Snider v. United States Steel -Fairfield Works Medical Department
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Abdul K Kallon on 6/10/2014. (PSM)
2014 Jun-10 PM 02:21
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
DAVID N. SNIDER,
UNITED STATES STEELFAIRFIELD WORKS MEDICAL
Case No.: 2:12-cv-3508-AKK
David M. Snider filed this lawsuit against his employer United States SteelFairfield Works Medical Department (“U.S. Steel”) alleging that U.S. Steel
discriminated against him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of
1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (“ADA”), when it placed Snider on medical leave
in response to an alleged threat Snider made against co-workers. Before the court
is U.S. Steel’s motion for summary judgment, which is briefed and ripe for
resolution. Docs. 31, 33, 34, 38, 38. For the reasons stated below, the motion is
due to be granted.
I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD OF REVIEW
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is proper
“if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits
show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). “Rule 56(c)
mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and
upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the
existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will
bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322
(1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a
genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving
party, who is required to “go beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a
“genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable
jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The court must construe the evidence and all
reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the non-moving
party. Id. However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are
legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432
F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v.
Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)).
II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
U.S. Steel hired Snider as an electrical maintenance technician in 1988.
Doc. 34-1 at 9. At the time relevant to this lawsuit, Snider worked in the hot
finishing plant where he performed trouble shooting and other electrical jobs that
“ma[d]e th[e] mill produce pipe.” Id. at 9-10. This case arises out of U.S. Steel’s
response to events that occurred between Snider and employees in the “Bull
Gang,” who “work[ ] the whole plant” doing “little jobs” like working on cranes,
and putting up signs and railroad signals. Id. at 12.
A. The incident involving Snider and the Bull Gang
In April 2010, Snider discovered that the Bull Gang had removed the caution
tape on a crane they repaired in the hot finishing plant. Doc. 34-1 at 11. Snider
decided to challenge the decision because the crane purportedly appeared unstable
and presented a safety hazard. Id. Consequently, the next day, Snider drove to the
Bull Gang to confront Joel Moore and others about removing the caution tape. Id.
at 13. Snider alleges that he entered the Bull Gang’s office and asked in a loud
(because he was wearing earplugs) but non-threatening tone why they removed the
caution tape. Id. at 12, 13, 14. According to Snider, when Moore showed no
regard for Snider’s safety concerns and responded instead that the Bull Gang was
“going to kick [Snider’s] ass,” Snider replied something to the effect that “it’s a
good day [for me] to die” or “I guess it’s a good day [for me] to die.” Id. at 16.
B. U.S. Steel investigates and disqualifies Snider for work
U.S. Steel’s investigation revealed that Snider confronted the Bull Gang
members in an aggressive and angry tone, stated that “today is a good day for
someone to die,” and slammed the door when he exited the shop with enough force
to shake the walls. Doc. 34-7 at 3. Further, U.S. Steel alleges that Snider also
confronted the Bull Gang members in the bath house the following day. Id.; doc.
34-1 at 15. As a result, later in the week, Snider’s area manager, a labor relations
member, and Snider’s Union grievance chairman met with Snider and questioned
him about the exchange. Doc. 34-1 at 16; 34-7 at 3-4. Although Snider denied
making the threats, doc. 34-1 at 17, nonetheless, based on concerns about Snider’s
conduct, U.S. Steel instructed Snider two days after the meeting to report to the
plant’s medical director Dr. Cheryl Szabo, id.; doc. 34-8 at 6. Dr. Szabo in turn
conducted a fitness for duty examination and noted that Snider “did not understand
why he was here,” was initially “angry and confrontational,” displayed sadness
regarding his mother-in-law’s illness, had “personality disorder with some
component of paranoia and aggressiveness,” and was “angry” upon learning that
Dr. Szabo intended to refer him to the Employee Assistance Program (“EAP”).
Doc. 34-10 at 19. Based on Dr. Szabo’s evaluation, U.S. Steel temporarily
disqualified Snider from work under medical code three 1 until he completed the
EAP and anger management training. Doc. 34-7 at 4.
Allegedly, Snider chose to be non-compliant with the recommendation for
EAP. For example, although Snider reported for his initial appointment, he did not
receive an evaluation because he refused to sign the waiver and Health Insurance
Portability and Accountability Act forms. Doc. 34-1 at 20, 21. Snider also refused
treatment arranged by his Union representative with Licensed Practical Counselor
Tony Martin at Grayson & Associates because Martin was not a psychiatrist. Doc.
34-1 at 21-22; see doc. 34-11 at 19. Ultimately, Snider withdrew from U.S. Steel’s
EAP and sought treatment instead through his own selected healthcare providers,
beginning with Dr. Leesha Ellis-Cox at Alabama Psychiatric Services. Doc. 34-1
Dr. Ellis-Cox informed U.S. Steel on May 24, 2010 that she evaluated
Snider “secondary to an outburst on the job,” opined that the initial evaluation and
testing “provided no evidence of any pathology that would prohibit [ ] Snider
returning safely to his duties,” and released Snider “to return to work without
restriction immediately.” Doc. 34-5 at 23. After reviewing Dr. Ellis-Cox’s report,
Dr. Szabo contacted Dr. Ellis-Cox and learned that Snider had not informed Dr.
Medical three is a “physical rating” that “means [Snider was] temporarily disqualified from
work.” Doc. 34-8 at 23.
Ellis-Cox of the incident with the Bull Gang. Doc. 34-8 at 9-10. As a result, Dr.
Szabo faxed Dr. Ellis-Cox a portion of Snider’s medical and employment records
documenting the incident and other minor infractions. Doc. 34-8 at 9, 12-13; see
id. at 11. Thereafter, because Dr. Szabo’s evaluation “indicate[d] the possibility of
paranoid, obsessive compulsive, and histrionic personality traits,” Dr. Ellis-Cox
referred Snider to therapy and anger management to “be assured that [ ] Snider can
return to work fully functioning without concern for the safety and well being of
everyone involved.” Docs. 34-2 at 13; 34-5 at 24; 35-8 at 38.
Initially, Dr. Ellis-Cox and Licensed Practical Counselor Wesley Wilkes at
Alabama Psychiatric Services treated Snider through counseling sessions. Doc.
34-2 at 17-18; 34-8 at 18. However, after several sessions Snider refused any
further treatment because he disagreed with their opinions. Doc. 34-2 at 17-18.
Snider then enrolled in and completed a six-week anger management program with
Impact Family Counseling. Id.; 38-2 at 29; 34-10 at 14.
In July 2010, Snider met with U.S. Steel and his Union representative to
attempt to negotiate his return to work. Unfortunately, the meeting proved
unsuccessful because Snider refused to sign a memorandum of understanding that
described his conduct with the Bull Gang as “unacceptable” and as proof that he
was “unfit for work,” and required that he continue treatment with his healthcare
providers. Doc. 34-6 at 1. Allegedly, the following month, Snider visited U.S.
Steel’s medical center to obtain copies of his medical records and exhibited
“threatening behavior” that caused the receptionist to call security. Doc. 34-7 at 5.
Snider denies that he was disruptive. Doc. 34-2 at 14.
The parties met next to discuss Snider’s return in December. This meeting
occurred after Dr. Ellis-Cox opined in October that continuing treatment had “little
utility” because Snider was “minimally motivated to actively engage in the
treatment process,” and released Snider to return to work. Docs. 34-8 at 39-40; 3410 at 21. Based on Dr. Ellis-Cox’s opinion, Dr. Szabo informed Labor Relations
that “medical was done.” Doc. 34-8 at 20. Unfortunately, the December meeting
proved unsuccessful. Doc. 34-7 at 5, 10-12. In January, however, the parties
reached an agreement and U.S. Steel returned Snider to work, without restrictions,
on the condition that he “be held solely responsible for his own personal conduct.”
Doc. 34-6 at 2. Dr. Szabo subsequently administered a return-to-work examination
and removed the medical three rating. Doc. 34-8 at 23. Snider returned to the
same position on February 6, 2011 at the same rate of pay. Doc. 34-1 at 10-11.
C. Snider’s Sickness and Accident Benefits
Snider maintains that U.S. Steel unjustifiably placed him on medical leave
and forced him to apply for sickness and accident benefits in May 2010 based on a
disability onset date of April 21, 2010. Docs. 34-2 at 12; 34-11 at 11. In addition
to the application in May, Snider also submitted applications for sickness and
accident benefits in August, September, and October 2010. Doc. 34-11 at 3, 5, 9.
In November, U.S. Steel notified Snider that it would suspend Snider’s benefits if
he failed to “submit a continuation form reflecting updated medical treatment by
December 4, 2010.” Doc. 34-13 at 11. Snider ignored the notice and, as a result,
U.S. Steel discontinued Snider’s benefits on October 12, 2010 and denied Snider’s
January 2011 claim on timeliness grounds and lack of proper documentation. Doc.
34-10 at 29; 34-11 at 2. Collectively, Snider received $19,321.57 in sickness and
accident benefits, doc. 34-13 at 3, which was significantly less than “his rate of pay
. . . [of] approximately $10,000 per month, including medical insurance and
benefits,” doc. 38-2 at 2.
Snider contends that U.S. Steel discriminated against him by placing him on
medical leave and requiring him to undergo treatment, refusing to timely return
him to work, and forcing him to apply for sickness and accident benefits. Doc. 1.
The purpose of the ADA is to “eliminat[e] . . . discrimination against individuals
with disabilities.” 42 U.S.C. § 12101(b)(1). “‘[I]n this Circuit, the burden-shifting
analysis of Title VII employment discrimination claims is applicable to ADA
claims.’” Dulaney v. Miami-Dade Cnty., 481 F. App’x 486, 489 (11th Cir. 2012)
(quoting Holly v. Clairson Indus., LLC, 492 F.3d 1247, 1255 (11th Cir. 2007)).
“Under this burden-shifting analysis, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie
case of discrimination under the ADA by showing (1) he is disabled, (2) he is a
qualified individual, and (3) he was subjected to unlawful discrimination because
of his disability.” Id. (citing Holly, 492 F.3d at 1255–56).
U.S. Steel contends that Snider’s prima facie case fails because Snider: 1) is
not disabled, 2) was not qualified for the position during his medical leave, and 3)
did not suffer an adverse employment action. 2 Alternatively, U.S. Steel asserts that
it is due to prevail because it has non-discriminatory reasons for the actions at
issue. The court will discuss U.S. Steel’s contentions below.
A. Snider did not have a disability because he had a “transitory and minor”
impairment and was not a qualified individual with a disability
The ADA defines disability as “(A) a physical or mental impairment that
substantially limits one or more major life activities of [an] individual; (B) a record
of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment . . . .”
42 U.S.C. § 12102(1). Although Snider applied for sickness and disability
benefits, Snider maintains that he was not disabled and “should have never been
put out of the plant” because his “private doctor never said that [he] had any
The court is not convinced by U.S. Steel’s contention regarding the adverse employment action
because U.S. Steel did not pay Snider his regular salary while on medical leave. See Davis v.
Town of Lake Park, Fla., 245 F.3d 1232, 1240 (11th Cir. 2001) (adverse employment actions
include “tangible consequence[s]” such as loss of pay). However, the court does not need to
reach this issue because, as shown, infra in sections A. and B., Snider cannot establish the first
two prongs of his prima facie case.
psychological problems.” Doc. 34-2 at 12. Therefore, by Snider’s own contention,
he did not have a disability and is instead claiming that U.S. Steel regarded him as
disabled. To prove a “regarded as” disabled claim, Snider must “establish[ ] that
he . . . has been subjected to an action prohibited under . . . [the ADA] because of
an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment . . . .” 3 42 U.S.C. §
12102(3)(A). However, Snider cannot base a “regarded as” claim on “impairments
that are transitory and minor.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(3)(B). An impairment is
“transitory” if its “actual or expected duration [is] 6 months or less.” Id.
Snider cannot establish his regarded as claim because his impairment lasted
less than six months. Specifically, Dr. Ellis-Cox certified that it was “appropriate”
for Snider to return to work on October 1, 2010, i.e. less than six months after U.S.
Steel disqualified Snider on April 16, 2010. Docs. 34-8 at 7; 34-10 at 24. In fact,
Snider’s sickness and accident benefits terminated on October 12, 2010 because
Snider was no longer under the care of a healthcare professional and, consequently,
could not submit the required documentation needed to establish that he was
unable to work. Doc. 34-10 at 29. Although it took another three months to
Until recently, the ADA required a plaintiff alleging a ‘regarded as’ claim to prove that the
perceived impairment “substantially limited a major life activity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2) (2008),
amended by ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-325, 2008 Stat. 3406
(2008) (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101–12102). The ADAAA explicitly eliminated
the substantial limitation requirement for ‘regarded as’ claims. See 42 U.S.C. § 12102(3)(A)
(stating that an individual who is ‘regarded as’ disabled is considered disabled under the ADA,
“whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity”).
finalize Snider’s return to work, there is nothing in the record to suggest that the
delay was due to a continuing perceived disability. Therefore, the court finds that
Snider’s alleged impairment was “transitory and minor” and, as such, fails to
qualify as a disability.
Moreover, Snider was not a qualified individual with a disability because his
threat to co-workers rendered him unfit for duty and prevented him from seeking
the protection of the ADA. A “qualified individual” is an “individual with a
disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the
essential functions” of the job. 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8). “The [ADA] protects only
‘qualified’ employees, that is, employees qualified to do the job for which they
were hired; and threatening other employees disqualifies one.” Palmer v. Cir. Ct.
of Cook Cnty., 117 F.3d 351, 352 (7th Cir. 1997) (citations omitted); see also
Williams v. Motorola, Inc., 303 F.3d 1284, 1290 (11th Cir. 2002) (“An employee’s
ability to handle reasonably necessary stress and work reasonably well with others
[is an] essential function[ ] of any position.”); 42 U.S.C. § 12113(b). Snider
attacks the assertion that he is not a qualified individual by contending that he
never threatened his coworkers and that he simply confronted the Bull Gang
members for safety reasons. Docs. 34-1 at 12-14; 34-2 at 12. While normally the
court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-movant, the court
does not have to reach the issue of whether Snider in fact made the alleged threats.
Rather, the court must ascertain only whether U.S. Steel’s investigation revealed
that it had a “reasonable, objective concern about [Snider’s] mental state, which
affected job performance and potentially threatened the safety of its other
employees.” Owusu-Ansah v. Coca-Cola Co., 715 F.3d 1306, 1312 (11th Cir.
2013). Here, U.S. Steel had multiple reports from the Bull Gang members that
contradicted Snider’s account. As this Circuit has said previously, albeit in a
sexual harassment context, even if the court assumes “that the complaining
employees . . . were lying through their teeth[,] [t]he inquiry . . . is limited to
whether [U.S. Steel] believed that [Snider] was guilty . . ., and if so, whether this
belief was the reason behind” the employment action. Elrod v. Sears, Roebuck and
Co., 939 F.2d 1466, 1470 (11th Cir. 1991) (emphasis in original). U.S. Steel’s
decision to credit the reports of the Bull Gang employees is reasonable under the
circumstances and, in fact, was bolstered by Dr. Szabo’s opinion, which was
subsequently reaffirmed by Dr. Ellis-Cox, that Snider required treatment and anger
management before returning to duty. Therefore, on these facts, Snider has failed
to establish that he was able “to handle reasonably necessary stress and work
reasonably well with others . . . .” Williams, 303 F.3d at 1290. Indeed, the
representations Snider made on his sickness and accident benefit forms supports
U.S. Steel’s position on the qualification issue because Snider certified on each
application he completed that he had an ongoing disability that made it “unknown”
or “undetermined” when he would expect to return to work. Doc. 34-11 at 3-14.
Significantly, Snider substantiated his claims with statements from his healthcare
providers. Id. For all these reasons, the court finds that Snider failed to show that
he was a qualified individual with a disability.
In short, Snider has failed to establish a prima facie case because he cannot
show that U.S. Steel regarded him as disabled or that he was qualified for the
position at the time U.S. Steel placed him on medical leave. Therefore, U.S.
Steel’s motion for summary judgment is due to be granted.
B. Snider points to no evidence from which a fact-finder could determine
that he was discriminated against due to his alleged disability
Alternatively, even if Snider can make a prima facie case, summary
judgment is still warranted because U.S. Steel proffered a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its conduct, i.e. Snider’s mental state, which Snider failed
to rebut. Snider “must meet the reason head on and rebut it, and [ ] cannot succeed
by simply quarreling with the wisdom of [U.S Steel’s proffered] reason.” Chapman
v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1030 (11th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted).
Ultimately, because the evidence establishes that U.S. Steel acted reasonably in
concluding after its investigation that Snider had threatened other employees,
Snider cannot show pretext because the ADA does not require employers to retain
or provide reasonable accommodation for “a potentially violent employee.”
Palmer, 117 F.3d at 352, 353 (the duty to provide a reasonable accommodation
does not “run[ ] in favor of employees who commit or threaten to commit violent
acts. The retention of such an employee would cause justifiable anxiety to
coworkers and supervisors.”) (citations omitted). Thus, under the circumstances
here, rather than establishing discriminatory intent, U.S. Steel’s decision to suggest
that Snider apply for sickness and accident benefits and to mandate a fitness-forduty examination and subsequent treatment establishes instead that U.S. Steel
undertook the delicate balance a prudent employer must perform to address a threat
in the workplace and to provide the necessary measures to protect employees and
to return, if possible, the affected employee back to the workplace. See Palmer,
117 F.3d at 353 (“The retention of . . . an employee [who has threatened violence]
would cause justifiable anxiety to coworkers and supervisors. It would be
unreasonable to demand of the employer either that it force its employees to put up
with this or that it station guards to prevent the mentally disturbed employee from
getting out of hand.”); Kelley v. Worley, 29 F. Supp. 2d. 1304, 1313 (M.D. Ala.
1998) (“Under the common law, an employer has a duty to supply the employee
with a reasonably safe place to work.”) (citation omitted). Indeed, once Snider’s
healthcare professionals qualified him for work and Snider reached an agreement
with U.S. Steel, U.S. Steel returned Snider to the same position and rate of pay he
previously held. While, ultimately, it took three months after Snider received
medical clearance to return to work, Snider has failed to establish that
discriminatory animus motivated the delay. In fact, the record is replete with
negotiations between Snider’s Union, Snider, and U.S. Steel for Snider’s return to
work that started well before Snider’s October 2010 release to work and which
ultimately led to an agreement for Snider to return to work. Therefore, the court
cannot draw an inference of discriminatory animus, and, Snider’s discrimination
claim must fail.
U.S. Steel’s motion for summary judgment is due to be granted in light of
Snider’s failure to establish a prima facie case or to rebut U.S. Steel’s articulated
reasons for placing him on medical leave. The court will dismiss this case by
DONE the 10th day of June, 2014.
ABDUL K. KALLON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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