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Cannon-Stokes v. Potter

May 27, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Matthew F. Kennelly United States District Judge



Traci Cannon-Stokes has sued John E. Potter, in his capacity as postmaster general of the United States Postal Service, under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a) & (d). She alleges that the Postal Service discriminated and retaliated against her when it forced her to take an unpaid leave of absence. The Postal Service has moved for summary judgment. For the following reasons, the Court grants the motion.

Factual Background

On a motion for summary judgment, the Court draws "all reasonable inferences from undisputed facts in favor of the nonmoving party and [views] the disputed evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Harney v. Speedway Super-America, LLC, 526 F.3d 1099, 1104 (7th Cir. 2008).

Cannon-Stokes has worked for the Postal Service since 1989. In November 1995, she was grabbed from behind and assaulted by a drunk man when she entered a building's dark vestibule while delivering mail. Because of the incident, Cannon-Stokes developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder. As a result of her PTSD and symptoms of anxiety, Cannon-Stokes repeatedly requested work accommodations from the Postal Service. In February 1997, the Postal Service offered Cannon-Stokes a modified carrier position at the Brunson Station, which no longer required her to deliver mail or perform duties outside.

While at her new position, Cannon-Stokes made additional requests to accommodate her disability. On March 19, 2003, Cannon-Stokes filed a lawsuit against the Postal Service in this District alleging retaliation, discrimination, and failure to accommodate under the Rehabilitation Act. In the fall of 2003, Cannon-Stokes requested, at least three times, her own work space or desk, a locker, and a schedule that would allow her to complete her duties during daylight hours. These requests are documented in a memorandum by her doctor dated October 22, 2003 and a letter she wrote dated October 23, 2003. The Postal Service moved Cannon-Stokes to an earlier schedule in 2004 when the Brunson Station experienced a staffing shift, gave her a locker in 2009, and never provided her with a work station or desk.

Cannon-Stokes alleges that in March 2004, she applied for disability retirement because the Postal Service had failed to accommodate her disability. She contacted Charlene Kincaid, an injury compensation specialist with the Postal Service who was already familiar with Cannon-Stokes' injury and her accommodation requests. Cannon-Stokes told Kincaid that she could no longer cope with her work conditions, and she inquired about disability retirement. Kincaid referred her to Joyce Payne, the human resource specialist responsible for disability retirement applications for the Postal Service in the Chicago area. Payne spoke with Cannon-Stokes about the application process and submitted her application to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for processing. The application requires a supervisor's statement, which was sent to Karen Washington, station manager at the Brunson Station. Payne resent the form to Washington and reminded her several times to fill it out. Washington submitted the form on August 5, 2004, five months after Cannon-Stokes applied for disability retirement.

At the time Cannon-Stokes applied for disability retirement, medical expenses related to her on-the-job injury were being paid by the Office of Workers Compensation Programs (OWCP). On November 2, 2004, OPM approved her disability retirement application. Shortly thereafter, Cannon-Stokes realized that she had applied for disability retirement through OPM, not OWCP. When she learned that, unlike OWCP, OPM would not cover medical expenses related to her on-the-job injury, she decided against disability retirement.

According to the policy and practice of the Postal Service, employees granted disability retirement are advised of and may use their remaining sick leave before actually taking retirement. Furthermore, employees on leave-without-pay status may use their sick leave or other accrued leave to ensure uninterrupted pay. Because employees can use up their accumulated sick or other paid leave time before retiring, OPM requests a retiring employee's "last day in pay" status. OPM schedules retirement payments to begin once the employee stops being paid by the Postal Service, even if that date is several months in the future.

In mid-November, Payne called the Brunson station and the Postal Service's timekeeper to request Cannon-Stokes' last day in pay status and learned that she was still working. Payne then called Cannon-Stokes to ask when she planned on retiring. Cannon-Stokes said that she wanted to continue working and was no longer interested in disability retirement. Payne testified that she knows of one other individual who decided against disability retirement after he applied. She says she instructed him to submit a letter informing OPM that he no longer wanted disability retirement. Payne testified that she informed Cannon-Stokes to do the same; otherwise, OPM would keep asking for her last day in pay status. Cannon-Stokes informed Payne that she wanted to speak to Kincaid first because she was looking into something for Cannon-Stokes, but that she was unable to reach Kincaid. Although Payne never asked what Cannon-Stokes was discussing with Kincaid, she assumed Cannon-Stokes had questions about her injury. Payne transferred the call to Kincaid's phone line.

On January 20, 2005, at a complement committee or staffing review meeting, John Richardson, a Postal Service human resources manager, learned that although OPM had granted Cannon-Stokes' disability retirement application, she had continued working for the Postal Service. Payne informed Richardson that she had instructed Cannon-Stokes to write a letter advising OPM of her decision against retirement but that she had not yet received such a letter from Cannon-Stokes. Richardson instructed Payne and Washington to tell Cannon-Stokes that she could not return to work until she wrote a letter to OPM and it confirmed the withdrawal of her disability retirement.

Cannon-Stokes did not work from January 21 through January 24, 2005. She returned to work on January 25, 2005 and learned from Murdis McCoy, her immediate supervisor, that she could not report for duty because OPM had approved her disability retirement application. Cannon-Stokes talked to Washington, who confirmed that Richardson would not allow her to work because she had retired according to OPM. Cannon-Stokes claims that she was escorted out of the building and that Washington made an announcement over the public address system that she was barred from reentering the building because she was no longer a Postal Service employee.

Concerned about her pay status while on leave, Cannon-Stokes alleges that before she left that day, she asked Washington whether she could use her sick time until reinstatement. Washington said that because Cannon-Stokes was retired and no longer worked at the Brunson Station, she could not use her sick time. Washington also referred Cannon-Stokes to Payne to discuss those matters. Cannon-Stokes says she called Richardson to request approval to use her sick time while on leave but that he never returned her calls. Richardson claims that his assistant answers all his calls and that he never knew Cannon-Stokes sought to use her sick time. He also testified that had he known about Cannon-Stokes' request, he would have granted it.

On January 25, 2005, the same day she was sent home from work, Cannon-Stokes provided Payne with a letter addressed to Robin Russell at OPM, stating that she decided against disability retirement because OWCP had not approved it. Payne forwarded the letter to OPM and informed Cannon-Stokes that she could not return to work until they received confirmation from OPM. In a letter dated January 31, 2005, OPM confirmed receipt of Cannon-Stokes' withdrawal. Richardson claims that he received the letter on February 8, 2005. The Postal Service placed Cannon-Stokes on leave-without-pay status from January 25, 2005 through February 13, 2005, until Richardson reinstated her on February 14, 2005.

In this case, Cannon-Stokes claims that the Postal Service discriminated against her because of her disability and that Richardson retaliated against her for her discrimination lawsuit, by forcing her into disability retirement and placing her on ...

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