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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. St. Alexius Medical Center

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

October 6, 2014



GARY FEINERMAN, District Judge.

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") filed this suit Aagainst St. Alexius Medical Center, alleging that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., by failing to accommodate Charging Party Joy Watanuki's disability and also by terminating her from her greeter position because of her disability. Doc. 1. Trial is set for December 1, 2014. Doc. 188. St. Alexius has moved for summary judgment. Doc. 189. The motion is denied.


The following facts are stated as favorably to the EEOC, the non-movant, as the record and Local Rule 56.1 allow. See Hanners v. Trent, 674 F.3d 683, 691 (7th Cir. 2012). In considering St. Alexius's summary judgment motion, the court must assume the truth of those facts but does not vouch for them. See Smith v. Bray, 681 F.3d 888, 892 (7th Cir. 2012).

Watanuki suffers from moyamoya disease, a progressive cerebrovascular disorder that affects her neurological functions and limits her learning and thinking. Doc. 199 at ¶ 2. In November 2007, as part of an evaluation conducted at the request of the Illinois Department of Human Services ("IDHS"), Dr. Randy Georgemiller found that Watanuki "showed difficulty with sustained attention and inhibition" and that "her cognitive and physical problems [were] causing marked psychological distress and interfering with her everyday functioning." Id. at ¶ 23. At the same time, Dr. Georgemiller concluded that Watanuki had "average to high average" memory skills and "high average" intelligence, that her multi-tasking was "acceptable, " and that she was "capable of competitive employment." Doc. 214 at ¶¶ 13-16. Based on Dr. Georgemiller's evaluation, IDHS concluded that Watanuki was capable of competitive employment and that an accommodation would allow her to fully function. Doc. 199 at ¶ 24; Doc. 214 at ¶ 10.

In February 2009, in conjunction with Watanuki's application for Social Security Disability Income ("SSDI") benefits, Dr. H.G. Frank, Watanuki's neurologist, made several certifications to RiverSource Life Insurance Company. Doc. 199 at ¶ 8. He certified that Watanuki was not "able to work, " was "unable to do any type of employment where short term memory is needed, " and would "never" recover sufficiently to perform her job duties, and also that her usual job could not be modified so that she could perform with her impairment. Ibid. Dr. Frank made similar representations to RiverSource in January and July 2010, indicating that Watanuki's cognitive limitations prevented her from working and that no alteration in her employment could accommodate for her limitations. Id. at ¶¶ 9-10. Notwithstanding his representations to RiverSource, Dr. Frank testified at his deposition in this case that Watanuki was capable of working for the right employer with the right training. Doc. 214 at ¶¶ 24, 27.

In July 2008 and January 2009, in conjunction with Watanuki's SSDI application, Dr. Arthur Skladman, her internist, certified that she had poor memory, difficulty thinking or concentrating, mood disturbances, time or place orientation, oddities of thought, perception, speech, or behavior, and obsessions or compulsions. Doc. 199 at ¶¶ 14, 17. Dr. Skladman also certified that Watanuki had "[n]o useful ability to function" in several categories, including the ability to "[r]emember work-like procedures, " to "[m]aintain attention for two-hour segment[s], " and to "[d]eal with normal work stress." Id. at ¶¶ 15, 18. Like Dr. Frank, however, Dr. Skladman expressed a more favorable view of Watanuki's abilities at his deposition in this case, testifying that she could have performed as a greeter. Doc. 214 at ¶ 29.

In her SSDI application, which she filed because she could no longer work as a nurse, id. at ¶ 34, Watanuki represented that she follows written instructions "poorly, " "can't remember" oral instructions, and can pay attention only for "2-5 minutes." Doc. 199 at ¶ 27. Watanuki also represented that she was "a special needs learner [that] need[s] more training and orientation in the beginning." Doc. 214 at ¶ 36. In 2009, the SSA determined that Watanuki had the residual capacity to work part-time but not as a nurse, and concluded that she could not engage in substantial gainful employment as defined by the Social Security Act. Doc. 199 at ¶ 28; Doc. 214 at ¶ 35. After being awarded SSDI benefits, Watanuki preferred jobs where she would earn less than $980 per month in 2009 and $1, 000 per month in 2010, as she could earn less than those thresholds and still retain her SSDI benefits. Doc. 214 at ¶ 67.

In August 2009, St. Alexius's Director of Volunteers and Guest Relations, Monica Eorgoff, hired Watanuki as a part-time greeter. Doc. 199 at ¶ 32. The position had "day surgery" and "lobby" components. Characterized as "stressful, " the "day surgery" component required the greeter to direct patients and guests and to interact with physicians and nursing staff. Id. at ¶ 33. Rick Panunzio, who trained Watanuki in day surgery, observed that she was "flustered" and had "difficulty grasping the most simple aspects of the job, " and he believed that further training would not improve her performance. Id. at ¶¶ 34-36. The "lobby component" of the greeter position required answering inquiries, directing foot traffic, ensuring that volunteers were appropriately staffed, and calling codes during emergencies. Id. at ¶ 37. Eorgoff observed that Watanuki "fr[oze] like a deer in headlights, " and determined that she required additional training. Id. at ¶¶ 40-41.

Other employees thought that Watanuki performed adequately. Marianne Nyberg, who trained Watanuki in the lobby component, thought that she understood her roles and performed them correctly. Doc. 214 at ¶¶ 37-38. Watanuki's supervisor at Alexian Brothers Medical Center, where Watanuki previously worked as a volunteer greeter with similar responsibilities, thought that Watanuki performed very well. Id. at ¶ 44.

In a November 2009 phone call, Watanuki's vocational counselor, Lisa Hendrickson, told Eorgoff about Watanuki's disability, asked for permission to shadow Watanuki, requested that St. Alexius provide Watanuki with written instructions regarding her responsibilities, and inquired if St. Alexius had other positions to which Watanuki could transfer. Id. at ¶¶ 47, 49. Eorgoff told Hendrickson that she felt "tricked" because she did not know Watanuki was disabled when she hired her. Id. at ¶ 3. Eorgoff also promised to provide Watanuki with written instructions. Doc. 199 at ¶ 51. However, Eorgoff provided Watanuki with specific written instructions on only one occasion; on that occasion, Watanuki failed to complete the task and could not explain her failure. Id. at ¶¶ 43-44.

Hendrickson and Watanuki asked St. Alexius if it could reduce her eight-hour-a-day schedule, which left her fatigued. Doc. 214 at ¶ 1. On November 1, 2009, Watanuki emailed Eorgoff asking whether any half-time jobs were available, but days later withdrew her request because she wanted to remain a greeter and thought that things would improve. Doc. 199 at ¶¶ 54-56. Although Watanuki withdrew that request, she never indicated an unwillingness to consider transferring to another position. Doc. 214 at ¶ 4. No one at St. Alexius considered whether there were possible accommodations that would have allowed Watanuki to continue working or whether there were other positions appropriate for her. Id. at ¶¶ 7-8.

On February 1, 2010, Eorgoff gave Watanuki a six-month performance review and terminated her. Doc. 199 at ¶ 59. The review indicated that Watanuki failed to meet standards in several categories essential to the greeter position. Id. at ¶ 60. At the time, St. Alexius had several open positions, including a Food Services Technician I position. Id. at ¶ 70; Doc. 214 at ¶¶ 55-56.

After leaving St. Alexius, Watanuki certified to the SSA that she had stopped working because she "could not sustain the level of work" required by the greeter position and that the job was "too difficult for [her], " "the number of hours were too high, " and "[her] cognitive functioning declined." Doc. 199 at ¶ 67. Watanuki has since worked as a cashier at the Christian Shop for just under two years and then as a Food Service Clerk at a Mariano's Fresh Market, a position that requires her to "give out free food" at the direction of her supervisors. Id. at ¶¶ 68-69; Doc. 214 at ¶ 45. At Mariano's, Watanuki also is responsible for food ...

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