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Owens v. Hyundai

February 15, 2007

CLAUDE J. OWENS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
QUALITY HYUNDAI, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Virginia M. Kendall

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Claude Owens ("Plaintiff" or "Owens") brings this action against Defendant Quality Hyundai ("Defendant" or "Quality") under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. Plaintiff took a leave of absence from his sales job with Defendant in order to have eye surgery to correct blindness suffered as a complication of his diabetes. When Plaintiff sought to return to work nearly a year later, Defendant informed him that it was fully staffed and that he would not be allowed to return to work. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant terminated him because of his disability and without making an effort to reasonably accommodate his disability. Defendant has moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiff is not a qualified individual for purposes of the ADA and that Plaintiff cannot demonstrate that he suffered an adverse action because of his disability.

Genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether Plaintiff could have performed the essential job functions with or without a reasonable accommodation at the time of his termination -- that is, whether he was "a qualified individual." No genuine issues of material fact exist, however, as to whether Defendant terminated Plaintiff because of his disability or failed to reasonably accommodate his disability. Because Plaintiff's evidence does not raise a reasonable inference that discrimination motivated Defendant's employment action and because Defendant was not required to accommodate Plaintiff by keeping open a position for him during his lengthy, indefinite absence, Defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Statement of Facts

Plaintiff Owens worked as a car salesman, or Sales Specialist, at Quality Hyundai. (Plf. Resp. ¶ 5.)*fn1 On January 2, 2004, Owens advised Quality that he suffered from blindness as a complication of diabetes. (Plf. SOF ¶ 1.)*fn2 Owens provided Quality with a doctor's note stating that he was not able to work due to his condition. (Def. SOF ¶ 7.)*fn3 Quality authorized Owens' request to take a medical leave of absence. (Plf. SOF ¶ 2.) Owens did not provide Quality with a date that he would return. (Plf. Resp. ¶ 9.)

Nearly one year after he left Quality, Owens met with Novak on December 14, 2004, and told him that he wanted to return to work. (Def. SOF ¶ 12.) During the time that he was not working at Quality, Owens had several eye surgeries but when he returned, he had a doctor's note stating that he could resume work with no restrictions. (Plf. Exs., p. 29.) From January 2 to December 14, Owens had five or six conversations with Dave Novak, a general manager for Quality. (Def. Resp. ¶ 3.)*fn4 During these conversations, Plaintiff never indicated when he may return to work. (Plf. Resp. ¶ 13.) On December 16, Novak advised Owens that he would not be permitted to return to work. (Plf. SOF ¶ 17.)

Owens contends that he never told Quality that he expected his leave of absence to be permanent and that Quality verbally expressed that it expected him to return to his duties upon the conclusion of his medical leave. (Plf. SOF ¶¶ 9, 11.) A payroll manager for Quality, Elizabeth Duvick, swears that she "spoke with Mr. Owens in March 2004, at which time he advised me that he was never going to return to work." (Def. SOF ¶ 11.) Ms. Duvick also swears that "[o]n December 14, 2004, Quality's sale positions were fully staffed, and there was no search for salespersons, or open positions, at that time." (Def. SOF ¶ 16.) The last salesperson Quality hired prior to December 14 was on November 4, 2004, and the next salesperson Quality hired after December 14 was on February 14, 2005. (Def. SOF ¶ 17.) Quality never offered Owens an alternative position during the period of his medical leave or when he asked to return to work. (Def. Resp. ¶ 18.)

Standard of Review

Summary judgment is proper when "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 judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). In determining whether a genuine issue of fact exists, the Court must view the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the party opposing the motion. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). Summary judgment is appropriate only when no reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

Discussion

The ADA prohibits discrimination against "a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). A plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of discrimination by showing that he: (1) is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; (2) is qualified to perform the essential functions of his job either with or without reasonable accommodation ("a qualified individual"); and (3) has suffered from an adverse employment decision because of his disability. Dvorak v. Mostardi Platt Associates, Inc., 289 F.3d 479, 483 (7th Cir. 2002). Defendant does not contest that Plaintiff was disabled.*fn5 Rather, Defendant argues that Plaintiff was not "a qualified individual" because his need for a lengthy and indefinite leave of absence prevented him from performing the essential functions of his job. And, as to the third prong, Defendant proffers that it terminated Plaintiff because it was fully staffed when he asked to return from his leave of absence, not because of his disability, and that it was unreasonable for it to accommodate Plaintiff by keeping open his sales position for the length of his indefinite absence.

I. Qualified Individual

The ADA defines a "qualified individual with a disability" as "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); see Toyota Motor Mfg., Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184, 193 (2002). Defendant argues that because Plaintiff required a lengthy and indefinite leave of absence in order to accommodate his disability that he was not capable of performing the essential functions of his job.

The determination of whether Plaintiff was a "qualified individual with a disability" must be made on the basis of his "capabilities at the time of the employment decision." Duda v. Board of Educ. of Franklin Park Pub. Sch. Dist. No. 84, 133 F.3d 1054, 1059 (7th Cir. 1998); see Nowak v. St. Rita High School, 142 F.3d 999, 1003 (7th Cir. 1998) ("The determination as to whether an individual is a 'qualified individual with a disability' must be made as of the time of the employment decision"). A genuine issue of material fact exists as to when Plaintiff was terminated. In order for a termination to be effective, the employer must give "unequivocal notice of termination." Dvorak, 289 F.3d at 486, citing Mull v. ARCO Durethene Plastics, Inc., 784 F.2d 284 (7th Cir. 1986). Defendant argues that it considered Plaintiff terminated when Plaintiff told payroll manager Elizabeth Duvick in March 2004 that he was never going to return to work. Plaintiff responds that he never told anyone at Defendant that he expected his leave of absence to be permanent and that Defendant verbally expressed that he was expected to return to his duties at the end of his medical leave. Undated employee earnings and deductions statements for Plaintiff have the handwritten comments: "Off on leave of absence -- eye surgery;" "Claude on leave of absence so when he comes back put short term and life back in;" and "zero'd out till he comes back." (Plf. Exs., pp. 3-5.) These ...


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