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Barfield v. Donahoe

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

September 17, 2014

TRINETTE BARFIELD, Plaintiff,
v.
PATRICK DONAHOE, Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DANIEL G. MARTIN, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Trinette Barfield ("Plaintiff" or "Barfield") has brought this action against Defendant Patrick Donahoe ("Defendant"), the Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service, for employment practices that she claims violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 791 et seq. The case was initially assigned to District Judge Ruben Castillo. The parties then consented to proceed before this Court for all purposes, including an entry of final judgment. On June 10, 2014, Defendant brought the instant Motion for Summary Judgment. Having carefully reviewed the parties' arguments, the Court finds that the motion [25] is granted in part and denied in part for the reasons discussed below.

Background

Prior to her removal in 2012, Trinette Barfield worked as a mail processor for the United States Postal Service at the Carol Stream (Illinois) Processing and Distribution Center. Her job included starting and stopping machines, culling non-processable items, and sweeping the mail from various bins. Barfield concedes that she was subjected to several disciplinary actions related to her work attendance. These include a September 2010 warning letter, and two subsequent multi-day suspensions.[1]

Starting on September 9, 2011, Barfield stopped coming to work at all. She claimed that she was incapacitated. In support, Barfield submitted a series of medical notes from Dr. B. Madoori dated September 9, September 20, October 21, November 4, and December 6, 2011. Each stated that Barfield was "totally incapacitated" and could not work prior to a date stated in each of the medical slips. (Def.'s Ex. 5). The last of the notes indicated that Plaintiff could not return to work before December 15, 2011. None of Dr. Madoori's statements indicated what the basis for the disability was.

On December 23, 2011, supervisor Leroy Patterson issued a Letter of Intent to Barfield. The letter noted that Plaintiff had not submitted anything supporting her alleged inability to work from December 15, 2011 to the date of the letter's issuance. Patterson informed Barfield that she was therefore absent without official leave ("AWOL"), and was required to deliver acceptable medical documentation within five days. A pre-disciplinary interview was scheduled for January 6, 2012. Patterson further told Barfield that disciplinary actions could include removal from her position. The removal would become effective on February 18, 2012, as provisions under Barfield's collective bargaining agreement required that she remain on the payroll pending any grievance process that might ensue.[2]

Barfield did not attend the disciplinary interview. Instead, she submitted a disability certificate from Dr. Madoori dated January 3, 2012, stating once again that she was "totally incapacitated" and unable to work from December 15, 2011 through January 10, 2012. For the first time, Dr. Madoori identified the sources of her disability as anxiety, depression, and hypertension. The certificate also affirmatively stated for the first time that Plaintiff would be able to return to work on a specific date - January 10, 2012. (Def.'s Ex. 5). The certificate was delivered on January 15, one week after the scheduled disciplinary interview, and over two weeks after Patterson's due date of December 28, 2011. On January 24, however, Dr. Madoori revised his opinion and stated that Barfield could return to work without any restrictions on January 25. He changed his mind again on January 27, stating that she could resume unrestricted work on January 30. Undeterred by these multiple revisions, Dr. Madoori issued one final disability certificate on February 1 that declared that Plaintiff would be able to return to work on February 13, 2012.

By that point, Defendant had already issued a removal letter to Barfield on January 17, 2012. (Def.'s Ex. 6). The letter charged her with being AWOL and failing to provide medical documentation in accordance with the Postal Rules and Regulations. The AWOL period included 72 hours starting on December 16 through December 27, 2011, and 56 hours from December 30, 2011 through January 8, 2012. The letter also noted that, as of January 10, Barfield had not provided any medical excuse for her last period of absence. Barfield subsequently filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). After receiving her right to sue letter, she initiated this action against Defendant.

Legal Standard

Summary judgment is warranted if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). Such a fact issue exists only where a rational trier of fact could find for the nonmoving party. Id. at 324. The evidence, together with all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from it, must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Miller v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., 203 F.3d 997, 1003 (7th Cir. 2000).

The nonmoving party cannot overcome a summary judgment motion by relying on unsubstantiated facts or by resting on its pleadings. See Hemsworth v. Quotesmith.Com, Inc., 476 F.3d 487, 490 (7th Cir. 2007). Instead, the party that bears the burden of proof on an issue must demonstrate by means of admissible evidence that a genuine issue of material fact exists on a particular issue that requires a trial. Id. A court neither weighs conflicting evidence nor resolves factual disputes in deciding whether summary judgment is appropriate. Miranda v. Wisconsin Power & Light Co., 91 F.3d 1011, 1014 (7th Cir. 1996).

Discussion

The Rehabilitation Act obligates all recipients of federal funds to accommodate employees with disabilities. 29 U.S.C. § 791(b); Mannie v. Potter, 394 F.3d 977, 982 (7th Cir. 2005). Courts look to the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., to determine if the Rehabilitation Act has been violated. The ADA provides two categories of claims - failure to accommodate and disparate treatment. Basith v. Cook County, 241 F.3d 919, 926-28 (7th Cir. 2001). A different analytic framework applies to each type of claim. A disparate treatment allegation is subject to direct evidence or, barring its availability, to the familiar burden-shifting analysis of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 U.S. (1973).

This standard does not apply to an accommodation claim. Lenker v. Methodist Hosp., 210 F.3d 792, 799 (7th Cir. 2000) (stating that "the burden-shifting method of proof is both unnecessary and inappropriate" for reasonable accommodation claims). A plaintiff alleging that she was denied reasonable accommodation must show that (1) she is a "qualified person" with a disability, (2) the defendant was aware of the disability, and (3) the defendant failed to provide a reasonable accommodation. Gratzl v. Off. of the Chief Judges of 12 th , 18 th , 19 th , and 22 th Judicial Circuits, 601 F.3d 674, 678 (7th Cir. 2010) (internal quotes and citation omitted). The Act does not prevent an ...


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