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Teresa Kotwica v. Rosepackingcompany

March 22, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 07 C 05262-Joan Humphrey Lefkow, Judge.

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


Before CUDAHY and ROVNER, Circuit Judges, and ADELMAN, District Judge.*fn1

On March 13, 2006, Rose Packing Company, Inc. fired Teresa Kotwica, a general laborer in its meat packing plant, because it believed that her newly-imposed medical restrictions made it impossible for her to perform her job duties. Kotwica sued Rose Packing, alleging that its decision to fire her violated the American with Disabilities Act's (ADA) anti-discrimination provisions. The district court granted summary judgment against Kotwica, finding that she had failed to present sufficient evidence establishing that she qualified for protection under the ADA. We affirm.

I. Background

In 1996, Teresa Kotwica began working as a general laborer at Rose Packing Company, Inc., an Illinois corporation that operates a meat packing facility on Chicago's South Side. Rose Packing employs several hundred individuals as general laborers at its plant. All of the general laborers are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Local 1546, and the terms of the general laborers' employment is set forth in a collective bargaining agreement that the Union negotiated with Rose Packing. In accordance with this agreement, general laborers perform a number of functions at the plant and are regularly rotated through various positions within different departments. The work performed by the general laborers includes tasks involved in the boning, curing, processing, smoking, packing, cooking and shipping of various meat products. In accordance with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, Rose Packing requires all of its general laborers to rotate through all of these tasks. The company has provided two justifications for its rotation policy:

(1) the company needs to be able to shift laborers to various positions to compensate for fluctuations in the types of tasks it needs performed and (2) the rotation helps minimize the risks posed by repetitive motion workplace injuries.

During the period of time relevant to Kotwica's claim, Rose Packing had a return to work policy that, on its face, strictly prohibited individuals who suffered non-work-related injuries from returning to work if their injuries left them with any medical restrictions. Under this policy, only individuals with full medical releases from their medical providers were permitted to return to their positions. At some point subsequent to Kotwica's termination, Rose Packing amended its return to work policy. The company's new policy no longer distinguishes between personal and work-related injuries and states that it will attempt to accommodate all employees' injury-related restrictions.

Toward the end of 2005, Kotwica's doctor recommended that she have a total hip replacement. Shortly thereafter Kotwica notified Rose Packing that she would be undergoing surgery and that she would be taking twelve weeks of leave in order to recuperate. Linda Madlener, Rose Packing's in-house nurse, told Kotwica in November of 2005 that the company was expecting her to return to work without any medical restrictions at the end of her twelve-week leave. Even if Madlener had not provided Kotwica with this notification, the record suggests that Kotwica would have known of Rose Packing's return to work policy, as Rose Packing had previously required her to obtain a full medical release after she had taken a leave of absence related to a personal injury.

Kotwica underwent hip replacement surgery on December 1, 2005, and, approximately twelve weeks later, at-tempted to return to her general laborer position. At the beginning of February of 2006, Rose Packing received a return to work authorization letter prepared by Kotwica's physician that indicated that Kotwica would be unable to perform a number of physical activities that were involved in the performance of a general laborer's duties. Rose Packing communicated with Kotwica's doctor and informed him that any permanent restrictions would prevent Kotwica from being able to return to work. The physician revised his authorization letter, which then indicated that Kotwica was permanently restricted from "heavy lifting, squatting, crawling or climbing" and that she could not lift more than twenty-five pounds.

Because Kotwica had not provided Rose Packing with an authorization letter that conformed with its policy, Rose Packing requested that she meet with the company's in-house physician for an alternative assessment of her capabilities. On March 13, 2006, Kotwica met with Dr. Joseph Laluya, the company's doctor, who performed a return to work physical evaluation. One part of this evaluation required returning general laborers to show that they could lift at least fifty pounds, a task that Kotwica could not perform without violating her personal physician's orders. Laluya deferred to Kotwica's physician's orders and did not ask Kotwica to complete this task. In his post-examination report, he indicated that Kotwica could not complete the physical ability test and that he was not clearing her to return to work. Later that day, Rose Packing notified Kotwica that she was being terminated in accordance with the company's return to work policy.

On September 28, 2007, Kotwica filed a single-count complaint alleging that Rose Packing violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing her due to her medical restrictions. On November 3, 2008, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. On September 25, 2009, the district court granted Rose Packing's request for summary judgment, finding that Kotwica had not established that she qualified for protection under the ADA. Kotwica filed a timely appeal from the district court's judgment.

II. Discussion

Kotwica's suit against Rose Packing presents a single, relatively straightforward disability discrimination claim. She claims that Rose Packing ran afoul of the ADA when it relied on her physical limitations as grounds for refusing to let her return to work after her hip replacement surgery. She states that her post-surgery medical restrictions would not have prevented her from being able to perform a general laborer's essential duties and argues that, even if her restrictions might have hindered her ability to do certain tasks, Rose Packing failed to meet its obligation to reasonably accommodate her limitations. On appeal, Kotwica contends that, at a ...

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