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Martinez v. Airlines

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

January 18, 2017

JOHN MARTINEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
AMERICAN AIRLINES, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MATTHEW F. KENNELLY, District Judge

         John Martinez has sued American Airlines under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for discrimination, failure to accommodate, and retaliation. American has moved for summary judgment on all of Martinez's claims. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants American's motion.

         Background

         Martinez began working for American as an aviation maintenance technician (AMT) in 1985. AMTs are responsible for assembling, repairing, and installing airplane parts. They must be able to move ladders and scaffolding, to tow airplanes, and to work up to eighty feet above the ground. They also must be able to lift and lower 68 pounds from below knee height to shoulder height approximately once per day. They must be able to lift 27 pounds above shoulder height while standing approximately once per week. AMTs must also be able to push and pull 90 pounds of force at waist height approximately twice per week.

         By January 2010, Martinez was earning $36.75 per hour as an AMT. That month, Martinez suffered serious injuries in a work accident, which put him in the hospital for multiple weeks and resulted in more than a dozen surgeries. He shattered his right femur, fractured both his right ankle and his left knee, suffered cartilage damage to both shoulders, and received four damaged disks in his back. Because of his extensive injuries, Martinez took a medical leave of absence from his AMT position at American, during which he was bedridden for more than a year and continued to have surgeries to attempt to repair the damage.

         As an AMT, Martinez was a member of the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO. His employment with American was governed by a collective bargaining agreement between American and the union. In September 2012, American and the union entered into an agreement to help American reduce its overall workforce. The agreement established the "early out incentive allowance, " which provided an additional severance package for eligible employees who chose to leave the company. American mailed information about this program to its employees along with instructions on how to participate in the program. The notice stated that employees wishing to opt into the program had to notify American between September 4 and September 25, 2012. Martinez alleges that he never received this notice and did not learn about the program until late 2013, while he was still on medical leave. In October 2013, Martinez's counsel attempted to speak with someone from American to determine whether Martinez could participate in the program. American ultimately denied Martinez's request to participate, indicating that the window to sign up had closed.

         In March 2014, Martinez filed a charge of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in which he alleged that American discriminated against him on the basis of his disability when it denied his request to participate in the early out program. In May 2014, Martinez also filed a separate lawsuit in the Northern District of Illinois, alleging that the denial constituted a breach of the collective bargaining agreement. In October 2014, Judge Leinenweber dismissed the lawsuit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Martinez then requested arbitration of the breach of contract claim.

         By August 2014, Martinez had been on medical leave for four years and six months. American's leave policies state that medical leave shall last for no longer than five years. In August 2014, someone in American's human resources department sent Martinez a letter informing him that his medical leave would expire on February 13, 2015. The letter also indicated that if Martinez believed that he was a qualified individual with a disability, he should contact his manager to discuss possible accommodations to return to work. Around December 2014, Martinez provided American with doctors' certifications indicating that he could return to work only in a limited capacity. Specifically, Martinez's orthopedic surgeon indicated that he (1) could not lift or carry more than five pounds; (2) could not push or pull more than five pounds; (3) could not do any work using his right leg; (4) could not climb any ladders, stairs, or ramps; (5) could not do any overhead work; and (6) was restricted to sedentary work only. Two additional doctors confirmed that Martinez could return to work but was limited to sedentary work only.

         After receiving these certifications, Sara Baldonado-an American employee in the human resources department-wrote to Martinez in February 2015 instructing him to contact her if he would like to discuss possible accommodations based on his medical restrictions. Martinez and Baldonado first spoke on February 9, 2015, and the two had multiple conversations over the next four months regarding possible disability accommodations. Martinez alleges that during this time, Baldonado was largely unresponsive to his requests for information. He wrote Baldonado a number of letters during this period, detailing how he had left her messages and had not heard back. Baldonado states that during this period, she was searching for vacant positions that matched both Martinez's restrictions and his qualifications and that she and Martinez spoke at least four times regarding accommodations.

         Both parties agree that, over the course of their conversations, Baldonado informed Martinez of two vacant positions that might accommodate his disability. One position was for a reservations agent in Phoenix, and one was for a concierge position in Chicago. The pay for the position in Phoenix was $10.21 per hour. American contends that Baldonado offered both of these positions to Martinez and that he turned them down. Martinez contends that Baldonado never offered him the positions but merely informed him that the positions might be available and told him that she would let him know. In his letters, Martinez requested details in writing of both positions and a formal offer. Both parties agree that American never sent this information. Baldonado says that this is because she discussed the details with Martinez over the phone instead.

         American contends that Baldonado continued to search for other vacant positions within the company that would meet Martinez's restrictions but did not find any for which he was qualified and that would not have constituted a promotion from his prior position of AMT. Martinez alleges that there were additional positions that fit these criteria that American could have offered to him, and that Evita Rodriguez, the managing director of American's aircraft maintenance division, admitted that these positions existed. Martinez also says that he requested a transfer to certain positions that he located on American's website, but American refused.

         American contends that during this time period, Martinez had full access to the company's public website to look for vacant positions himself. Martinez denies that he had complete access. Specifically, Martinez says that Baldonado told him to look for vacant positions on American's public website as well as its internal site known as JetNet. Martinez contends that he was unable to access JetNet and, when he contacted American, was told that only current employees could access the site. Further, Martinez alleges that his limited knowledge of the jobs posted on the public website hindered his efforts to search for other positions. He says that he should have been offered a job in the positions of crew chief, AMT supervisor, ramp tower controller, or staff support.

         On June 19 2015, American terminated Martinez's employment, citing the fact that he had been on medical leave for more than five years, had refused the two positions American says it offered him, and had failed to identify any other reasonable accommodations. In August 2015, Martinez filed the present suit. He alleges that American discriminated against him by failing to notify him about the early out program and then denying his request to participate and by failing to reasonably accommodate his disability. Martinez also alleges that, in response to his first charge of discrimination, American retaliated by failing to perform an adequate search for reasonable accommodations and ultimately by terminating his employment. These claims were the subject of a second charge of discrimination that Martinez filed with the EEOC in November 2015; they were added to this suit by way of an amended complaint filed in March 2016.

         Discussion

         American has moved for summary judgment. It first argues that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over Martinez's disability discrimination claim regarding the early out program. American also argues, in the alternative, that Martinez cannot prevail on the merits of this claim. American next argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on Martinez's failure to accommodate claim because he has not shown that there were other reasonable accommodations that the company failed to offer. Finally, American argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on Martinez's retaliation claim because he cannot establish a prima facie case and cannot prove that its proffered reason for its conduct is pretextual.

         Summary judgment is appropriate only when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Dunderdale v. United Airlines, Inc., 807 F.3d 849, 853 (7th Cir. 2015). The Court examines the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, "resolving all evidentiary conflicts in [his] favor and according [him] the benefit of all ...


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