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Tanya Ammons v. Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

March 1, 2012

TANYA AMMONS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
METROPOLITAN WATER RECLAMATION DISTRICT OF GREATER CHICAGO, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan B. Gottschall

MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

This case reaches the court on a motion for reconsideration of its previous summary judgment ruling. In this case, Ammons argues under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., that her employer, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (the "MWRD"), failed to accommodate her disability. After becoming disabled, Ammons sought reassignment to one of two vacant positions at the MWRD, but the MWRD assigned both of those positions to other employees. She contends that both of the positions could have reasonably accommodated her disability, and that the MWRD failed to engage in the interactive process to accommodate her disability in good faith.

Relying on Conner v. Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 413 F.3d 675 (7th Cir. 2005), the court had initially granted summary judgment to the MWRD on the ground that Ammons had not exhausted her administrative remedies as to the two vacancies, which the MWRD filled with the other employees after Ammons had filed her administrative charge with the EEOC. Because a failure to accommodate claim is of a continuous nature (and, eventually, could include inquiries into a breakdown of the interactive process), the court vacated that ruling in an opinion issued on November 9, 2011 and held that Conner did not govern this case. Because the inquiry into a failure to accommodate claim requires, as a threshold matter, that the court make sure that a reasonable accommodation existed for potential reassignment, the court heard oral argument on December 7, 2011 to assess whether either the centrifuge or storeroom positions were reasonable accommodations for Ammons. The court now reconsiders its previous grant of summary judgment to the MWRD but reaffirms, on different grounds, the grant of summary judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

The undisputed facts of this case are as follows. Tanya Ammons was hired by the MWRD in July 1986 in the MWRD's Maintenance Laborer A ("MLA") civil service classification. The MWRD operates seven wastewater treatment facilities, including the Calumet Plant where Ammons was employed. Ammons took an unpaid leave of absence beginning on December 21, 2006 due to depression. On or around December 28, 2006, she informed the MWRD that, in anticipation of her eventual return to work, she wished to begin the interactive process to receive a workplace accommodation.

Because the MWRD had eliminated Ammons' previous position (in the Buildings and Grounds department) while she was on disability leave, Ammons could not seek to be reinstated to that position. Thus, on February 8, 2007, after the interactive process had begun, Ammons requested that she be reassigned to either a centrifuge position or a storeroom position as an accommodation for her disability. Both of these positions would be vacant at points during the interactive process,*fn1 and Ammons had the most seniority of the employees who requested reassignment to either of these two positions.

Around the same time, the MWRD requested an identification of Ammons' workplace restrictions from her psychiatrist. In letters dated February 2, 2007 and February 13, 2007, Ammons' psychiatrist, Dr. Howard Herman, informed the MWRD that Ammons could not work in or around tanks, platforms, or water more than two feet deep, travel more than five miles to work, do concrete and brick work, climb ladders, or do utility line excavation and backfill. According to her doctor, her condition also "prevent[ed] her from safely and effectively operating high power tools and equipment such as sledge hammers, electric drills and air powered hammer drills and generators." (Pl.'s Stmt. of Add'l Facts, ECF No. 94, Ex. KK.) Dr. Herman stated that, given Ammons' disability, Ammons could not be trained to perform these tasks, and that "[a]ny denial of the requested accommodation would in my opinion jeopardize Ms. Ammons's safety and well being." (Id.)

Ammons' testimony is consistent with these restrictions. She admitted that she could perform only "the duties of an MLA that consist of the cleaning, hauling, garbage detail, cleaning of the outline station, cleaning of the floors and driving" and that she could not "work in or around deep waters, or do any trades or Masonry duties . . . ." (Def.'s 56.1 Stmt., Tab 38.) She admitted that a "high power tool" is any tool that includes a motor (Def.'s 56.1 Stmt., Tab 4, at 271), and that the centrifuge and storeroom positions were the only "reasonable ADA accommodations" that the MWRD should have provided to her from March 19, 2007 to the present. (See Pl.'s Supp. Resp. to Def.'s First Set of Interrogatories at 7 ¶ 15, ECF No. 71-20.)

On March 12, 2007, the MWRD completed a preliminary analysis of Ammons' request for a workplace accommodation, but stated that a final determination would not be made until Ammons was cleared to return to work. On March 19, 2007, Dr. Herman informed the MWRD by letter that "I am releasing [Ammons] to go back to work with the ADA accommodations [referred to in previous communications to the MWRD]." (See Def 56.1 Stmt., Tab 28.) That day, a physician's assistant at Concentra Medical Centers performed a return to work physical of Ammons, which indicated that Ammons had "extreme limitations" and that she could return to work only with the accommodations "as outline[d] by her psychiatrist." (See Def.'s 56.1 Stmt., Tab 29.)

On April 18, 2007, Ammons filed charges of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights ("IDHR") and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that "[the MWRD] has refused to accommodate my medical restrictions and will not allow me to return to work . . . ." (See Def.'s 56.1 Stmt., Tab 49.) On May 2, 2007, Patrick Foley, the MWRD's Director of Human Resources, sent Ammons a letter informing her that it would not accommodate her disability. Specifically, the letter stated that Ammons was "unable to perform the essential functions of [the MLA] classification in the Maintenance and Operations Department and the Purchasing Department, with or without a reasonable accommodation . . . ." (Pl.'s Stmt. of Add'l Facts, Ex. CC.) These were the departments in which the MWRD housed the centrifuge and storeroom positions, respectively. The letter asked Ammons to advise the MWRD "should [her] condition change in the future to allow [her] to be able to perform the essential functions" of the MLA positions housed in those departments. (Id.) The MWRD received no notice of any such changes in Ammons' condition before it assigned other employees to the centrifuge and storeroom positions.

The Centrifuge Position

The MWRD filled the centrifuge vacancy by transferring Edward Watts to that position on June 11, 2007; Watts had requested a transfer into the position on May 31, 2006, almost two months before the position became vacant on July 28, 2006. Although Ammons was the most senior of those who had requested reassignment to the centrifuge position, Section 14G of the MWRD's governing collective bargaining agreement provides:

Unless otherwise stated in this section, any request for transfer which has been submitted less than thirty calendar days prior to the occurrence of a vacancy shall not normally be considered for transfer to such vacancy until similar requests submitted thirty or more days prior to the occurrence of the vacancy have been satisfied. (Def.'s 56.1 Stmt., Tab 9, at 15.)

It is undisputed that Ammons made her request to receive a reassignment to the centrifuge vacancy less than thirty calendar days prior to its availability, and indeed made her request after the centrifuge position became available. Watts was employed in the centrifuge position from July 11, 2007 until October 24, 2009, when the MWRD shut down the centrifuge building and transferred Watts to work in the digester room.

The centrifuge position primarily involves cleaning, taking centrifuge samples, and taking machine readings. Much of the required cleaning in the centrifuge position was done with hoses and squeegees, but the MLA holding this position sometimes needed to walk near tanks or platforms to perform certain aspects of this cleaning.

Al Nichols, an Assistant Chief Operating Engineer, has acted in a supervisory capacity in Section 834 of the Maintenance and Operations department, which houses the centrifuge position, since 1997. Only one MLA from Section 834 has ever been assigned to the centrifuge position at any given time. Nichols testified that there are platforms throughout the centrifuge building. Nichols averred that every MLA assigned to Section 834 works near platforms on a daily basis, and that all MLAs, including Watts, worked around tanks and climbed ladders on a regular ...


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