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Hicks v. Potter

September 30, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Ronald A. Guzmán


Plaintiff Helen R. Hicks ("Hicks") has sued her previous employer, John E. Potter, the Postmaster General, for disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 56. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants defendant's and denies plaintiff's cross-motion.

Local Rule 56.1

Local Rule 56.1 sets forth the summary judgment filing procedure. LR 56.1. The local rule requires the movant to file a supporting memorandum of law and a statement of material facts along with any affidavits and other materials. LR 56.1(a)(1). The local rule also requires the non-movant to file a statement of facts that responds to each numbered paragraph of the movant's statement of facts with specific references to the record to support the non-movant's denial of any fact statement. LR 56.1(b)(3)(B). Any facts in the movant's statement that are not properly denied by the non-movant will be deemed admitted for the purposes of summary judgment. Id. Because of the importance that Local Rule 56.1 serves with regard to organizing evidence and disputed facts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has consistently upheld a district court's requirement of strict compliance with the Rule. F.T.C. v. Bay Area Bus. Council, 423 F.3d 627, 633 (7th Cir. 2005).

With these principles in mind, it is important to note that Hicks has failed to comply with her obligations under Local Rule 56.1. While Hicks responds to the facts submitted by the Postal Service, some of her responses do not conform to the clear mandate contained within the local rule that requires the non-movant to provide the Court with "specific references to the affidavits, parts of the record, and other supporting material relied upon." LR 56.1(b)(3)(B) (emphasis added). For instance, Hicks denies various statements of fact without any reference to either the record. (See, e.g., Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶¶ 37, 38, 49.) Other times, Hicks references entire pleadings. (See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 35, 47.) The local rule dictates that specific references to the record be made, or else such facts will be deemed admitted. LR 56.1(b)(3)(C). Although Hicks' failure to provide specific references to the record as required by Local Rule 56.1 results in certain fact statements being deemed admitted, this does not mean that summary judgment will automatically be granted in favor of the Postal Service. The Court must still evaluate whether defendant has met its burden of establishing that there are no material questions of fact with respect to an essential element of the plaintiff's case. See Delta Consulting Grp., Inc. v. R. Randle Constr., Inc., 554 F.3d 1133, 1138 (7th Cir. 2009).


Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are undisputed or deemed admitted due to a party's noncompliance with Local Rule 56.1. From February 2002 to December 31, 2005, Hicks worked as an Accountable Paper Supply Clerk ("APS Clerk") at the Postal Service's facility in Bedford Park, Illinois, commonly known as South Suburban. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 4.) The Postal Service describes the duties and responsibilities of an APS Clerk as follows: packaging and shipping stock to classified and contract stations and branches; supplying wholesale stamp clerk with stock; packaging and shipping stock to post offices within the area; replenishing redeemed stock; and maintaining inventories of Postal Service forms. (Id. ¶ 6.) Accordingly, APS Clerks are, during an eight-hour work day, engaged in physical activities such as lifting, pulling, pushing, carrying, reaching, walking, standing, leaning, stooping, kneeling and bending. (Id. ¶ 7.) Additionally, the APS Clerks lift and carry cases of stock that weigh over ten pounds. (Id. ¶ 8.)

From November 2002 until January 19, 2005, Hicks was absent from her job due to a non-work related injury to her right knee. (Id. ¶ 29.) During that time, she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in her right knee and degenerative joint disease, which affects her ability to walk or stand for a prolonged period of time. (Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 3.) On January 19, 2005, plaintiff's personal physician cleared Hicks to return to work. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶¶ 29, 30.) Upon returning to work, Hicks submitted a light-duty request*fn1 to her supervisor, Rhondia Sullivan, with two medical documents explaining Hicks' physical restrictions. (Id. ¶ 31.) The first medical document Hicks provided was entitled "Consent to Return to Work" form, which stated "Patient to return to work-sedentary job. No lifting/pushing/pulling. May need job change/position change. Patient to return in one month." (Id.) The second was a "Light Duty (Work) Request," which stated that Hicks had (1) no restrictions for sedentary work; (2) full restrictions for light, moderate, and heavy lifting (anything over ten pounds); (3) partial restrictions for reaching above shoulders; (4) partial restrictions for walking (two to three hours) and standing (two to three hours); (5) partial restrictions for leaning; and (6) full restrictions for stooping, kneeling, bending and climbing. (Id.) The Request further stated that the duration of Hicks' work restrictions was "to continue." (Id.)

The Local Memorandum of Understanding between the Postal Service and the APWU provides conditions for the reassignment of an employee to temporary or permanent light-duty positions. (Id. ¶ 69.) The Local Memorandum provides that "[e]mployees requesting light duty beyond a 90-day period will receive an extension if there are vacant positions available, provided there is no first time request to fill that vacancy." (Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 6.) The APWU states that this term means that employees who have been accommodated in light-duty positions for more than ninety days may be displaced by employees who are requesting light-duty assignment for the first time. (Id.)

On January 28, 2005, Hicks, accompanied by her union representative, Robert Haughton, attended a meeting with Sullivan and Sullivan's supervisor, Kristine Stevens, to discuss Hicks' light-duty request. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 34.) At the meeting, Hicks was asked what jobs she could perform given her medical restrictions. (Id. ¶ 35; id., Ex. 27, Haughton's Witness Stmt. at 1.) Hicks replied that she needed to know what jobs were available before she could answer the question. (Id. ¶ 35.) Hicks was then told that her request would be evaluated by South Suburban's Reasonable Accommodation Committee ("RAC") to determine whether light-duty work within her restrictions was available. (Id.) Stevens then told Hicks again that she needed to know what her skills and job experiences were to determine whether a job could be found. (Id. ¶ 36.) Hicks did not respond to this request at the meeting. (Id.) Lastly, Hicks was told not to report to work until notified of the RAC's decision. (Id.) After the meeting, Hicks submitted a description of the job functions she could perform to Sullivan. (Pl.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 35.)

On February 7, 2005, plaintiff filed a charge with the Postal Service's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleging disability discrimination based on her arthritis. (Id. ¶ 46.) Plaintiff stated that the Postal Service had failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation and/or light duty because of her disability. (Id.) Sullivan received notification of the EEOC charge on February 18, 2005. (Id. ¶ 47.) On March 2, 2009, Sullivan, Stevens and Hicks engaged in mediation regarding Hicks' claims of discrimination. (Id. ¶ 48.) At the mediation, Sullivan and Stevens stated that no work was available within plaintiff's restrictions. (Id.)

By letter dated March 10, 2005, Sullivan informed Hicks that her request for light duty had been reviewed and, based on Hicks' medical restrictions and the available positions at South Suburban, her request was denied. (Def.'s LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt. ¶ 39.) The letter also indicated that Hicks did not have to report to work on a daily basis, and instructed Hicks to call Sullivan every Monday to find out if light-duty work was available. (Id.)

On March 21, 2005, Hicks filed an EEOC complaint alleging disability discrimination based on the denial of her January 19, 2005 request for light-duty accommodations. (Id. ¶ 45.) Hicks named Sullivan and Stevens as the discriminating officials. (Id.) On April 4, 2005, the Postal Service's EEOC accepted Hicks' complaint for investigation. (Id. ¶ 46.)

In spite of being told that she did not have to report to South Suburban if there was no available work, Hicks reported daily to work from January 19 through January 24, 2005, and again from February 22 through March 11, 2005. (Id. ¶ 48.) On March 23, 2005, Sullivan took action to deny Hicks entry into the South Suburban facility due to her unruly and disruptive behavior during a visit to Sullivan's office on March 21, 2005. (Id.) Sullivan also denied plaintiff access because she caused disruption in her former unit and Stevens did not want Hicks to "fall and cause further injury to herself" while walking around the building. (Id. ¶ 49.) Hicks could enter South Suburban if she made an appointment. (Id.) Thereafter, Hicks amended her EEOC complaint to include a claim of retaliation arising out of Sullivan's decision to deny her access to South Suburban unless there was available work. (Id. ¶ 50.)


Granting summary judgment is proper when "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). This Court must view the facts in a light most favorable to the non-movant while "drawing all reasonable inferences in her favor." Haywood v. Lucent Techs., Inc., 323 F.3d 524, 529 (7th Cir. 2003). The non-movant must "set forth specific facts, more than mere conclusions and allegations, sufficient to raise a genuine issue for trial; 'the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment.'" Balderston v. Fairbanks Morse Engine Div. of Coltec Indus., 328 F.3d 309, 320 (7th Cir. 2003) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986)).

I. Discrimination

In the first count of her first amended complaint, plaintiff alleges that defendant discriminated against her in violation of the Rehabilitation Act by failing to reasonably accommodate her disability. (First Am. Compl. ¶ 26.) The Rehabilitation Act provides that no "qualified individual with a disability... shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be... subjected to discrimination... by the United States Postal Service." 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). The Rehabilitation Act applies the same standards as those used to interpret the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). § 794(d). Under the ADA, discrimination includes not making a reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an employee. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A). To establish a prima facie case under the ADA, the plaintiff must prove that: (1) she ...

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