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Tanya Ammons v. Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of

October 26, 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

Plaintiff Tanya Ammons filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., claiming that her employer, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago ("the MWRD"), failed to accommodate her disability. The court entered summary judgment in favor of the MWRD on March 1, 2012, holding that Ammons failed to raise a dispute of material fact as to whether she was a "qualified individual with a disability" under the ADA because she had not presented evidence that she could perform the essential functions of the positions to which she sought to be reassigned. Ammons now moves the court to reconsider that decision pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e).

I.LEGAL STANDARD

Motions to alter or amend a judgment serve a limited function. A court may grant a Rule 59(e) motion if the movant presents newly discovered evidence or "points to evidence in the record that clearly establishes a manifest error or law or fact." In re Prince, 85 F.3d 314, 324 (7th Cir. 1996). The parties may not introduce evidence previously available but unused in the prior proceeding or tender new legal theories. Id. The Seventh Circuit has explained that a "manifest error" occurs when "the [c]court has patently misunderstood a party, or has made a decision outside the adversarial issues presented to the [c]court by the parties, or has made an error not of reasoning but of apprehension." Bank of Waunakee v. Rochester Cheese Sales, Inc., 906 F.2d 1185, 1191 (7th Cir. 1990); see also Oto v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 224 F.3d 601, 606 (7th Cir. 2000) (describing "manifest error" as a "wholesale disregard, misapplication, or failure to recognize controlling precedent"). A motion to reconsider may be appropriate if there has been "a controlling or significant change in the law or facts since the submission of the issue to the [c]court." Bank of Waunakee, 906 F.2d at 1191.

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is proper only "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A genuine issue exists if there is evidence on the basis of which the jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Summary judgment may be entered against the non-moving party if it is unable to "establish the existence of an element essential to [its] case . . . on which [it] will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

II.BACKGROUND

The court's order of March 1, 2012, explains the background of Ammons's case. (See Mem. Op. & Order Mar. 1, 2012, ECF No. 160.) To summarize briefly, Ammons worked as a maintenance laborer at the MWRD's Calumet wastewater treatment facility. Her position was eliminated while she was on disability leave beginning on December 21, 2006. Ammons suffered from depression and anxiety attacks. Ammons requested reassignment to one of two vacant maintenance laborer positions, one in the Calumet plant's centrifuge building and one in the storeroom. Ammons's psychiatrist informed the MWRD that, due to her medical condition, 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. 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." Ammons was released by her psychiatrist to return to work on March 19, 2007. The MWRD informed her in May 2007 that it would not accommodate her disability because she was unable to perform the essential functions of the maintenance laborer positions in the centrifuge building and storeroom.

The ADA defines a "qualified individual with a disability" as "an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires." 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8). To avoid summary judgment, an ADA plaintiff must demonstrate a general issue of material fact as to whether she is disabled, whether she can perform the essential functions of the position sought, and whether she has suffered an adverse employment action because of her disability. Nese v. Julian Nordic Constr. Co., 405 F.3d 638, 641 (7th Cir. 2005). "[A] plaintiff must present the court with evidence that, if believed by a trier of fact, would establish all three elements." Kotwica v. Rose Packing Co., 637 F.3d 744, 748 (7th Cir. 2011). The court concluded in its March 1, 2012, opinion that, based on affidavits and testimony from MWRD employees, assigning Ammons to either the centrifuge or the storeroom position would have forced the MWRD to eliminate one or more of the position's principal duties. The court therefore held that Ammons did not demonstrate that she was qualified for relief under the ADA because she did not present evidence from which a trier of fact could conclude that she was able to perform the essential functions of the positions she sought, with or without a reasonable accommodation.

III.ANALYSIS

Ammons argues that the court committed a manifest error in concluding that the MWRD was entitled to summary judgment because the court misunderstood and overlooked evidence showing that genuine issues of fact exist as to whether Ammons could perform the essential functions of the centrifuge and storeroom positions. Ammons also argues that the court failed to consider whether she could perform forty-seven other vacant MWRD positions.

A. The Centrifuge Position

First, Ammons challenges the court's holding that Ammons could not perform the essential functions of the centrifuge position. Ammons's doctor restricted her from working "in or around tanks or deep water" and from "working near platforms." The court held that the essential functions of the centrifuge position included work around platforms and tanks. The court found that, while the MRWD presented evidence that employees in the centrifuge position were required to perform cleaning and maintenance work near platforms and tanks, Ammons failed to proffer evidence putting into dispute the MWRD's claim that working near platforms and tanks was an essential function of the position. Thus, the court held that assigning Ammons to the centrifuge position would have forced the MWRD to eliminate one or more of the position's principal duties. Ammons now argues that a dispute of fact does exist as to whether the centrifuge position required work around tanks or platforms.

Factors to consider in determining whether a duty is an "essential function" under the ADA include the job description, the employer's opinion, the amount of time spent performing the function, the consequences of not requiring it, and past and current work experience. See Ammons v. Aramark Uniform Servs., Inc., 368 F.3d 809, 818 (7th Cir. 2004). Ammons claims that, in its summary judgment opinion, the court overlooked the deposition testimony of Al Nichols, the MWRD's Assistant Chief Operating Engineer, concerning the centrifuge position. She further argues that the court should have struck Nichols's affidavit because it was inconsistent with his deposition testimony.

Nichols stated in his affidavit that walking around tanks and platforms was an unavoidable aspect of the centrifuge position, describing platforms as "areas of higher elevation where a person could potentially lean over and fall." Ammons argues that this assertion is belied by Nichols's deposition testimony, in which Nichols stated that he did not directly supervise the centrifuge position, did not know any worker had ever fallen from a platform in the centrifuge facility, did not know what work was performed in the facility during the second and third shifts, and did not watch the ...


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