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Hancock v. Potter

June 24, 2008

TERESA HANCOCK, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Western Division. No. 02 C 50388-Philip G. Reinhard, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Flaum, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED APRIL 3, 2008

Before FLAUM, MANION, and TINDER, Circuit Judges.

Theresa Hancock worked for the U.S. Postal Service and suffered a lumbar strain while on the job. After going through a series of examinations designed to assess her ability to perform certain physical tasks on the job, she was given a new set of duties. She had disagreements with her supervisors regarding whether her new tasks ran afoul of her physical restrictions. These disagreements ultimately formed the basis of her complaint in the district court alleging gender discrimination, disability discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment. The district court dismissed Hancock's claims on summary judgment in large part because she did not suffer an adverse employment action and she could not identify a similarly situated employee. Because we find no error in the district court's analysis, we affirm.

I. Background

From 1992 to 2001, Hancock was employed with the U.S. Postal Service in Rockford, Illinois as a "flat sorter." The job involved utilizing and maintaining a flat sorting machine that would organize and separate pieces of mail larger than letter-size, such as magazines, newspapers, and manila envelopes. The first several years of her employment with the Postal Service were uneventful, save for an award she received early on for discharging her duties in a safe manner.

Hancock's troubles began in March 1998, when she filed a grievance alleging that her supervisor, Leon Woods, yelled at her and was disrespectful towards her. A month later, this grievance was settled. Then, on June 18, 1999, Hancock suffered a job-related back injury, namely a lumbar strain. This injury limited her ability to bend, stoop, and twist. Consistent with Department of Labor requirements, she was given a limited duty job assignment that modified the nature of her work. Soon after working this modified job, she told a supervisor that it did not comport with restrictions set out in her limited duty assignment.*fn1 Supervisors examined her restrictions and disagreed; they told her to keep working. In response, Hancock asked for a union representative, and was given one within four hours. She utilized the union assistance to document her injury, but she did not request medical treatment.

Hancock then made an appointment to see her own physician. At the same time, the Postal Service had her attend a fitness-for-duty examination to determine her ability to work, and to clarify the extent of her restrictions. The Postal Service physician completed a new duty status report which delineated Hancock's restrictions. She was given a corresponding new job offer that involved working on a different piece of equipment-the meter belt. Hancock refused to accept the new assignment on the grounds that, in her view, it would trigger her injury. The Postal Service physician assessed the information a second time and confirmed that she could perform this new job in a manner that was consistent with her restrictions. But Hancock still refused. She then received a note from her personal physician excusing her from work for a few days until he had the chance to examine her. When she returned to work, she came with a note from her physician directing that she not work the meter belt. Because her injury had worsened since June, she was given a new, more stringent set of restrictions that also called for her to refrain from working on the meter belt. As a result, Hancock was given a job offer for a different shift, because there as no work available on her shift that also met her restrictions.*fn2

While she was on her restrictions, Hancock requested to work in an area known as the Registry Cage. This is a secure section on the workroom floor where a single employee works. Her request was denied for two reasons. First, the Postal Service determined that additional staffing for this position was only needed on Hancock's regular day off. Second, despite Hancock's contrary belief, the Postal Service concluded that the work requirements of the Registry Cage were outside her restrictions. For instance, the duties included lifting up to 70 pound bags of coin, which was clearly beyond Hancock's restrictions.

Hancock also wanted to participate in the Associate Supervisor Program (a management trainee program) but was ultimately denied. This was due, in large measure, to an unfavorable evaluation issued by the Manager of Distribution Operations, Linda Medearis, on August 4, 1999. Hancock claims that she received this negative evaluation because she had filed grievances and had complained about management and her supervisors. Critically, none of these grievances was the subject of an Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") complaint that took place prior to August 4, 1999. Indeed, Medearis claims that she did not select Hancock for the program because a number of co-workers had indicated that she was not doing her job. This is consistent with prior events: Medearis also did not recommend Hancock for this program in the March 1999 cycle, before the injury and accompanying work restrictions, and before she started filing administrative complaints.

Contemporaneous with these events, Hancock filed an injury compensation claim with the Office of Workers Compensation ("OWCP"). All of the documentation received by the Postal Service Injury Compensation Specialist concerning Hancock's injury was forwarded to OWCP. Then, on October 18, 1999, OWCP notified Hancock that her claim was denied due to insufficient medical documentation.*fn3 She was subsequently reclassified from a "limited duty" status (which is for employees who are injured on the job) to a "light duty" status (which is for employees who are injured outside of their job duties). This meant that her workload was reduced to 20 hours per week and that her availability to be assigned beyond these hours depended on available work that was within her restrictions. Later, on February 11, 2000, OWCP reversed its decision because it located a treatment note from Hancock's physician. This took her from light duty back to limited duty, which meant that her full time work hours were restored.

From August 1999 to April 2000, Hancock filed several complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleging discrimination based on sex, physical disability, age, and retaliation for prior EEO activity. In the context of these complaints, she made the following six claims: (1) her limited duty job restrictions were violated; (2) her request to be trained in the Registry Cage was not honored in order to harass her and deny her an accommodation for her disability; (3) she was harassed and denied accommodations when presented with job offers; (4) her work hours were reduced; (5) she was given an unfavorable evaluation for the Associate Supervisor Program; and (6) injury compensation personnel withheld medical information in her worker's compensation cases. After exhausting her administrative remedies, Hancock filed a complaint with the district court consistent with this set of claims in October 2002. Specifically, she alleged that the Postal Service discriminated against her on the basis of gender in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., on the basis of disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"),*fn4 on the basis of age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("AEDA"), and that the Postal Service retaliated against her for speaking out against a practice that Title VII forbids. After an answer was filed, the Postal Service moved for summary judgment on February 1, 2006. The district court granted this motion in favor of the Postal Service. This appeal followed.

II. Discussion

Hancock raises four issues before this Court. She argues that the district court erred in denying her gender discrimination, disability discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment claims. We analyze each issue in turn, bearing in mind that we review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo and view the evidence in the light ...


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