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Benton v. Shinseki

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

October 11, 2013

KELLEY BENTON, Plaintiff,
v.
ERIC K. SHINSEKI, Secretary, United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

MATTHEW F. KENNELLY, District Judge.

Kelley Benton has sued Eric Shinseki, in his capacity as Secretary of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. ยง 794a. She alleges that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), her former employer, discriminated against her based upon her disability when she was denied the opportunity to attend a training conference. Benton further alleges that her supervisor created a hostile work environment based on her disability. Shinseki has moved for summary judgment on both claims. For the following reasons, the Court grants the motion.

Background

Three decades before her employment began at the VA, Benton was diagnosed with sickle-cell thalassemia, a disease that disrupts the blood flow to her extremities and incapacitates her for variable periods of time. Benton says the sickle cell crises (episodes) that she experiences can last from an hour up to three weeks and can be triggered by a host of events, including overexertion, rain, stress, moderate walking, shoveling snow, the common cold, swimming, and humidity.

In 2005, Benton began working as an information technology specialist for the VA in the agency's office in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She transferred to the VA's Maywood, Illinois office in 2007. Benton was part of a team of five IT specialists who worked in different VA locations across the country. Their supervisor, Donald Kachman, worked out of his home in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Benton first told Kachman about her disability in August 2008, when she wrote him an e-mail informing him she had just been in the hospital with a sickle cell crisis. In November 2008, Benton had shoulder surgery related to her sickle cell condition. Because the surgery required Benton to take pain medication, Benton's doctor wrote a note to the VA requesting that she be allowed to work from home for two weeks after the surgery. The request was approved, and Benton ended up working from home for approximately one month.

Just over a year after Benton first informed Kachman about her condition, she made a formal request for an accommodation, specifically, to perform her duties from home on an indefinite basis. Benton's first request was returned for insufficient documentation; her second (this time with documentation) was denied. The denial, written by Kachman in December 2009, advised Benton that the ability to work at the office was essential:

[t]he position you currently occupy is a full time position that, due to the functions and equipment necessary to perform all of the essential functions of your position, requires you to be physically located in the area/location you are currently assigned. This is essential in order for S.D. & Core to provide the services required to fulfill and meet the mission and goals of our Service.

Def.'s Ex. E at 11.

In an exchange of memos and e-mails, Benton challenged Kachman's decision, noting that she had worked from home without incident after her shoulder surgery. Kachman replied that Benton was "not required to perform some of the essential functions of your position" during her work-from-home period. Id. at 26, 29-31. Kachman provided a list of five job functions that he said required Benton's presence in the office. These included testing multiple configurations of machines, having "reliable network connectivity and a constant connection" for specific tasks, scanning machines on the VA network that were not accessible via virtual private network (VPN), working with staff on site in the Maywood facility, and having "[a]ccess to a multitude of equipment" with "the space, power, and network connectivity for each of those devices." Id. at 30-31. Kachman said later during his deposition that the ability of an employee in Benton's position to test machines is difficult when the employee is not directly on the network, and that it is important to be able to test solutions on a variety of equipment on site and to act quickly in doing so.

In a response to Kachman's memo, Benton did not dispute the existence of any of the duties Kachman mentioned or his statement that they could not be performed adequately from home. Instead, she argued that Kachman did not comprehend her disability, disputed that she had a pattern of absences, and stated that she was "able to do my job 100%." Id. at 36-38. She also said, "I understand that [Kachman] is saying that my job is not qualified to be a work from home job, " and, "I want to reiterate that I understand that my job does not qualify as a work from home job." Id.

Kachman did offer Benton some accommodations. In response to Benton's request for a private office at the Maywood facility, Kachman pointed to the office's compliance with health and safety standards and instead offered her a parking spot close to the building. Benton rejected this offer, stating that "all of my coworkers will notice that I'm parking in front and will ask me why." Id. at 38. Soon after that exchange, Kachman permitted Benton to forego a planned change in her hours to conform with those of other team members so that she would be able to submit blood to a testing lab before she came into work. On the other hand, Benton also resubmitted her work-from-home request, this time asking to do so two or three times a week or on an as-needed basis. Kachman denied this request.

In subsequent weeks and months, Benton and Kachman had several e-mail exchanges regarding Benton's performance, duties, and attendance at work. Topics included team conference calls Benton was required to join, her progress on various assignments, and her knowledge related to various tasks she was required to perform and "milestones" she was required to achieve. In another e-mail exchange, a coworker praised Benton for her contribution on a project, and Kachman responded by asking the coworker what Benton had done. Kachman's response was arguably worded in a way that suggested he doubted that Benton had actually contributed anything. The coworker responded with specifics, and Kachman did not respond.

During this time, in the first half of 2010, Kachman had taken notice of various work tasks that Benton was not completing, including "very basic tasks; building servers, manipulating group policies, and active directories." Def.'s Ex. B at 34. When Benton would have these issues, Kachman would tell her "that she needed to work on these problems herself rather than going to other employees." Id. at 35. In April 2010, three months after denying Benton's request to work from home, Kachman sent Benton a memo entitled "Warning Notice of Unacceptable Performance/Opportunity to Improve." Def.'s Ex. I. The memo informed Benton that her performance "since early Nov 2009" had been "unacceptable" in three "critical elements" of her position. Id. at 1. Kachman noted multiple incidents in which Benton had performed poorly, such as failing to meet requirements in lab testing, failing to complete tasks without assistance, demonstrating lack of knowledge on specific projects, and including errors in submitted projects. The memo informed Benton she would be placed on a ninety-day plan to improve performance. The next month, Kachman sent Benton an e-mail asking about ...


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