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VALADEZ v. STEINER CORP.

July 20, 2004.

JAVIER VALADEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
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 of work.

  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.

  ANALYSIS

  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 ...


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