Powers v. USF Holland Inc et al
OPINION AND ORDER granting in part and denying in part 32 MOTION for Summary Judgment filed by YRC Inc, USF Holland Inc. The Clerk is DIRECTED to enter judgment against Plaintiff Keith Powers on his claims of per se discrimination, disability discrimination, and retaliation. Mr. Powerss claim of failure to accommodate survives for trial. Signed by Judge Jon E DeGuilio on 3/30/2015. (kds)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
SOUTH BEND DIVISION
USF HOLLAND INC. and YRC INC.,
Case No. 3:12-CV-461 JD
OPINION AND ORDER
This case arises out of the attempts of Plaintiff Keith Powers to return to his job as a truck
driver at USF Holland, Inc. (“Holland”).1 He has been on medical leave since August 29, 2004.
Mr. Powers previously brought a different lawsuit against Holland, which alleged disability
discrimination and was disposed of on summary judgment by Judge Van Bokkelen. Powers v.
USF Holland, Inc., No. 3:07-CV-246, 2010 WL 558557 (N.D. Ind. Feb. 9, 2010), as modified on
reconsideration, 2010 WL 1994833 (May 13, 2010). The Seventh Circuit affirmed the grant of
summary judgment. 667 F.3d 815 (7th Cir. 2011) (hereinafter “Powers”).
Beginning in 2010 (while the first case was still pending), Mr. Powers attempted to return
to work at Holland again. The new attempt was not successful. In response, Mr. Powers filed this
lawsuit, which alleges claims of per se discrimination, disability discrimination, failure to
accommodate, and retaliation, all based on the later attempt to return.
Now before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by the Defendants,
seeking judgment on each of Mr. Powers’s claims. [DE 32.] The motion is fully briefed and ripe
Defendant YRC Inc. is the parent company of Holland. The two companies are collectively referred to as
for decision. For the reasons stated below, Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment is
GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. [DE 32.]
Holland is a freight transportation company, for which Mr. Powers began working in
1999. There are two types of drivers at Holland’s South Bend facility: Combination City
Drivers/Dock Workers (“City” drivers) and Linehaul Drivers (“Road” drivers). City drivers
make short hauls and remain within a 100-mile radius of the terminal; they also perform dock
work, which includes loading and removing freight from trailers with a forklift. Road drivers
make longer hauls and travel outside of the 100-mile radius; they may also perform dock work,
but typically do so less often than City drivers.
Mr. Powers was a Road driver when he suffered an injury to his back in 2002. He was off
work and received workers’ compensation benefits for approximately five months. He returned
to work in June 2002. In March 2004, Mr. Powers requested to switch from being a Road driver
to a City driver. Due to the collective bargaining agreement with the drivers, the switch required
the completion of a transfer form (called a Board Switching Request Form). Mr. Powers
submitted the form in March 2004 and was transferred to the City driver board.
Mr. Powers began a medical leave of absence in August 2004. In December 2005, he
sought to return to work. That attempt was not successful. Mr. Powers attempted to return to
work again in May 2007. The second attempt was also not successful and was the subject of Mr.
Powers’s first lawsuit against Holland. As noted above, that lawsuit was disposed of on summary
judgment and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.
In October 2010—after Judge Van Bokkelen had granted summary judgment in the first
lawsuit but while the appeal was pending—Mr. Powers contacted the South Bend terminal, again
requesting to return to work. In response, Holland sent Mr. Powers a letter, dated October 11,
2011. [DE 35-19 at 11.] The letter stated, in part, that “in order to begin the process we must first
receive a release from your treating physician indicating you are able to return and what, if any,
restrictions you may currently have.” [Id.] The letter enclosed an accommodation form to be
completed if the doctor determined that Mr. Powers did have current restrictions. The October 11
letter was returned as undeliverable; Holland re-sent the letter to Mr. Powers’s then-current
address on November 5, 2010. [DE 35-19 at 12.]
The parties agree that on December 17, 2010, Mr. Powers faxed Holland two documents,
apparently in response to the November 5 mailing: (1) a report of a Functional Capacity
Examination completed on December 9, 2010, by Robert Lee, PT and (2) a Commercial Driver
Fitness Determination completed on January 28, 2010, by Dr. Dennis Dalphond (Mr. Powers’s
treating physician). [DE 39-11.] Holland sent Mr. Powers a follow-up communication on
December 23, 2010. [DE 35-19 at 17.] The December 23 letter stated that the information faxed
by Mr. Powers was insufficient and requested a release from his treating physician indicating
whether he has any current restrictions and, if he did have restrictions, an accommodation form.
[Id.] The letter also indicated that he may be asked to undergo a “Fitness for Duty” evaluation by
the company if his physician indicates he would be able to perform the essential functions of his
position with or without an accommodation. [Id.]
On January 10, 2011, counsel for Mr. Powers emailed counsel for Holland requesting the
job description for Road drivers. [DE 35-20 at 5.] (Previous correspondence had included the job
description for City drivers, which was Mr. Powers’s last job at Holland.) On January 20, 2011,
counsel for Holland provided the requested Road driver job description and reminded counsel for
Mr. Powers of the need to submit a request if Mr. Powers wanted to switch back to the Road
board. [DE 35-20 at 6–8.]
On February 21, 2011, Mr. Powers faxed a letter to Holland stating “My doctor and I
have filled out Holland’s paper work that you have requested.” [DE 35-20 at 16–17.] However,
pages from the fax were missing and counsel for Holland followed-up with counsel for Mr.
Powers. [DE 35-20 at 13.] On February 28, 2011, counsel for Mr. Powers submitted the full fax
(containing an ADA Accommodation Request Medical Inquiry Form for Healthcare Provider
and an Accommodation Request Form), as well as a Board Switching Form requesting to
transfer to a Road driver position. [DE 35-20 at 18–26.] The Medical Inquiry Form stated that
Mr. Powers suffered from Persistent Lumbar Radiculitis, which impacted his ability to sleep,
walk, lift, bend, and perform manual tasks. [DE 35-20 at 21.] It also stated: “As long as
restrictions are followed, Mr. Powers can perform all duties” and “If Mr. Powers stays within the
restrictions that I have him under – his impairment should not be a factor to perform his duties.”
[Id.] The Medical Inquiry Form did not explicitly state the restrictions put in place by Dr.
Dalphond. The ADA Accommodation Form requested the following accommodations: “11 hours
driving truck/day. Limited to 8 hours dock work. 4 hours lifting and bending. 6 hours fork lift, 4
hours pallet jack, 14 deck plates lifted (55 gal. barrels by hand or cart) 4 hours dolly cart per day.
Plus truck needs to be equipped with air ride suspension cab and seat.” [DE 35-20 at 25.]
Holland states that it believed there to be inconsistencies in the information provided by
Mr. Powers. Accordingly, counsel for Holland called counsel for Mr. Powers on March 10, 2011,
and left a voicemail. [DE 35-20 at 3, ¶ 11.] Counsel for Holland followed-up with an email on
March 11, 2011, which stated in part the desire to “discuss with you the additional information
that Mr. Powers has provided.” [Id. at 27.] Counsel for Holland has affirmed that she received no
response to either the March 10 voicemail or March 11 email [DE 35-20 at 4, ¶ 13] which Mr.
Powers does not dispute.
During roughly the same time period, Mr. Powers claims to have called either Stacey
VandeVusse or Kurt Kopczynski, both of whom are Holland employees. He testified at
deposition that the phone call occurred either one or two months after he submitted the last of the
documentation and the board switching form. [DE 39-1 at 29, 31.] Mr. Powers testified that he
could not remember the words exactly, but that whoever he spoke to said “they would have to
get back to me on that, they’re not sure what’s up, they were going to check and see what was
going on.” [Id. at 29] Mr. Powers did not recall any later communication with either Ms.
VandeVusse or Mr. Kopczynski. [Id. at 31.] For their part, both Ms. VandeVusse and Mr.
Kopczynski testified at deposition that they did not have any contact with Mr. Powers during the
time he alleges his phone call was made. [DE 39-3 at 16, 18; DE 39-4 at 3.]
The parties agree that Mr. Powers has not returned to work at Holland, either as a City or
Road driver. In October 2011, Mr. Powers filed an EEOC Charge of Discrimination. He received
a right to sue letter in May 2012 and filed this lawsuit in August 2012.
II. Standard of Review
On summary judgment, the burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that there “is no
genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of
law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). That means that the Court must construe all facts in the light most
favorable to the nonmoving party, making every legitimate inference and resolving every doubt
in its favor. Keri v. Bd. of Trs. of Purdue Univ., 458 F.3d 620, 628 (7th Cir. 2006). A “material”
fact is one identified by the substantive law as affecting the outcome of the suit. Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A “genuine issue” exists with respect to any such
material fact, and summary judgment is therefore inappropriate, when “the evidence is such that
a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. On the other hand, where a
factual record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving
party, there is no genuine issue for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475
U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citing First Nat’l Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 289
In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, this Court must construe
all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, as well as draw all reasonable and
justifiable inferences in his favor. King v. Preferred Technical Grp., 166 F.3d 887, 890 (7th Cir.
1999). However, the non-moving party cannot simply rest on the allegations or denials contained
in its pleadings, but must present sufficient evidence to show the existence of each element of its
case on which it will bear the burden at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322–23
(1986); Robin v. Espo Eng’g Corp., 200 F.3d 1081, 1088 (7th Cir. 2000).
Mr. Powers’s Complaint Does Not Raise Any Issues Barred by Res Judicata
As an initial matter, Defendants argue that there is a preclusive effect by the Seventh
Circuit’s earlier Powers decision “[t]o the extent Powers relies on any facts prior to the May 7,
2007 filing of his first lawsuit against Holland.” [DE 34 at 4.] They argue that any claims based
on those facts were either actually raised or could have been raised in the first lawsuit and
therefore may not be asserted in this lawsuit under the doctrine of res judicata.
“Under res judicata, a final judgment on the merits bars further claims by parties or their
privies based on the same cause of action.” Cannon v. Burge, 752 F.3d 1079, 1101 (7th Cir.
2014) (quoting Montana v. United States, 440 U.S. 147, 153 (1979)). In order to establish res
judicata or claim preclusion, the party asserting preclusion must show: “(1) identity of the claim,
(2) identity of [the] parties, which includes those in ‘privity’ with the original parties, and (3) a
final judgment on the merits.” Ross ex rel. Ross v. Bd. of Educ. of Twp. High Sch. Dist. 211, 486
F.3d 279, 283 (7th Cir. 2007). “In order to decide whether the two cases involve the same claim,
[the Court asks] whether they arise out of the same transaction. If they did, whether or not they
were actually raised in the earlier lawsuit, they may not be asserted in the second or subsequent
proceeding.” Id. However, “claim preclusion generally does not bar a subsequent lawsuit for
issues that arise after the operative complaint is filed.” Ellis v. CCA of Tenn. LLC, 650 F.3d 640,
652 (7th Cir. 2011).
While Defendants cite these general standards of claim preclusion, they do not seem to
argue that this suit actually arises from the same transaction as Mr. Powers’s earlier suit. Instead,
they argue that “any action by Holland prior to May 7, 2007 cannot be used to bootstrap Powers’
current allegations of discrimination.” [DE 34 at 4.] But the Defendants don’t cite any law for the
proposition that the plaintiff is barred from relying on facts at issue in an earlier suit to infer the
discriminatory intent of later adverse actions. And the Court is not aware of such authority.
Accordingly, that argument is waived. See Garg v. Potter, 521 F.3d 731, 736 (7th Cir. 2008)
(citing Heft v. Moore, 351 F.3d 278, 285 (7th Cir. 2003) (“The failure to cite cases in support of
an argument waives the issue . . .”)).
To the extent that the Defendants are arguing this suit arises out of the same transaction
as the earlier suit, the Court does not read Mr. Powers’s complaint to challenge any of the
adverse actions of Holland that occurred prior to his 2010 attempt to return to work at Holland.
[See DE 1 at ¶ 31 (“Powers complains of YRC-Holland not allowing him to return to work
during 2010 because of his record or impairment and/or YRC-Holland perceived Powers to be
disabled.”).] Mr. Powers confirms the scope of his current lawsuit in his response to the
summary judgment motion. [DE 38 at 10 (“The Plaintiff’s Complaint alleges that Holland
violated the ADAAA by abandoning the interactive process to provide Powers accommodated
work, failing to return Powers to work as a LH driver, and awarding the open and available
positions to non-disabled employees, hiring 13 others since receiving Powers’ accommodation
request on February 28, 2011. Plaintiff also alleges Holland retaliated against him by failing to
engage in an interactive process to consider Powers’ accommodation request because of his
engagement in protected activities.”).] Each of these alleged events arose after the filing of the
complaint at issue in the first Powers decision; accordingly, the Court finds that the claims in this
case do not arise from the “same transaction” as Mr. Powers’s earlier lawsuit and thus are not
barred by res judicata.
In a footnote, Defendants raise the separate question of whether Mr. Powers is barred by
the doctrine of collateral estoppel or issue preclusion from relying on any facts that occurred
before May 7, 2007. [DE 34 at 4 n.1.] In support of that argument, Defendants assert that the
Seventh Circuit’s Powers decision concluded that no “discrimination occurred prior to that date.”
[Id.] However, that question is not properly before the Court. See N.D. Ind. L.R. 56-1(e) (“Any
dispute regarding the admissibility of evidence should be addressed in a separate motion in
accordance with L.R. 7-1.”). Moreover, the Defendants fail to identify the specific facts the
Plaintiff should be barred from relying on, nor do they analyze how such facts were “essential to
the final judgment” in the initial Powers decision. See Adams v. City of Indianapolis, 742 F.3d
720, 736 (7th Cir. 2014) (stating one element of collateral estoppel is that “the determination of
the issue must have been essential to the final judgment” in the earlier litigation.). Accordingly,
the Court declines to address, at this time, the potential preclusive effects on the issues addressed
in the Powers decision.2
With that preliminary issue addressed, the Court turns to Mr. Powers’s claims under the
ADA. Mr. Powers asserts four such claims: per se discrimination, disability discrimination,
failure to accommodate, and retaliation. Each will be addressed, in turn, below. However,
Defendants raise one issue which affects the analysis of several of the claims: whether Mr.
Powers is disabled. Because that question is a threshold one for many of the ADA claims at
issue, the Court addresses it first.
Qualified Individual with a Disability
In order to benefit from the ADA, Mr. Powers must establish that he is disabled. A
plaintiff may show that he is disabled by showing that any of the following three factors are
present: “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life
activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having
such an impairment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102. Mr. Powers argues only that subsection A applies. [DE
38 at 19 n.3.]
Defendants argue that Mr. Powers is not disabled. Specifically, they argue: “As the
Seventh Circuit noted in affirming summary judgment against Powers in 2011, Powers was not
an individual with a disability. Nothing has changed since.” [DE 34 at 5.] But something has
changed: the standards for determining disability under the ADA. See ADA Amendments Act of
2008, Pub. L. No. 110-325, 2008 Stat. 3406 (2008) (hereinafter “ADAAA”).
The Court’s ruling on this motion would be the same regardless of whether or not it considered any pre-May 7,
For claims that arose prior to January 1, 2009—the effective date of the ADAAA—
courts in this Circuit applied the standards that the Seventh Circuit summarized in its 2011
Powers decision. Under those standards, Mr. Powers needed to establish that his alleged
disability “significantly restricted” his ability to work in “either a class of jobs or a broad range
of jobs.” Powers, 667 F.3d at 820.
The ADAAA significantly liberalized the standards for determining disability—and is
applicable in this case since Mr. Powers challenges actions taken after January 1, 2009. Other
courts have summarized the substantive differences that Congress implemented in the ADAAA:
The ADAAA provides more generous coverage than the ADA by
providing that the definition of disability “shall be construed in
favor of broad coverage of individuals . . . to the maximum extent
permitted by the terms of [the Act.]” 42 U.S.C. § 10102(4)(A). The
associated regulations instruct courts to be liberal in determining
whether a plaintiff is substantially limited: “[t]he term
‘substantially limits’ shall be construed broadly in favor of
expansive coverage, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms
of the ADA. ‘Substantially limits’ is not meant to be a demanding
standard.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(i).
Newman v. Gagan LLC, 939 F. Supp. 2d 883, 897 (N.D. Ind. 2013) (quoting Graham v. St.
John’s United Methodist Church, No. 12-CV-297-MJR, 2012 WL 5298156, at *3 (S.D. Ill. Oct.
25, 2012) (alterations in original)).
In passing the ADAAA, Congress explicitly found that “the [then-]current Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission ADA regulations defining the term ‘substantially limits’
as ‘significantly restricted’ are inconsistent with congressional intent.” ADAAA at § 2(a)(8). The
ADAAA also made clear that “it is the intent of Congress that the primary object of attention in
cases brought under the ADA should be whether entities covered under the ADA have complied
with their obligations and . . . that the question of whether an individual’s impairment is a
disability under the ADA should not demand extensive analysis.” Id. at § 2(b).
Mr. Powers contends that he has submitted sufficient proof of a disability to allow his
case to proceed to a jury. Among that evidence is a Medical Inquiry Form completed by Mr.
Powers’s doctor that indicates Mr. Powers suffers from the physical impairment of “persistent
lumbar radiculitis” which substantially impairs his ability to sleep, walk, lift, bend, and perform
manual tasks, at least when his back is aggravated. [DE 39-16 at 2.] Each of those tasks is
defined as a “major life activity” under the ADAAA. 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)(A).
Defendants point to other evidence in the record, including that Mr. Powers has been
working throughout the duration of this lawsuit for two farms and a trucking company, working
at times in excess of 80 hours per week. [DE 34 at 6.] This work, they argue (without citation to
any case authority), “guts his contention that he is physically limited to the extent of disability
under the ADAAA.” [Id.] In their reply, Defendants accuse Mr. Powers of failing to cite any
evidence in the record to support his contentions of the limiting effects of his condition. [DE 42
But Mr. Powers does cite to at least the Medical Inquiry Form, in which his doctor
indicates that he has limitations as a result of his medical condition. [DE 38 at 5–6.] And that he
works in other jobs is not dispositive of the question of whether his impairments render him
disabled, especially under the substantially more liberal standards of the ADAAA. See Kravtsov
v. Town of Greenburgh, No. 10-CV-3142, 2012 WL 2719663, at *11 (S.D.N.Y. July 9, 2012)
(finding disputed facts precluded summary judgment on issue of disability, even where plaintiff
testified he was able to work).
In light of the conflicting evidence and the revised statutory rules, the Court finds there is
a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Mr. Powers is a qualified individual with a
disability. The record on whether Mr. Powers is disabled is admittedly light. But the Court
determines that a reasonable jury could find—the Seventh Circuit’s earlier decision under a
different standard notwithstanding—that Mr. Powers is disabled under the less-demanding
standard of the ADAAA. See, e.g., Ceska v. City of Chi., No. 13 C 6403, 2015 WL 468767, at *3
(N.D. Ill. Feb. 3, 2015) (finding lifting and sleep limitations sufficient evidence of disability to
survive summary judgment, but granting summary judgment on other grounds); Newell v. Alden
Vill. Health Facility for Children & Young Adults, No. 12 C 7185, 2014 WL 6757928, at *4
(N.D. Ill. Dec. 1, 2014) (finding wrist injury which impacted lifting and personal care sufficient
to show disability at summary judgment stage).
However, whether or not Mr. Powers is a qualified individual with a disability is only one
element of the claims at issue. Accordingly, the Court will address the remaining disputes
regarding the ADA claims to determine whether the claims survive summary judgment.
Per Se Discrimination
Mr. Powers first alleges that the Defendants engaged in acts that constitute per se
discrimination by applying a “100% healed policy.” In other words, Mr. Powers claims that
Holland employs an unwritten policy that its drivers are not allowed to return to work following
a medical absence unless and until they are fully released to work without restrictions. [DE 38 at
3–4.] If such a policy does exist, it would constitute a per se violation of the ADA, since the
policy would preclude individual assessments of accommodation. Steffen v. Donahoe, 680 F.3d
738, 748 (7th Cir. 2012); Hendricks-Robinson v. Excel Corp., 154 F.3d 685, 698–99 (7th Cir.
Defendants argue that Mr. Powers has not offered any evidence that Holland applied a
100% healed policy in 2010 and 2011, the time at issue in this lawsuit. [DE 42 at 7–8.]
Mr. Powers offers, in essence, two types of evidence in support of the claim. First, he
offers evidence that Holland utilized a 100% healed policy during the time period at issue in his
first lawsuit [see DE 39-5 at 27 (2005 email from Mr. Kopczynski stating Mr. Powers could not
be considered for work “until his doctor issued a release with no restrictions”); DE 39-5 at 33
(2007 handwritten notes from Mr. Kopczynski stating Mr. Powers would not be considered for
transfer to long haul driver “until he had no restrictions”); DE 39-23 at 2 (2009 affidavit of Guy
Trzaskowski: “Kurt also told me that if I wanted to return to work as a road driver, I would need
to be fully released with no medical restrictions.”)] and notes that the Seventh Circuit found in
Powers (in a footnote and with respect to the earlier lawsuit) that he had provided sufficient
evidence of a 100% healed policy to survive summary judgment.3 Second, he states that the
Defendants have, in this litigation, admitted that their ADA policies are the same as they were in
the earlier litigation.
Of course, whether or not Holland utilized a 100% healed policy prior to 2010 is a
different factual question than whether they did so in 2010 and 2011. As noted previously, Mr.
Powers explicitly challenges the Defendants’ actions during that latter time period (as he must to
avoid res judicata). Since the previous lawsuit focused on times prior to 2010, Mr. Powers must
do more than simply rest on the evidence presented in his previous lawsuit and must provide at
least sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to find that Holland continued to impose a
100% healed policy during the time period at issue in this lawsuit.
The per se discrimination claim still failed, however, because the Seventh Circuit agreed with Judge Van Bokkelen
that Mr. Powers had provided insufficient evidence of disability under the more exacting standard which was
utilized prior to the passage of the ADAAA.
In order to bridge the earlier evidence to the time period relevant to this lawsuit, Mr.
Powers offers citations to two depositions. Because the cited portions are critical to the analysis
of whether Mr. Powers has sustained his burden in responding to the motion for summary
judgment, the Court quotes them in full.
First, Mr. Powers cited the deposition of Stacy VandeVusse for the proposition that
“Holland’s policy for reporting a disability today does not differ [from the policy in place during
the earlier litigation].” [DE 38 at 3.] The cited portion of the deposition states:
Q. And what I’m -- what I’m looking for is the -- what was
produced in this case was documents from essentially the
handbook and your accommodation policy, which are the same as
from 2008. Are those policies still the same today?
A. They probably do not read exactly the same as from 2008
because, one, we’ve had difference presidents. So, it’s gonna be
signed by different individuals. And there may have been
language that was added or changed.
Unless I’m looking at the policy from 2008 and the policy from
today, I don’t know that they’re gonna be exactly the same, but
would cover the same content.
Q. Okay. And are you aware of any kind of -- from the perspective
of your job and your title is there any kind of changes with regard
to the accommodation policy?
We’ll start with that. Well, actually, we’ll start with the procedures
for reporting disability that would be different from 2008 to today.
A. No. I’m not aware of any significant changes.
Q. Okay. And with regard to Holland’s accommodation policy,
are you aware of any kind of -- and we’ll go with your language -significant changes from 2008 to today?
A. Again, there’s not a written policy for accommodations.
They are handled as they’re brought to the company’s
Q. And that is -- just so I can clarify, that’s the same policy as
what you had in 2008?
[DE 39-3 at 4.] Next, Mr. Powers cites the deposition of Mr. Kopczynski for the proposition that
“Holland’s policy for considering accommodation of a disability remains the same.” [DE 38 at
3.] The cited portion of that deposition states:
Q. Is there any kind of changes to the unwritten policy regarding
accommodation that have changed since 2008?
A. No, not that I’m aware of.
Q. And I don’t want to go all the way through what it is. But,
essentially, the accommodation process starts on a case-by-case
basis on the local level; is that correct?
A. Any request for accommodation, I would have to defer and
send up to our HR Department.
Q. Okay, so any request for accommodation now goes to the HR
Q. Is there any request for accommodation that you feel that you
can handle on a local level?
A. I would ask for counsel.
A. From HR.
Q. Has that changed since 2008?
Q. That was also true in 2008?
[DE 39-4 at 11 (objections omitted).]
Giving Mr. Powers the benefit of all reasonable inferences, the cited testimony may
provide sufficient evidence to show that Holland had not formally changed its unwritten 100%
healed policy. But the Court does not find that a reasonable jury could find in favor Mr. Powers
simply because Holland had a 100% healed policy. Instead, Mr. Powers would need to provide
evidence that Holland applied a 100% healed policy during the time at issue in this lawsuit. See
Powers, 667 F.3d at 823 n.8 (“Powers presented sufficient evidence that Holland applied a 100%
healed policy”) (emphasis added); Henderson v. Ardco, Inc., 247 F.3d 645, 647 (6th Cir. 2001)
(“Ardco’s ‘100% healed rule’ appears to have been well-known and consistently applied, at least
with regard to lifting restrictions, and is assumed to exist for purposes of summary judgment.”);
E.E.O.C. v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., No. 09 C 5291, 2014 WL 538577, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 11,
2014) (“The Seventh Circuit has held that, when applied to a qualified individual with a
disability, a 100% healed policy is per se impermissible.”) (first emphasis added).
In order to survive summary judgment, Mr. Powers must be able to provide sufficient
evidence for a jury to return a verdict for him on the question of per se discrimination. Anderson,
477 U.S. at 249. That evidence must—at bare minimum—provide some showing that Holland
applied a 100% healed policy during 2010–11. He has failed to provide any such evidence.
Moreover, Mr. Powers is not entitled to an inference that simply having an unwritten policy
means it was applied in his case, since such an inference would not be a reasonable one in light
of the evidence in the record. Rather, the evidence supplied by the parties (even viewed in the
light most favorable to Mr. Powers) supports that Holland was still in the process of collecting
medical information from Mr. Powers regarding his limitations and that therefore the process had
not advanced to a point where Holland could be said to have implemented any “100% healed
policy.” Accordingly, summary judgment will be granted on the claim of per se discrimination.
Next, the Court turns to Mr. Powers’ claims of disability discrimination. Discrimination
under the ADA can be proved either directly or indirectly. Taylor-Novotny v. Health Alliance
Med. Plans, Inc., 772 F.3d 478, 488 (7th Cir. 2014). Mr. Powers attempts to proceed under both
theories. In order to prove discrimination using the “direct method” of proof, Mr. Powers must
prove: (1) he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA, as amended by the ADAAA; (2) he is
qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation; and (3) he
has suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability. Bunn v. Khoury Enters.,
Inc., 753 F.3d 676, 683 (7th Cir. 2014). To prove a claim using the “indirect method” of proof,
he must prove: (1) he was a qualified individual with a disability within the meaning of the
ADA; (2) he was meeting his employer’s legitimate expectations; (3) he nevertheless suffered an
adverse employment action; and (4) similarly-situated, non-disabled employees were treated
more favorably. Taylor-Novotny, 772 F.3d at 488. The last element may also be satisfied by
other “circumstances [that] suggest that the plaintiff’s disability was the reason the employer
took [the] adverse action.” Id. at 488 n.45 (quoting Timmons v. Gen. Motors Corp., 469 F.3d
1122, 1127–28 (7th Cir. 2006)).
The Defendants argue that Mr. Powers has failed to provide sufficient prima facie
evidence that ties the employment action to an allegedly discriminatory intent under either
method of proof. The Court agrees.
Starting with the indirect method of proof, Mr. Powers entirely ignores his obligation to
provide prima facie evidence that the Defendant’s actions were undertaken due to his alleged
disability. He provides neither evidence of any similarly situated employees nor any argument
that other circumstances satisfy his obligation of offering indirect proof. Accordingly, he cannot
proceed under the indirect method. Hoppe v. Lewis Univ., 692 F.3d 833, 841 (7th Cir. 2012)
(“Hoppe neither alleged nor provided evidence of any similarly situated employees not subjected
to the same adverse action, so she may only proceed under the direct method of proof.”).
With respect to the direct method of proof, Mr. Powers does not have direct evidence of
discrimination, such as an admission of discriminatory intent. He therefore attempts to state a
circumstantial case based on his allegations that the Defendants applied a 100% healed policy
and that there was a breakdown in the interactive process, which Mr. Powers attributes to the
defendants. [DE 38 at 22–23.] However, the Court has already determined that Mr. Powers has
provided no evidence that the Defendants applied a 100% healed policy during the time relevant
to this lawsuit. Therefore, whether Mr. Powers has provided sufficient prima facie evidence of
discriminatory intent depends on his allegations of the breakdown in the interactive process.
As an initial aside, in their reply brief the Defendants argue that these allegations should
be viewed solely as a restatement of Mr. Powers’s failure to accommodate claim, rather than a
separate disparate treatment claim, since Mr. Powers does not identify any adverse action other
than the breakdown of the interactive process. [DE 42 at 11.] In support, they cite Tyler v. Ispat
Inland, Inc., 245 F.3d 969, 972 (7th Cir. 2001), without any further argument or explanation. The
Court declines to consider this argument, which was made for the first time in their reply brief.
See E.E.O.C. v. Caterpillar, Inc., 503 F. Supp. 2d 995, 1048 (N.D. Ill. 2007) (“because the
Defendant raises this specific argument for the first time in its reply, the court declines to
consider it”). Moreover, Tyler does not address the question of whether the breakdown in an
interactive process can ever constitute evidence in support of a discrimination claim; the Seventh
Circuit merely held (with respect to the discrimination claim) that there was no adverse
employment action, since the plaintiff retained the same pay and benefits after his transfer
between plants. If anything, the Seventh Circuit’s willingness to address the merits of the
discrimination claim in Tyler undercuts the argument that a breakdown in the interactive process
cannot support a distinct discrimination claim.
Regardless, the Court does agree with the Defendants that Mr. Powers has not provided
any evidence of a causal connection between the breakdown of the interactive process and any
discriminatory intent. Defendants argue: “Powers cites to no evidence establishing that his
failure to return to work was directly caused by Holland’s intent to discriminate against him due
to his alleged disability. Nor does he provide any circumstantial evidence (suspicious timing,
ambiguous statements, similarly situated employees who were treated more favorably, or
evidence of pretext) that would allow a trier of fact to infer a discriminatory intent on Holland’s
part.” [DE 42 at 12.] The Court agrees that Mr. Power has provided no such evidence. Once his
allegations of a 100% healed policy fall away, he essentially asks the Court to assume that
because the interactive process broke down, it was because of discriminatory intent. This would
read out of the statute the requirement that the discrimination be “on the basis of disability.” 42
U.S.C. § 12112; see also Troupe v. May Dep’t Stores Co., 20 F.3d 734, 738 (7th Cir. 1994)
(considering claim under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, with causation requirement similar
to ADA; “The plaintiff has made no effort to show that if all the pertinent facts were as they are
except for the facts of her pregnancy, she would not have been fired. So in the end she has no
evidence from which a rational trier of fact could infer that she was a victim of pregnancy
Defendants also argue that Mr. Powers cannot establish that Holland’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions is pretextual. However, in light of the lack of prima facie
evidence the Court need not reach any issues that would be addressed after burden shifting.
Summary judgment on the discrimination claim is granted.
Failure to Accommodate
Next, Mr. Powers brings a failure to accommodate claim. In order to establish such a
claim, he must show that: “(1) he is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) the employer was
aware of [his] disability; and (3) the employer failed to reasonably accommodate the disability.”
Bunn, 753 F.3d at 682 (citing E.E.O.C. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 417 F.3d 789, 797 (7th Cir.
When an employee asks for an accommodation because of a disability, an employer
“must engage with the employee in an ‘interactive process’ to determine the appropriate
accommodation under the circumstances.” Kauffman v. Petersen Health Care VII, LLC, 769 F.3d
958, 963 (7th Cir. 2014) (quoting Bombard v. Fort Wayne Newspapers, Inc., 92 F.3d 560, 563
(7th Cir. 1996)). The process brings the employee and employer together in a “flexible” process
to “identify the employee’s precise limitations and discuss accommodation which might enable
the employee to continue working.” Gile v. United Airlines, Inc., 213 F.3d 365, 373 (7th Cir.
2000) (quoting Hendricks-Robinson, 154 F.3d at 693). In that interactive process, both parties
“are responsible for determining what accommodations are needed.” Reeves ex rel. Reeves v.
Jewel Food Stores, Inc., 759 F.3d 698, 701–02 (7th Cir. 2014).
“If [the interactive] process fails to lead to reasonable accommodation of the disabled
employee’s limitations, responsibility will lie with the party that caused the breakdown.” Cloe v.
City of Indianapolis, 712 F.3d 1171, 1178 (7th Cir. 2013). “Where the employee does not
provide sufficient information to the employer to determine the necessary accommodations, the
employer cannot be held liable for failing to accommodate the disabled employee.” Id. (citing
Beck v. Univ. of Wis. Bd. of Regents, 75 F.3d 1130, 1135 (7th Cir. 1996)). However, an
employer’s failure to engage in the interactive process is actionable “if it prevents identification
of an appropriate accommodation for a qualified individual.” Spurling v. C & M Fine Pack, Inc.,
739 F.3d 1055, 1062 (7th Cir. 2014).
The parties generally agree that there was a breakdown in the interactive process in this
case, the result of which was that Mr. Powers’s request for accommodation was never fully
considered. They disagree, however, regarding who is to blame for that breakdown. In light of
the disagreement and evidence presented, the Court finds there to be a material fact in genuine
dispute regarding who is to blame for the breakdown in the interactive process, precluding
summary judgment at this time.
Defendants argue that Mr. Powers’s initial statements regarding his limitations were
confusing and that Holland attempted to communicate with Mr. Powers to clarify these
restrictions. This included several letters and emails, some to Mr. Powers and some to his
counsel, as well as a voicemail left for Mr. Powers’s counsel. Holland characterizes Mr.
Powers’s responses as a failure to provide clarification. At other times, they argue that Mr.
Powers ignored inquiries from Holland, in essence abandoning the interactive process.
Mr. Powers responds that it was Holland’s actions that broke down the interactive
process. He disputes whether the materials he submitted were confusing and states that “[a]
month or two after submitting his board transfer form to Holland [in February 2011], Powers
called Holland to inquire about the status of his return to work, and was informed that Holland
would get back to him.” [DE 38 at 6.]
In light of these conflicting facts, and giving Mr. Powers the benefit of all reasonable
inferences—as the Court must on summary judgment—no conclusion can be reached regarding
which party is to blame for the breakdown of the interactive process. If Defendants’ evidence is
to be credited, counsel for Holland communicated with counsel for Mr. Powers on March 10 and
11, but heard no response until the filing of the EEOC complaint. If Mr. Powers’s evidence is to
be credited, he made a phone call to Holland sometime after the March communication, and was
told that Holland “would get back to him.” [DE 38 at 6.] The inference is that they never did.
What is clear is that some party reached out to the other to continue the discussion, but that
invitation went unanswered. And while the “last act in the interactive process is not always the
cause of a breakdown,” Sears, 417 F.3d at 806, in this case there appears to be no other
conclusion that could be reached.
This genuine dispute as to a material fact precludes summary judgment on Mr. Powers’s
claim of failure to accommodate. The motion, as to that claim, is therefore denied.
Finally, Mr. Powers claims that the Defendants retaliated against him for having filed his
initial lawsuit. The complaint states two separate claims for retaliation: one under the ADA and
one under Title VII, but Mr. Powers does not ever mention Title VII in his response to the
summary judgment motion. Like several of his other claims, Mr. Powers may proceed on a
retaliation claim under the direct or indirect method of proof. Cloe, 712 F.3d at 1180. He chooses
to proceed only under the direct method. [DE 38 at 15.] To proceed under that method, Mr.
Powers must show that “(1) [he] engaged in a statutorily protected activity; (2) [he] suffered an
adverse action; and (3) there is a causal connection between the two.” Cloe, 712 F.3d at 1180.
Defendants raise several arguments in support of their motion for summary judgment on
this claim, but the Court need only address one of them as it is fully dispositive. Specifically, and
similar to the arguments raised with respect to Mr. Powers’s discrimination claim, Defendants
argue that Mr. Powers “provides no evidentiary support for any link between his failure to return
to work and his allegations of adverse employment actions.” [DE 42 at 15 (emphasis omitted).]
The Court agrees.
“To show causation under the direct method, an employee must show that [his] protected
activity was a ‘substantial or motivating factor’ behind the adverse employment action.” TaylorNovotny, 772 F.3d at 495. That burden can be met “by presenting either a direct admission of a
retaliatory motive or a ‘convincing mosaic’ of circumstantial evidence support an inference that
a retaliatory animus was at work.” Id. The Seventh Circuit has identified three general categories
of circumstantial evidence that might support that “convincing mosaic”: “(1) suspicious timing,
ambiguous statements oral or written, and other bits and pieces from which an inference of
retaliatory intent might be drawn; (2) evidence, but not necessarily rigorous statistical evidence,
that similarly situated employees were treated differently; and (3) evidence that the employer
offered a pretextual reason for an adverse employment action.” Id. (internal quotation marks
Mr. Powers totally ignores his prima facie duty to create the “convincing mosaic” of
circumstantial evidence needed on the question of causation. As with his discrimination claim,
Mr. Powers argues that retaliation is proven by virtue of the breakdown in the interactive
process. However, he offers no evidence—and not even any argument in his response to the
summary judgment motion—that there was a causal connection between the breakdown and his
protected activities. [DE 38 at 15–16.] Given that Mr. Powers does not even attempt to establish
that there is sufficient evidence of causation to send the claim to a jury, summary judgment is
appropriate on his retaliation claim.
For the reasons stated above, Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED
IN PART and DENIED IN PART. [DE 32.] The Clerk is DIRECTED to enter judgment
against Plaintiff Keith Powers on his claims of per se discrimination, disability discrimination,
and retaliation. Mr. Powers’s claim of failure to accommodate survives for trial. The Court will
contact the parties to schedule a status conference to set a trial date.
ENTERED: March 30, 2015
/s/ JON E. DEGUILIO
United States District Court
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