Valadez wasn't being truthful about his symptoms.
Mercier believed that "nobody in his right mind" would consider
Valadez a candidate for surgery. He concluded that "there is no
reliable clinical evidence of disability" and recommended that
Valadez return to work without restrictions. In June of 1999, Valadez was finally cleared to return to work
by Dr. Phillips under restrictions that he not work more than
four hours per day and not lift more than 15 pounds. Valadez
returned to his light duty assignments where the harsh working
conditions and verbal harassment allegedly continued.
On August 25, 1999, less than three months after Valadez
resumed his light duty assignment, Dr. Phillips declared that
Valadez should stop working so that he could undergo back
surgery. A few days later, Phillips performed spinal fusion
surgery on Valadez which caused Valadez to miss almost ten months
After recovering from surgery, Valadez returned to work for the
third and final time on April 10, 2000 with restrictions that he
not lift more than 20 pounds or stand for over 45 minutes.
Valadez alleges that, during this period, his back continued to
"give out" and American Linen, once again, subjected him to harsh
working conditions and harassment.
On October 2, 2000, Valadez received a "Functional Capacity
Evaluation," to evaluate his ability to function in the
workplace. The test concluded that Valadez could function at a
"medium-heavy level with a 70 pound maximum lift knuckle to
waist." Valadez was able to walk on a treadmill for a total of
150 minutes, climb a ladder for 30 minutes continuously and push
and pull 300 pounds on a four wheel cart.
With those results in hand, Dr. Mercier determined that Valadez
was ready to return to his regular duties without restriction.
American Linen gave Valadez the option of returning as a route
driver or as a maintenance person. Valadez chose to return to his
old route driver position. However, after one and a half weeks as
a route driver, Valadez's back gave out again. This time,
Valadez's doctor placed Valadez on a permanent 40 pound lifting
restriction and instructed Valadez to limit his driving to four
hours per day. Valadez asked American Linen for a light duty assignment, but
American Linen responded that there was no light duty work
available. Valadez also asked that American Linen "restructure"
his position, allowing him to respond to customer complaints
full-time and discontinuing his route driving responsibilities.
American Linen refused. Valadez alleges that he was terminated in
January of 2001. American Linen states that Valadez simply
stopped showing up for work and was never terminated.
Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions,
answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with
the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue 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). When
considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must view
the record and any inferences to be drawn from it in the light
most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. See
Griffin v. Thomas, 929 F.2d 1210, 1212 (7th Cir. 1991). The
party opposing summary judgment may not rest upon the pleadings,
but "must set forth specific facts showing that there is a
genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,
477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). There is no genuine issue for trial unless
there is "sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party for a
jury to return a verdict for that party." Id.
American Linen argues that Valadez's ADA claim must be
dismissed because he does not qualify for protection under that
statute. The ADA prohibits discrimination "against a qualified
individual because of the disability of such individual."
42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). There are two distinct types of discrimination
barred by the ADA: (1) disparate treatment, and (2) failure to
provide a reasonable accommodation. See Sieberns v. Wal-Mart
Stores, Inc., 125 F.3d 1019, 1022-23 (7th Cir. 1997).
Regardless of which type of discrimination is alleged, plaintiffs
seeking relief under the ADA must prove that they are a "qualified individual with a
disability," i.e. "an individual with a disability who, with or
without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential
functions of the employment position that such individual holds
or desires." 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8). Therefore, in determining
whether a disabled employee qualifies for protection under the
ADA, the court evaluates whether that employee could carry out
the essential functions of his position at the time the
employer's allegedly discriminatory conduct occurred. Ross v.
Indiana State Teacher's Ass'n Ins. Trust, 159 F.3d 1001, 1013
(7th Cir. 1998).
In this case, the undisputed facts reflect that Valadez is not
a "qualified individual" within the meaning of the ADA. Valadez's
job was physically demanding. The essential functions of his
position are undisputed: American Linen required its route
drivers and ADMs to drive approximately 8 hours per shift and to
repeatedly lift linen bags that weighed up to 200 pounds. The
undisputed facts reflect that Valadez is unable to perform those
tasks. At the end of his tenure with American Linen, Valadez was
on permanent work restrictions: he could not drive in excess of
four hours per day or lift weights exceeding 40 pounds. In fact,
Valadez maintains that, to this day, he suffers immobilizing back
spasms that interfere with his ability to walk and he "has
trouble getting of bed, going to church and getting around."
Valadez is simply not qualified to perform the essential
functions of his job without accommodation.
Valadez's ADA claim therefore hinges on the question whether he
could perform the essential functions of his position with a
reasonable accommodation. He argues that, at the time he was
fired, American Linen could have accommodated his back injury by
(1) giving him a handicapped parking spot, (2) making light duty
work available on a permanent basis, or (3) restructuring his
position by restricting his driving time to four hours a day and
limiting his heavy lifting. However, none of those proposed
accommodations can correctly be labeled "reasonable." The handicapped parking space is not a reasonable accommodation
because Valadez cannot prove that it would have enabled him to
perform the essential functions of the job. See Garza v. Abbott
Labs., 940 F. Supp. 1227, 1239 (N.D. Ill. 1996). Valadez has
offered no evidence that a handicapped parking space would have
been an efficacious remedy for his disability. The undisputed
facts establish that Valadez's performance difficulties stemmed
from his inability to drive the required eight hours per day and
to lift heavy bags of linen. While a handicapped parking space
may have assisted him in some ways, Valadez does not explain how
it would have remedied his inability to meet the requirements of
his position. See Pfeifer v. Caterpillar Inc., 98-C-542, 2000
WL 310312, *5 (N.D.Ill. March 24, 2000) (holding that speculation
as to whether a proposed accommodation would have been effective
is "not enough to defeat summary judgment").
Moreover, Valadez offers no support for his argument that
American Linen was obligated to accommodate his injury by
offering him permanent light duty work. Valadez has presented no
evidence that light duty work was available on a permanent basis
when he was fired.*fn3 Absent such evidence, Valadez's
proposed accommodation must fail. See McCreary v.
Libbey-Owens-Ford Co., 132 F.3d 1159, 1165 (7th Cir. 1997).
The ADA does not require employers to create permanent light duty
positions or transform temporary light-duty assignments into
permanent positions to accommodate an injured employee who is
unable to perform the essential functions of his position.
Watson v. Lithonia Lighting, 304 F.3d 749, 752 (7th Cir.
Valadez's argument that it would have been "possible" for
American Linen to "restructure" his position to accommodate his injury is also without merit. The
proper question is not whether a restructuring of his position
was "possible." The question is whether a restructuring of the
position is mandated by the ADA in this case. The court finds
that it is not. The ADA does not require employers "to change the
essential functions of a job to accommodate an employee,"
Emerson v. Northern States Power Co., 256 F.3d 506, 514
(7th Cir. 2001), and does not require the employer to create
a new position that the employee is capable of performing.
Valadez's proposed "restructuring" of his position would not have
allowed him to perform his duties as a route driver. Rather, it
would have created a new position and reallocated his driving
responsibilities to another employee. This is not required by the
ADA. See Basith v. Cook County, 241 F.3d 919, 929-30 (7th
In sum, the undisputed facts establish that Valadez was unable
to perform the physically demanding requirements of his position
with or without reasonable accommodation. Therefore, Valadez is
not a "qualified individual" within the meaning of the ADA and,
as a matter of law, cannot prevail on his discrimination claims
under that statute. Valadez's ADA claim is dismissed. Since no
federal claims remain, the court declines to exercise
jurisdiction over Valadez's state law claim for retaliation. See
Wright v. Associated Ins. Cos., 29 F.3d 1244, 1251 (7th Cir.
1994) ("[T]he general rule is that once all federal claims are
dismissed before trial, the district court should relinquish
jurisdiction over pendent state-law claims rather than resolve
them on the merits"). CONCLUSION
For the foregoing reasons, Valadez's motion for summary
judgment is denied and American Linen's motion for summary
judgment is granted.