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Lillian v. National Railroad Passenger Corp.

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

May 3, 2017



          Milton I. Shadur Senior United States District Judge

         Narcissus Lillian ("Lillian") has brought this action against his former employer, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation ("Amtrak"), charging it with violations of federal law for actions that culminated in its terminating Lillian's employment on June 6, 2014.[1] Lillian claims that Amtrak is liable (1) under the Safety Act for retaliation after he reported a safety violation to his supervisors (Count III) and (2) under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") for both discrimination (Count I) and retaliation against him after he complained of that discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") (Count II). Each side has now brought a Fed.R.Civ.P. ("Rule") 56 motion for summary judgment as to liability, with Amtrak seeking judgment on all counts and Lillian solely on Count III.[2]

         Factual Background

         On January 26, 2014 Amtrak assigned Lillian to clean railcar 39028 (L. St. ¶ 21). According to Lillian, he asked one of his supervisors (Lisa Simane ("Simane")) if the railcar was safe in light of its having been flagged for bedbug infestation (id. ¶ 22). After speaking with the head of the Mechanical Department and supervisor Monica Morris ("Morris"), Simane learned that the railcar had been fumigated at the previous station (AR. L St. ¶¶ 22-24). Based on that information, Simane then told that to Lillian, who entered the car and began working despite some hesitation (id. ¶ 24).

         Lillian asserts that after he had completed cleaning the first room in the car and moved on to the second room, he saw there what he believed to be bedbugs in a semi-circle moving on a mattress and made a report to his supervisor that he saw "moving black specks" (L. St. ¶ 25). Simane denies that Lillian said that the black specks were moving (AR. L. St. ¶¶ 25-27), although neither Simane nor Morris entered the car following Lillian's report to confirm or reject what led to his report (id. ¶¶ 33, 35). Lillian says he told Simane that he felt unsafe and therefore could not reenter the car (L. St. ¶ 27). But Simane claims Lillian gave no explanation, although she admitted that he said "I can't do it. I just can't do it." (AR. L. St. ¶ 27).

         After Lillian refused to reenter the train, Amtrak charged him with refusing a directive from his supervisors on January 26, 2014 (A. Add. St. ¶ 18). Amtrak (specifically Deputy General Manager of the Central Region Morrell Savoy ("Savoy")) then found Lillian guilty of that charge -- refusing a directive from a supervisor -- following his May 28 formal disciplinary hearing (id. ¶ 19). Amtrak's hearing officer also cited two prior terminations in Lillian's file as factors in his ultimate decision to terminate Lillian (id. ¶ 20).

         One month before the incident described above, Lillian reported to his supervisors Morris and Simane that he was bitten while cleaning a railcar (L St. ¶¶ 16-17). Although Amtrak admits that Lillian reported that he was bitten by bedbugs, it nonetheless denies the truth of his report (AR. L St. ¶ 17), citing a medical report in which a doctor noted "pruritic bumps scattered throughout the forearms, eventually involving the chest, abdomen, thighs, knees, lower legs, pulse, and hands" (id. Ex. A).[3] In that respect Lillian claims that Morris told him he could be reprimanded for failing to report the incident sooner (L St. ¶ 18). As a train attendant Lillian worked under guidelines requiring him to report any potential safety matter (including bedbugs) to a supervisor and to inspect and treat railcars containing signs of bedbug infestation appropriately (AR. L St. ¶ 7). Lillian claims (though Amtrak disputes) that once an employee reports signs of bedbugs or once a car has been flagged, management must notify someone from Amtrak's mechanical department who must then come to do the inspection (L St. ¶ 9). Railcars are then typically locked off, and the employees are told not to enter the car until the inspection is completed (id. ¶ 10, AR. L St. ¶ 8). Lillian points to his understanding of those guidelines as the reason for his non-compliance in the events leading to his Safety Act claim.

         As for Lillian's ADA claim, its history goes back even farther than his Safety Act claim. Lillian's initial job application stated that he has diabetes, a condition that limits what and when he can eat (L. Add. St. ¶ 4). In 1994 he requested an accommodation to have adequate time for meal breaks, which included eating meals no more than 4 or 5 hours apart (id.). Lillian informed his supervisor at the time, a Mr. Erford ("Erford"), about the importance of his meal schedule (id. ¶ 5). Erford told Lillian that an accommodation "may be grounds for disqualification" in his current position (id.). Following that conversation Lillian submitted a written complaint (id.).

         In 2001 Amtrak set up a central body (the "ADA Panel") that evaluates requests for accommodations (A. St. ¶ 15). In September 2003 Lillian submitted a statement of disability to that ADA Panel together with a doctor's note stating that he must have control over "the times he eats" (L. Add. St. ¶ 6). On November 24, 2003 the ADA Panel gave him an accommodation that allowed for food and beverage accommodation sufficient to meet his dietary needs (A. St. ¶ 19).

         Still unhappy with his treatment, Lillian sent the ADA Panel an accommodation request on October 12, 2007 together with a letter from his physician calling for a formal accommodation that would allow him to take breaks whenever he needed them (L. Add. St. ¶ 8). Lillian's accommodation letter also sought an allowance for meals while working en route (A. St. ¶ 20). On December 18, 2007 Amtrak's ADA Panel granted Lillian an accommodation that allowed two entrees per meal from Amtrak's meal service, but the accommodation did not allow him to take his meals at any time he deemed necessary (id. ¶ 21).

         By 2011 Lillian had two new supervisors, Jonathan Lombardi ("Lombardi") and Natalie Berry ("Berry"). Lillian claims that he informed them he had diabetes before May 2012, so that they understood his need for lunch breaks (L. Add. St. ¶ 16). He also claims that Lombardi told him that if he needed a 15-minute snack break due to his medical condition, it would "not be a problem" (id. ¶ 15). Amtrak denies that any conversations between Lillian and his supervisors were for the purpose of seeking an accommodation (AR. L. Add. St. ¶ 16).

         Lillian asserts that on both May 30 and June 30, 2012 he went 5 hours between meals and took a short break to eat (L. Add. St. ¶ 17). Amtrak claims that on those two dates Lillian took lunch before completing his duties, and when he was asked to return to his duties he refused (A. St. ¶ 30). Following the June 30 incident Morris signed a notice of formal investigation against Lillian (L. Add. St. ¶ 22). On July 19, 2012 the formal investigation charged Lillian with violating three provisions of Amtrak's standards of excellence:

(1) the Attending to Duties standard, (2) the Professional and Personal Conduct (Teamwork) standard, and (3) the Professional and Personal Conduct (Conduct) standard. Specifically, the charge accused Lillian of (1) not finishing his work assignment when he left Train 21 without completing the dorm car set up on May 30, 2012; (2) not conducting himself professionally when managers made him aware that he needed to return to the train to complete the dorm car set-up, and (3) taking lunch on June 30, 2012 without first completing his duties on Train 21.

(A. St. ¶ 46). Following a formal hearing in November 2012, Amtrak's hearing board issued Lillian a deferred suspension (id. ¶ 54).

         Lillian requested another accommodation around that same time (L. Add. St. ¶ 25), asking "to be allowed to take time to maintain [and] control my diebetic [sic] needs as prescribed by my Doctor" (A. St. ¶ 25). In support of the request Lillian submitted a letter from his doctor stating that his diabetic condition "require[s] him to eat on a regular schedule" and that it "is important that he have a meal between 11-1pm daily" (id.). On January 24, 2013 Amtrak granted an accommodation of two 5 to 10 minute breaks during each shift as needed (L. Add. St. ¶ 25). Lillian asserts that throughout that time his managers continued to threaten that he would lose his job when he mentioned his need to eat for medical reasons (id. ¶ 27). In March 2013 Lillian requested that Amtrak amend his accommodation to receive a break of up to 30 minutes and up to two 5 to 10 minute breaks (id. ¶ 26). That request was approved on April 23, 2013 (id.).

         Amidst all of the issues as to meeting his diabetic needs, Lillian filed charges with EEOC asserting disability-based discrimination in December 2012 (A. St. ¶ 76). He also continued to make internal complaints of disability discrimination to Amtrak regarding the refusal of his supervisors and managers to grant his request for the accommodation (id. ¶ 78). On January 14, 2014 EEOC issued Lillian a right to sue letter (L. Mem. 13). Lillian had complained of an October 2013 incident in the filing in which he requested a lunch break from his supervisor, who then responded, "How are we supposed to get work done if you eat lunch?" (L. Add. St. ¶ ...

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