Cannon v. Nelson et al (TV1)
MEMORANDUM AND OPINION as set forth in following order. Signed by District Judge Thomas W Phillips on 5/17/17. (ABF)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE and
JIMMY G. CHEEK, in his official
Plaintiff Seth Cannon previously worked for the University of Tennessee at
Knoxville (“UTK”) as a Service Aide in the Department of Building Services. He claims
that he was terminated because of his disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and
the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); that he experienced a hostile work
environment based on his disability; that UTK interfered with his rights under the Family
and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), that he was terminated in retaliation for exercising his
FMLA rights; and that he was terminated in retaliation for complaining about disability
UTK has moved for summary judgment on all of plaintiff’s claims [Doc. 34] with
supporting briefs and documentation [Docs. 35, 39] and plaintiff has responded in
opposition [Doc. 37]. For the reasons set forth herein, UTK’s motion for summary
judgment will be GRANTED.
UTK hired Seth Cannon as a Service Aide in 2007 for the Department of Building
Services [Doc. 34-1 at p. 7]. The Department of Building Services provides professional
cleaning services to the UTK and Institute of Agriculture campuses, consisting of
approximately 280 buildings and 15 million square feet of space [Doc. 34-2 at ¶¶ 2—3].
Plaintiff reported to an immediate supervisor, who varied over the years, and then to
Gordon Nelson, the Assistant Director of Building Services [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 1].
It is undisputed that Service Aides perform physically demanding work. Each
Service Aide is expected to service an average of 35,000 square feet per shift [Doc. 34-2
at ¶ 5]. Thus, a Service Aide must be able to walk at a brisk pace, have a full range of
motion, including the ability to stoop, kneel, crouch, and stand, and he or she must be able
to lift as much as 50 pounds [Id.]. 1 According to the position description, a Service Aide is
expected to spend 75% of his time cleaning buildings, 10% of his time cleaning and
extracting carpet, 10% of his time waxing and buffing floors, and 5% of his time doing
construction cleanup [Id. at ¶ 6; Doc. 34-2 at p. 12]. Service Aides must be able “to perform
hard physical labor for long periods of time” and “operate powered buffers, scrubbers,
extractor, etc.” [Doc. 34-2 at p. 13]. The specific tasks for a Service Aide include the
• Cleans and services assigned areas in buildings.
• Cleans restrooms, offices, and replenishes supplies.
Jessica Nelson, formerly known as Jessica Hurt, is a former Service Aide and one of plaintiff’s
former supervisors [Doc. 34-5 at ¶¶ 1, 3]. Ms. Nelson frequently wears a pedometer at work and
estimates that a Service Aide walks between 6.5 and 7 miles, up to 10 miles, per shift [Id. at ¶ 4].
Plaintiff agrees that walking was an essential function of his job [Doc. 34-1 at p. 25].
• Picks up trash, empties garbage containers, and removes trash to disposal
area, sanitizes trash containers as necessary to meet Health Department
• Cleans assigned areas by moving furniture, cleans various types of furniture.
• Moves and replaces furniture.
• Scrubs vinyl and concrete floors.
• Vacuums and shampoos carpets, launders microfibers.
• Ability to strip, wax, and buff hard floors, and to know when appropriate.
• Sets up and takes down staging, tables, chairs, wood floors for different
events or programs.
• Demonstrates reliability in attendance and punctuality.
[Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 7, p. 15].
In August 2012, plaintiff advised UTK that he suffered from Moersch-Woltman
Syndrome (“MWS”), also known as “Stiff Person Syndrome” [Doc. 34-9]. 2 MWS is a
“rare disease of severe progressive muscle stiffness of the spine and lower extremities”
with “muscle spasms triggered by external stimuli or emotional stress” [Doc. 34-4 at p.
Plaintiff described his symptoms as painful muscle spasms all over his body,
“resembling a grand mal seizure,” with some spasms “so severe they can actually break
bones” [Doc. 34-9 at p. 1]. Plaintiff further stated that MWS “comes and goes” and that
stress and loud noises can trigger the muscle spasms [Id.]. Plaintiff testified that he was
diagnosed with MWS by an emergency room physician, but that diagnosis has not been
confirmed by any of plaintiff’s treating physicians [Doc. 34-1 at pp. 2—3]. Regardless of
the accuracy of the diagnosis, UTK does not dispute that plaintiff had an impairment and
On August 6, 2012, plaintiff sent a letter to Associate Vice Chancellor of Facilities Services Dave
Irvin protesting the denial of a raise due to low scores on his 2011 performance evaluation. In the
letter, plaintiff claimed to have provided his supervisors with documentation of his MWS diagnosis
as an explanation for his performance.
the record reflects that plaintiff sought treatment for his symptoms from several physicians
throughout his tenure at UTK [see, e.g., Doc. 34-7].
Plaintiff had a documented history of problems with his attendance and his
performance at UTK and these issues often overlapped. 3 On October 13, 2011, Cannon
received an oral warning for unacceptable attendance because he had incurred absences for
which he had no accrued leave [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 9, p. 17]. 4 As a result of this warning, Mr.
Nelson imposed the following requirements for any future medical absences: (1) plaintiff
must have enough sick leave to cover the absence; (2) plaintiff must submit a doctor’s
statement with specific information regarding his condition; (3) and plaintiff must call in
prior to the work shift and speak to his foreman, supervisor, or Mr. Nelson as to the absence
[Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 10].
On October 20, 2011, Cannon received a written warning for unacceptable work
performance after a supervisor observed his “equipment was in the closet and no work had
been done” thirty minutes after his shift had started [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 11, p. 18]. Cannon
received a score of 9.5 out of 25 on his 2011 performance review, which is considered a
“rarely achieves expectations” rating, and his supervisor stated he needed to “improve on
attendance and work performance” [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 12, pp. 19—20].
Mr. Nelson describes plaintiff as a “chronic leave abuser” who “routinely used his leave as quickly
as he accrued it and maintained very low leave balances” [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 50].
Non-exempt employees such as plaintiff receive eight hour of sick leave per month and, initially,
eight hours of annual leave per month. After five years of service, employees receive twelve hours
of annual leave per month [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 4].
On August 21, 2012, plaintiff received a written warning for attendance, and then a
final written warning for attendance on April 18, 2013 [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 13, p. 21]. Cannon
received a score of 12 out of 25 on his 2012 performance review, which is considered a
“sometimes achieves expectations” rating [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 14, pp. 22—23]. His supervisor
noted that he needed “improvement on his attendance” and “to learn how to use his time
wisely and learn how to use the buffer” [Id.].
Jessica Nelson supervised plaintiff from August 27, 2012 to May 5, 2014 [Doc. 345 at ¶ 5]. She describes his attendance as follows: “very poor” and “very unreliable,” “he
moved too slowly to complete the responsibilities ordinarily assigned to Service Aides,”
and “he did not clean with the level of professional detail that is expected of Building
Services” [Id.]. In sum, she observed that plaintiff “rarely, if ever, did his job well and
often seemed completely disinterested in working” [Id.]. Ms. Nelson gave plaintiff a score
of 11 out of 25 on his 2013 performance review [Id. at ¶ 6; Doc. 34-5 at pp. 4—8]. Ms.
Nelson’s comments on his performance review included the following: plaintiff “is not
often able to finish task [sic] that he has been given to do for his everyday job,” is “not
often able to perform his daily job duties and complete his job assignments for the day,” “I
can not count on Seth to be at work on a daily basis,” “Seth will leave work early and has
missed a lot of time this past year,” and “Seth is often not here and you can not count on
him to be here [Id.]. Ms. Nelson states that she did not consider the 344.6 hours of FMLA
leave against plaintiff in scoring his dependability for the performance review, but she did
consider the 302 hours of non-FMLA absences for the year [Doc. 34-5 at ¶ 10]. Because
of his low performance review score, Ms. Nelson completed a performance improvement
plan for plaintiff which stated that he needed to “[p]rovide professional cleaning service to
the area to which you’re assigned” [Doc. 34-5 at ¶ 11; pp. 9—11].
Plaintiff applied for intermittent FMLA leave on April 21, 2013 and his request was
approved shortly thereafter [Doc. 34-6 at ¶¶ 4—5]. He exhausted his 480-hour (12 weeks)
FMLA leave entitlement on February 20, 2014 [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 16; Doc. 34-6 at ¶ 9, p. 17].
Around September 29, 2014, plaintiff contacted UTK Human Resources to inquire about
his eligibility for additional FMLA leave. After reviewing his attendance records, Human
Resources concluded that he had not worked enough hours in the preceding 12-month
period to be eligible for FMLA [Doc. 34-6 at ¶ 10]. In fact, from the exhaustion of his
FMLA leave in February 2014 until the termination of his employment, plaintiff never had
enough hours of service in the preceding 12-month period to be eligible for FMLA leave
[Doc. 34-6 at ¶ 11].
On August 8, 2013, plaintiff sent an email to the UTK ADA Coordinator, Jennifer
Richter, regarding his health issues and possible accommodations under the ADA [Doc.
34-4 at ¶ 4, p. 6]. Plaintiff met with Ms. Richter on August 15, 2013, and advised, “he has
muscle spasms that keep him from walking correctly,” “he can lose his balance and his
legs are stiff,” and “he cannot lift weight” [Doc. 34-4 at ¶ 6]. 5 He suggested that periodic
breaks and additional leave would help him perform his job [Id. at ¶ 7]. Plaintiff did not
return the completed ADA Accommodation Certification to Ms. Richter until April 14,
Ms. Richter states that plaintiff’s description of his physical limitations caused her to question
whether he was able, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform the essential
functions of a Service Aide [Doc. 34-4 at ¶ 6].
2014. On that form, plaintiff’s physician indicated that he suffered from “severe pain to
lumbar spine, severe muscle spasms to mainly truncal muscles due to Stiff Man Syndrome
and multiple disc herniations that causes the cord to be [contracted]” [Doc. 34-4 at ¶ 13, p.
11]. The form indicated that plaintiff had permanent limitations in “lifting, pulling,
tugging, bending, standing for long periods” and he had difficulty “sweeping, mop,
vacuum, bending for long periods of time, lifting heavy objects – trash” [Doc. 34-4 at ¶ 14,
p. 11]. Notably, the Accommodation form stated that no possible job accommodations
could improve his job performance [Doc. 34-4 at ¶ 16; p. 12].
During the summer of 2014, Aaron Nichols supervised plaintiff. Mr. Nichols
advised Mr. Nelson that plaintiff had missed work despite having no sick leave to cover
his absence and plaintiff had exhausted his FMLA leave [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 20]. Thus, Mr.
Nelson gave plaintiff an oral warning for attendance and imposed the same three
requirements for medical absences as stated above [Id.]. After missing work on July 1 and
7, 2014 with no accrued leave to cover his absences, plaintiff received a written warning
regarding his attendance [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 21, p. 24]. Plaintiff missed work again on July
15, 2014, also without any accrued leave to cover the absence, and he received a final
written warning regarding his attendance [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 22, p. 25].
On July 24, 2014, plaintiff sent an email to UTK Human Resources complaining of
“discrimination, unfair treatment and targeting, corruption and lies” [Doc. 34-17].
Plaintiff’s email recounted his diagnosis of MWS, asserted that his July 7 absence was the
result of confusion with his supervisor and that his July 15 absence was the result of
confusion about his sick leave balance [Id.].
Plaintiff suggested that a reasonable
accommodation, per the ADA, would be that he receive leave without pay or use annual
leave for the “rare days I have no choice but to miss” [Id. at p. 3]. He further claimed that
he was being punished for missing work due to “medical issues beyond my control” and
low scores on his performance reviews “based purely upon the fact that I am physically
unable to move as fast as my supervisors want me to move, or feel I should be able to
Because he was on final-warning status, plaintiff’s absence without leave on August
1, 2014 triggered a pre-termination letter pursuant to UTK policy and he was placed on
leave with pay [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 23, p. 26]. Mr. Nelson then learned of plaintiff’s July 24
email complaint of discrimination to Human Resources [Id. at ¶ 24]. Thus, Mr. Nelson
suspended the pre-termination process on August 8, 2014, to allow plaintiff time to work
through the accommodation process with Ms. Richter [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 24, p. 27]. Plaintiff
was placed on leave without pay effective August 11, 2014 [Id.].
Also on August 8, 2014, Mr. Nelson received an email from Joe Cagle, the Material
Control Supervisor for the Institute of Agriculture, complaining about plaintiff’s
performance [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 25, p. 28]. Mr. Cagle noted, “Rarely did I find him doing
anything but sitting in a chair beside the window doing something on his cell phone which
was plugged in a wall outlet” [Id.]. Mr. Cagle’s department also received a complaint that
plaintiff spent a lot of time just sitting in the Graduate Student offices [Id.]. Further, on
eight or nine occasions, Mr. Cagle observed plaintiff sitting in the back of an empty
classroom with the blinds closed and the lights turned off [Id.].
Plaintiff met with Ms. Richter again on August 14, 2014 and stated that he wanted
an electric, or “bubble,” car to transport trash from buildings to dumpsters and that he
wanted his area of responsibility to be reduced [Doc. 34-4 at ¶¶ 18—19]. Ms. Richter
directed plaintiff to provide supplemental medical documentation of his abilities, because
the Accommodation form he previously provided indicated that he could not do the
fundamental components of his job and there were no possible accommodations to assist
him [Id. at ¶ 24]. After consulting with plaintiff’s department, Ms. Richter proposed
several accommodations for plaintiff. First, he was allowed to take short breaks to take
medication or deal with breakthrough pain so long as the breaks were reasonable in length
and the medications did not impair his ability to do his job [Doc. 34-4 at ¶ 25]. As for his
request for a bubble car, Ms. Richter did not find that necessary as he could move trash
into the large receptacle bag by bag or in smaller incremental amounts [Id. at ¶ 26]. Finally,
Ms. Richter agreed that plaintiff could use any accumulated annual leave or earned
personal days without pre-approval for days when he was sick or had a medical
appointment but had no accumulated sick leave [Id. at ¶ 27].
accommodations were ultimately agreed to by the Building Services department on
October 6, 2014 [Doc. 34-4 at ¶ 31, pp. 26—27]. Following a meeting on October 9, 2014
with plaintiff, Mr. Nelson advised plaintiff by letter of October 10, 2014, of the
accommodations and requirements for his return to work on October 13, 2014 [Doc. 34-2
at ¶ 26, p. 29].
Upon his return to work, plaintiff was assigned to clean an area of the Agriculture
campus [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 26, p. 29]. At this time, plaintiff’s supervisor, Sheena Rhea, worked
with him for the first two days in order to provide him with orientation and instruction to
the space [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 27]. Following these two days, Ms. Rhea informed Mr. Nelson
that plaintiff “laughed when I tried to talk to him about his speed and the fact that we did
only one half of the duties he will be responsible for on a daily basis. He was not concerned
in the least” [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 27; Doc. 34-3 at ¶¶ 10—11, p. 6]. She further estimated that
plaintiff “accomplished 35-40% of the duties expected of him” [Id.].
On October 16, 2014, Ms. Rhea observed that plaintiff was not where he had
reported himself to be and she found him hiding in a room with his work shoes off [Doc.
34-2 at ¶ 28; Doc. 34-3 at ¶ 12, p. 7]. Accordingly, Mr. Nelson issued plaintiff a final
written warning for unsatisfactory work performance on October 20, 2014, which advised
that his continued failure to perform his assigned work and comply with break guidelines
would result in termination [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 29, pp. 30—31]. Subsequently, Ms. Rhea
informed Mr. Nelson of further performance deficiencies on October 28 and 29, 2014,
where plaintiff had neglected to clean bathrooms, vacuum floors, and empty trash [Doc.
34-2 at ¶¶ 30—31; Doc. 34-3 at ¶¶ 13—15].
Plaintiff suffered a workplace injury by twisting his ankle on October 31, 2014, and
he was placed on unpaid administrative leave to recover [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 32; Doc. 34-2 at ¶
18]. He returned to work on light duty on December 10, 2014, separating batteries, work
which could be performed without standing or walking [Id. at ¶ 33]. Plaintiff attended a
training class on December 17, 2014, where, according to Ms. Rhea, “he showed absolutely
no interest in the information and did not participate,” he was “disruptive and totally
disrespectful to the department he works for,” and showed “a total disregard for his job and
the rules that are associated with his job” [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 34, p. 32].
Plaintiff had medical appointments on December 16 and 18, 2014, and he took the
entire day off for each. Mr. Nelson again issued plaintiff a final written warning on
December 19, 2014 and counted those absences as leave without pay [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 35, p.
33]. Plaintiff was advised that failure to return to work after a medical appointment or to
give advance notice to his supervisor of an appointment would result in termination [Id.].
On January 6, 2015, plaintiff was released to work for four hours of regular duty
and four hours of light duty per day [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 36]. On January 22, 2015, Ms. Rhea
provided Mr. Nelson with photographs of plaintiff’s work area showing that he had not
mopped, dirty bathrooms, overflowing recycling bins, and areas that were clearly unswept
and in disarray [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 37; Doc. 34-3 at ¶ 20]. Thus, Mr. Nelson issued plaintiff a
final written warning on January 23, 2015, for unsatisfactory work performance and
advised that any further failure of this type would result in termination [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 38,
p. 34]. On January 25, 2015, plaintiff complained to Human Resources about this final
warning and the December 19, 2014 final warning regarding attendance by stating that
these warnings violated the terms of his accommodation agreement because he had
sufficient annual leave to cover both absences [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 39].
On January 26, 2015, Mr. Nelson received an email from Wally Beets, General
Superintendent in Air Conditioning Services, requesting that Mr. Nelson “get someone to
clean our restrooms in the A/C shop area … They are both a little haired over” [Doc. 34-2
at ¶ 40, p. 35]. Later that afternoon, after plaintiff claimed to have cleaned the A/C shop
area, Ms. Rhea reported that plaintiff “did not clean the restrooms, recycle, fill soap
dispensers, or clean the water fountains. The floors did not appear to have been mopped”
[Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 41; Doc. 34-3 at ¶ 22]. Mr. Nelson opined that the pictures sent by Ms.
Rhea “revealed an area that had been completely neglected over multiple days” [Id.]. Two
days later, Ms. Rhea reported that she inspected plaintiff’s entire area of responsibility and
found that he had completely neglected to clean any of his assigned areas [Doc. 34-2 at ¶
42; Doc. 34-3 at ¶ 23].
At this point, Mr. Nelson concluded that plaintiff was unwilling to perform his job
duties and he placed Cannon on administrative leave with pay on January 28, 2015, to
initiate the termination process [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 43, p. 36]. On February 2, 2015, Mr. Nelson
responded to plaintiff’s January 25, 2015 complaints as to the two final written warnings.
Upon review, plaintiff’s pay was adjusted for the December 16 and 18, 2014 absences, but
the warning was not rescinded because plaintiff still went to a doctor’s appointment and
failed to return to work without telling his supervisor [Doc. 34-2 at ¶¶ 44—45, pp. 37—
Further, Mr. Nelson advised that rescission of the attendance warning was
“inconsequential” and “would not affect the current situation, which is that we believe your
employment should be terminated based on continued unsatisfactory work performance …
those failures have resulted in verbal and written complaints from your customers” [Id.].
Following a pre-termination hearing on February 10, 2015, Mr. Nelson consulted
with UTK’s Office of Human Resources and concluded that “the University had fully met
Cannon’s disability accommodation demands and that he, nonetheless, was failing to do
his job. I do not know whether his performance was related to physical limitations or not.
I simply knew we had accommodated him and he still was not performing acceptably”
[Doc. 34-2 at ¶¶ 46—48]. Mr. Nelson terminated plaintiff’s employment on February 11,
2015 [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 49, p. 40]. Despite the many issues related to plaintiff’s attendance,
Mr. Nelson states he did not terminate plaintiff for attendance, but because his performance
“was far below the professional cleaning standards we expect from our Service Aides. He
rarely completed service on his assigned areas and, when he did, the quality of service was
deficient” [Doc. 34-2 at ¶¶ 50—51].
Standard of Review
Summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is proper
“if the movant shows 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). The moving party bears
the burden of establishing that no genuine issues of material fact exist. Celotex Corp. v.
Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Moore v. Phillip Morris Cos., 8 F.3d 335, 339 (6th Cir.
1993). All facts and all inferences to be drawn therefrom must be viewed in the light most
favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp.,
475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Burchett v. Kiefer, 310 F.3d 937, 942 (6th Cir. 2002). “Once
the moving party presents evidence sufficient to support a motion under Rule 56, the
nonmoving party is not entitled to a trial merely on the basis of allegations.” Curtis
Through Curtis v. Universal Match Corp., 778 F. Supp. 1421, 1423 (E.D. Tenn. 1991)
(citing Celotex, 477 U.S. 317). To establish a genuine issue as to the existence of a
particular element, the non-moving party must point to evidence in the record upon which
a reasonable finder of fact could find in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477
U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The genuine issue must also be material; that is, it must involve
facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id.
The Court’s function at the point of summary judgment is limited to determining
whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of fact a proper question
for the factfinder. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. The Court does not weigh the evidence or
determine the truth of the matter. Id. at 249. Nor does the Court search the record “to
establish that it is bereft of a genuine issue of material fact.” Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co.,
886 F.2d 1472, 1479-80 (6th Cir. 1989). Thus, “the inquiry performed is the threshold
inquiry of determining whether there is a need for a trial—whether, in other words, there
are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because
they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.
The FMLA enables covered employees to take up to twelve weeks of leave per
year for various purposes specified in the statute, including caring for a family member
with a serious health condition or for the employee's own “serious health condition that
makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position of such employee.”
29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(C) & (D). A “serious health condition” is defined as “an illness,
injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves (A) inpatient care in a
hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility; or (B) continuing treatment by a
health care provider.” 29 U.S.C. § 2611(11). At the expiration of the employee's leave
period, he must be reinstated to his position or to a position equivalent in pay, benefits,
and other terms and conditions of employment. 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(1).
The Sixth Circuit recognizes two distinct theories of wrongdoing under the FMLA.
Seeger v. Cincinnati Bell Tel. Co., LLC, 681 F.3d 274, 282 (6th Cir. 2012); Killian v.
Yorozu Auto. Tenn., Inc., 454 F.3d 549, 555–56 (6th Cir. 2006). The “entitlement” or
“interference” theory arises from §§ 2615(a)(1) and 2614(a)(1), which make it unlawful
for employers to interfere with or deny an employee's exercise of his FMLA rights (§
2615(a)(1)), and which require the employer to restore the employee to the same or an
equivalent position upon the employee's return (§ 2614(a)(1)). Arban v. West Publ'g Corp.,
345 F.3d 390, 400–01 (6th Cir. 2003). The “retaliation” or “discrimination” theory, on the
other hand, arises from § 2615(a)(2), which prohibits an employer from discharging or
discriminating against an employee for “opposing any practice made unlawful by” the Act.
Id. at 401. Cannon has alleged claims under both theories [Doc. 28 at ¶¶ 37—42].
Absent direct evidence of unlawful conduct, FMLA-retaliation claims are evaluated
according to the burden-shifting framework announced in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v.
Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Seeger, 681 F.3d at 283. To establish a prima facie case of
FMLA retaliation, a plaintiff must show that (1) he engaged in a statutorily protected
activity, (2) this exercise of his protected rights was known to the defendant, (3) he suffered
an adverse employment action, and (4) there was a causal connection between the adverse
employment action and the protected activity. Tennial v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., No.
15-6356, 2016 WL 6156315, at *9 (6th Cir. Oct. 24, 2016). If the plaintiff satisfies his
prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the defendant to offer evidence of a legitimate,
non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Seeger, 681 F.3d at 284. If
the defendant succeeds, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the defendant's
proffered reason is a pretext for unlawful discrimination. Id. at 285. “Although the burdens
of production shift, ‘[t]he ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant
intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff remains at all times with the plaintiff.’”
Bryson v. Regis Corp., 498 F.3d 561, 570 (6th Cir. 2007) (quoting Tex. Dep't of Cmty.
Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981)) (alteration in original).
Although neither party specifies this, it appears that the only prima facie element in
dispute is whether plaintiff can establish a causal connection. In order to establish a causal
connection, a plaintiff must show some type of retaliatory intent. Tennial, 2016 WL
6156315, at *9. An FMLA retaliation claim accordingly centers around “[t]he employer's
motive … because retaliation claims impose liability on employers that act against
employees specifically because those employees invoked their FMLA rights.” Edgar v.
JAC Prods., Inc., 443 F.3d 501, 508 (6th Cir. 2006) (emphasis in original).
In support of this claim, plaintiff relies on the 2013 performance evaluation,
completed in April 2014, the score of “1” for dependability, and Ms. Nelson’s comment
that she “can not count on Seth to be at work on a daily basis” [Doc. 34-1 at p. 26; Doc.
34-5 at pp. 4—8]. Plaintiff testified that it was “unfair to put a low score and say, just
blanketly (sic) that I’m not reliable to come in” because some of his absences in 2013 were
FMLA-protected [Doc. 34-1 at p. 26]. He states “everything, that entire thing is the reason
why” he believes he was retaliated against [Doc. 34-1 at p. 27].
UTK responds that both Ms. Nelson and Mr. Nelson testified that she was instructed
to disregard plaintiff’s FMLA absences and she did so. UTK also notes that plaintiff
missed 302 hours (37 days) in 2013 that were not FMLA-protected. Thus, UTK argues
there is no inference that plaintiff’s low rating for dependability was attributable to his
FMLA leave and not his other unprotected absences [Doc. 35 at pp. 20—21]. Plaintiff
argues the opposite – that the inference must be that Ms. Nelson considered his FMLA
absences in evaluating his performance and that there is no evidence to prove that she and
Mr. Nelson analyzed his absences as they have stated [Doc. 37 at pp. 3—4]. In reply, UTK
points out that Mr. Nelson’s and Ms. Nelson’s testimony is unrefuted and that plaintiff
missed 133.3 hours in 2013 before he applied for FMLA and the remaining unprotected
2013 absences were because he failed to notify his department that he was taking FMLA
leave [Doc. 39 at pp. 8—9].
Plaintiff has presented no evidence of retaliatory intent with respect to his FMLA
leave. He applied for, and was approved for, FMLA leave in April 2013, and exhausted
his FMLA leave entitlement in February 2014. Ms. Nelson claims that she was instructed
to disregard plaintiff’s FMLA-protected absences in evaluating his 2013 performance and
that she did so. Mr. Nelson confirms this testimony and plaintiff has presented no evidence
to refute it. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (the non-moving party must point to evidence
in the record upon which a reasonable finder of fact could find in its favor).
Even if the Court were to infer that Ms. Nelson’s comments and his performance
evaluation score were really about his FMLA absences, plaintiff has presented no evidence
that the 2013 attendance score was connected to his termination in 2015. See Tennial, 2016
WL 6156315, at *9 (“Temporal proximity of more than six months, standing alone, has not
been found to support an inference of retaliatory discrimination absent other compelling
evidence”) (citing Nguyen v. City of Cleveland, 229 F.3d 559, 566—67 (6th Cir. 2000));
Mickey v. Zeidler Tool & Die Co., 516 F.3d 516, 525 (6th Cir. 2008) (“where some time
elapses between when the employer learns of a protected activity and the subsequent
adverse employment, act, the employee must couple temporal proximity with other
evidence of retaliatory conduct to establish causality”). In short, there is simply no
evidence to support a finding that Cannon’s use of FMLA leave was UTK’s “true
motivation” for terminating him. Accordingly, UTK is entitled to summary judgment on
the FMLA retaliation claim.
The FMLA makes it “unlawful for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny
the exercise of or the attempt to exercise” any FMLA right. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1). “If an
employer takes an employment action based, in whole or in part, on the fact that the
employee took FMLA-protected leave, the employer has denied the employee a benefit to
which he is entitled.” Wysong v. Dow Chem. Co., 503 F.3d 441, 447 (6th Cir. 2007). To
establish a prima facie case of FMLA interference, plaintiff must show that (1) he was an
eligible employee; (2) the defendant was an employer as defined under the FMLA; (3) the
employee was entitled to leave under the FMLA; (4) the employee gave the employer
notice of his intention to take leave; and (5) the employer denied the employee FMLA
benefits to which he was entitled. Donald v. Sybra, Inc., 667 F.3d 757, 761 (6th Cir. 2012);
Killian, 454 F.3d at 556. As with the retaliation claim, the McDonnell Douglas framework
applies, meaning that the employer must respond to the prima facie case with evidence that
“it had a legitimate reason unrelated to the exercise of FMLA rights for terminating the
employee,” whereupon the plaintiff must show pretext. Tillman v. Ohio Bell Tel. Co., 545
F. App'x 340, 351 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting Donald, 667 F.3d at 762).
UTK argues that plaintiff cannot establish either the third or the fifth element of his
claim because he was never denied FMLA leave to which he was entitled. As set forth
above, plaintiff applied for and was approved for intermittent FMLA leave in April 2013
and he exhausted the full amount of FMLA leave in February 2014. When he next inquired
about FMLA leave, in September 2014, plaintiff had worked only 1,129.5 hours in the
preceding 12 months and was therefore ineligible for FMLA leave. Per UTK’s Human
Resources department, at no point from the time of his exhaustion of FMLA leave until his
termination did plaintiff become eligible for FMLA leave. Accordingly, UTK argues that
plaintiff received all the FMLA benefits to which he was entitled and there is no basis for
his interference claim [Doc. 35 at pp. 24—25].
In response, plaintiff contends that UTK interfered with his FMLA rights when
Gordon Nelson mistakenly told plaintiff he could not reapply for FMLA leave until he
worked 1,600 hours from when his prior FMLA period ended. 6 Plaintiff also argues that
UTK interfered with his FMLA rights when he was placed on leave without pay for two
months (August 8 through October 13, 2014) during the ADA interactive process and then
It is undisputed that the FMLA and UTK policy state that an employee must have worked at least
1,250 hours in the preceding 12 months to be eligible for FMLA leave. 29 U.S.C. § 2611(2)(A)(ii);
Doc. 34-6 at ¶ 10; Doc. 34-6 at p. 18.
“counted that leave against him” because it made him ineligible for FMLA leave [Doc. 37
at pp. 5—7]. Plaintiff asserts that as of April 22, 2014, he had worked approximately
1,366.8 hours in the preceding 12 months and was therefore eligible to reapply for FMLA
[Doc. 37 at p. 5]. However, there is no explanation as to the basis for this calculation and
it is not evident from the exhibits provided [Doc. 37-5]. 7 See Mitchell v. Toledo Hosp.,
964 F.2d 577, 585 (6th Cir. 1992) (conclusory allegations unsupported by specific evidence
are insufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact). UTK does not respond to this
or the assertion regarding plaintiff’s period of leave without pay, but merely asserts that
only Human Resources can grant FMLA leave and plaintiff was never eligible for FMLA
at any point after his FMLA entitlement expired in February 2014 [Doc. 39 at p. 9].
To qualify as an “eligible employee” under the FMLA, the employee must have
been employed “for at least 1,250 hours of service … during the previous 12-month
period.” 29 U.S.C. § 2611(2)(A). Although the FMLA does not define the term “hours of
service,” the FMLA's implementing regulations clarify that “[t]he determining factor is the
number of hours an employee has worked for the employer within the meaning of the FLSA
[Fair Labor Standards Act] .... [A]ny accurate accounting of actual hours worked under
FLSA's principles may be used.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.110(c)(1) (emphasis added). Thus, to
qualify as an “eligible employee” under the FMLA, plaintiff has the burden must prove
Plaintiff has submitted copies of his leave records from 2013 and 2014 [Doc. 37-5], which indicate
the amount of and types of leave he used. However, save for a handwritten notation of regular
hours worked between September 29, 2013 – September 29, 2014, these documents do not indicate
the days or hours worked. Instead, the records indicate some of the hours he did not work, but
there is no accounting for days or hours when plaintiff was not scheduled to work and was not on
any type of leave.
that he actually worked 1,250 hours in the 12 months prior to his request. Saulsberry v.
Fed. Exp. Corp., 552 F. App'x 424, 429 (6th Cir. 2014); Webb v. U.P.S., Inc., No. 3:06CV-176, 2007 WL 2903916, at *5 (E.D. Tenn. Oct. 2, 2007).
The record contains the unrefuted testimony from UTK’s Human Resources
department that plaintiff never became eligible for FMLA leave again after the expiration
of his leave entitlement in February 2014 because he never worked 1,250 in any 12-month
period. Thus, accepting plaintiff’s testimony as true that Mr. Nelson misstated the standard
for FMLA eligibility, plaintiff nevertheless was not eligible for FMLA.
unsupported assertion that he worked enough hours to become eligible is insufficient to
create a genuine issue of disputed fact. Indeed, as to his FMLA interference claim, plaintiff
testified that he “couldn’t come up with anything that would be done different” [Doc. 341 at p. 27]. Accordingly, UTK is entitled to summary judgment as to plaintiff’s FMLA
ADA/Rehabilitation Act Claims
Plaintiff asserts claims of disability discrimination and retaliation under the ADA
and the Rehabilitation Act, and a claim of a disability-based hostile work environment
under the Rehabilitation Act [Doc. 28 at ¶¶ 20—36]. Both statutes prohibit discrimination
against a qualified individual with a disability, see 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a) (prohibiting
discrimination “against a qualified individual on the basis of disability”); 29 U.S.C. §
794(a) (prohibiting discrimination against a “qualified individual with a disability … solely
by reason of his or her disability”), and they are construed similarly. Babcock v. Michigan,
812 F.3d 531, 540 (6th Cir. 2016); Mahon v. Crowell, 295 F.3d 585, 589 (6th Cir. 2002).
A plaintiff may prove that he was discriminated against based on his disability either
through direct or indirect evidence. Hedrick v. W. Reserve Case Sys., 355 F.3d 444, 453—
54 (6th Cir. 2004). Plaintiff has presented no direct evidence of disability discrimination
so his claims must be reviewed under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.
Id. at 452—53. To state a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, the plaintiff
must establish that: (1) he is disabled; (2) he was otherwise qualified for the position, with
or without reasonable accommodation; (3) he suffered an adverse employment decision;
(4) the employer knew or had reason to know of his disability; and (5) the disabled
individual was replaced. Ferrari v. Ford Motor Co., 826 F.3d 885, 894 (6th Cir. 2016);
Whitfield v. Tennessee, 639 F.3d 253, 259 (6th Cir. 2011). 8 Furthermore, the plaintiff’s
disability must be a “but for” cause of the adverse employment action under the ADA, and
the sole cause of the adverse action under the Rehabilitation Act. Lewis v. Humboldt
Acquisition Corp., 681 F.3d 312, 317—18 (6th Cir. 2012) (en banc); Lee v. City of
Columbus, 636 F.3d 245, 250 (6th Cir. 2011) (the Rehabilitation Act prohibits
discrimination “solely” on the basis of disability).
The prima facie elements under the Rehabilitation Act are: (1) the plaintiff is a “handicapped
person” under the Act; (2) the plaintiff is “otherwise qualified” for participation in the program;
(3) the plaintiff is being excluded from participation in, or being denied the benefits of, or being
subjected to discrimination under the program solely by reason of his handicap; and (4) the relevant
program or activity is receiving Federal financial assistance. G.C. v. Owensboro Pub. Sch., 711
F.3d 623, 635 (6th Cir. 2013).
Whether Plaintiff was a Qualified Individual with a Disability
UTK challenges whether plaintiff can satisfy the second element of a prima facie
case of disability discrimination under either the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act, whether
he is not a qualified individual with a disability, because he could not perform the essential
function of his job with or without reasonable accommodation. In support of this argument,
UTK points to plaintiff’s sworn statements to the Social Security Administration in support
of his application for disability benefits, his statements to the University, the observations
of plaintiff’s doctors in his medical records, and the observations of his supervisors [Doc.
35 at pp. 13—18].
Plaintiff responds by asserting that he was capable of performing the duties of his
job with accommodation. He further contends that he “satisfied the attendance policy” 9
and that UTK failed to consider the positive evaluations of his work performance. Plaintiff
points to the deposition testimony of Mr. Nelson, Mr. Caudill, and Ms. Rhea that they
believed he was physically capable of performing his job, that plaintiff himself believed he
could do the job, and that his doctors opined that he was capable of performing the job.
Finally, plaintiff contends that he applied for Social Security disability benefits prior to the
diagnosis of Stiff-Person Syndrome and receipt of a medication regimen to control his pain
and symptoms and four years prior to his termination [Doc. 37 at pp. 25—28].
Even assuming that plaintiff was correct in this assertion, which is doubtful given the numerous
references to attendance issues in the record, the plaintiff’s ability to “satisfy” the attendance
record does not mean that he is physically capable of performing the essential functions of the
Service Aide job, with or without accommodation.
A plaintiff is “disabled” under the ADA if he (1) has a physical or mental
impairment that substantially limits one or more of the plaintiff's major life activities; (2)
the plaintiff has a record of such impairment; or (3) the plaintiff is regarded by an employer
as having such an impairment. 10 Gruener v. Ohio Cas. Ins. Co., 510 F.3d 661, 664 (6th
Cir. 2008) (citing Sullivan v. River Valley Sch. Dist., 197 F.3d 804, 810 (6th Cir. 1999))
(quotations omitted); see also 42 U.S.C. §§ 12102(1)(A)-(C). It is undisputed that walking
is a major life activity, 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)(A), and that it is an essential function of the
Service Aide position. While there is no definite amount of time or distance that a Service
Aide walks per shift, Ms. Nelson estimates that she walked between 6.5 and 7.0 miles per
shift as a Service Aide. Further, the Service Aide position description requires the
employee to be able “to perform hard physical labor for long periods of time” and to clean
restrooms, pick up trash, scrub floors, and vacuum carpets [Doc. 34-2 at pp. 11—16].
A qualified individual with a disability is one who, with or without reasonable
accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job and it is the plaintiff’s
burden to prove he can meet this criteria. 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8); Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt.
Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795, 806 (1999). If the plaintiff’s disability renders him unable to
perform an essential function of his job, then he is not a “qualified individual” protected
by the ADA. Wagner v. Sherwin-Williams Co., 647 F. App’x 645, 647 (6th Cir. 2016).
“Neither application for nor receipt of social security benefits is by itself conclusive
evidence that an individual is completely incapable of working.” Stallings v. Detroit Pub.
Plaintiff makes no argument that he was regarded as disabled or that he had a record of
impairment such as to make him disabled under the ADA.
Sch., 658 F. App’x 221, 226 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Demyanovich v. Cadon Plating &
Coatings, L.L.C., 747 F.3d 419, 429 (6th Cir. 2014)). Instead, “a plaintiff's sworn assertion
in an application for disability benefits that [he] is, for example, “unable to work” will
appear to negate an essential element of her ADA case—at least if [he] does not offer a
sufficient explanation. For that reason, we hold that an ADA plaintiff cannot simply ignore
the apparent contradiction that arises out of the earlier SSDI total disability claim. Rather,
[he] must proffer a sufficient explanation.” Cleveland, 526 U.S. at 806 (citation omitted,
emphasis added). For instance, an ADA plaintiff can survive summary judgment by
explaining that he can perform the essential functions of his position with a reasonable
accommodation—a consideration the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) disability
determination does not take into account. See, e.g., Olds v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 127
F. App’x 779, 783–84 (6th Cir. 2005); see also Cleveland, 526 U.S. at 807. Further,
plaintiff’s explanation must be “sufficient to warrant a reasonable juror’s concluding that,
assuming the truth of, or the plaintiff’s good-faith belief in, the earlier statement, the
plaintiff could nonetheless ‘perform the essential functions’ of [his] job, with or without
‘reasonable accommodation.’” Cleveland, 526 U.S. at 807.
In the March 17, 2011 function report for Social Security disability benefits,
plaintiff stated that:
• “Agonizing pain and muscle spasms prevent me from standing or even
walking normally for any length of time.” [Doc. 34-19 at p. 2]
• “I am often unable to stand in the shower” [Doc. 34-19 at p. 3]
• “I can only slowly walk for a couple minutes, climbing more than a few stairs
more than a couple times is incredibly difficult. Standing causes agony, very
quickly, as does squatting.” [Doc. 34-19 at p. 7]
• Plaintiff can walk for “a couple minutes” before needing to stop and rest for
“at least 20-25 minutes.” [Doc. 34-19 at p. 7]
• “Standing up does cause a lot of pain. When I stand after sitting for only a
couple minutes, I can barely stand it. It causes fierce pain and a discomfort
similar to “pins and needles.” Lifting more than 10 lbs causes a lot of pain.
Bending and kneeling cause pain when I start to get up from the position.”
[Doc. 34-19 at p. 9]
In the February 24, 2012 function report for Social Security disability benefits,
plaintiff stated that:
• “Stiff Person Syndrome has seriously affected the strength I have, especially
in my legs. My mobility has become even more limited. The muscle spasms
are constant and make everything difficult.” [Doc. 34-19 at p. 10]
• “I now have to use a shower chair in the shower due to the weakness and
pain in my legs.” [Doc. 34-19 at p. 11]
• “I do have difficulty trying to stand and shave.” [Doc. 34-19 at p. 11]
• “Leaning against the wall is now necessary in order to use the toilet.” [Doc.
34-19 at p. 11]
• “When grocery shopping, I require a wheelchair.” [Doc. 34-19 at p. 13]
• “Lifting more than 10-15 pounds causes my arms and back to hurt and spasm.
I cannot squat at all. I can only sit and stand for around 10-20 minutes at the
most. Kneeling is nearly impossible, it’s very difficult to get up. Climbing
stairs is highly painful, and it takes me a while to go up and down steps.”
[Doc. 34-19 at p. 15]
• Plaintiff answered that he could walk “15-20 feet” before needing to stop and
rest and he could resume walking after “10 minutes.” [Doc. 34-19 at p. 15]
On both reports, plaintiff stated that he needed a cane [Doc. 34-19 at pp. 8, 16]. In
appealing the denial of his application, plaintiff stated, “I have tried to walk as long as I
could, I just can no longer walk, the pain and complications are too severe.” [Doc. 34- 19
at p. 29].
Plaintiff told Mr. Irvin in August 2012, that he “can barely talk or walk” due to the
symptoms of Stiff Man Syndrome [Doc. 34-9]. In August 2013, plaintiff told Ms. Richter
that he had muscle spasms that kept him from walking correctly and, a month later, that he
suffered an injury from walking 30 minutes to his building on a football game day [Doc.
34-4 at ¶¶ 6, 11]. Mr. Nelson observed plaintiff walking with a cane and testified, “no one
who required a cane could walk at a sufficient pace to fulfill the duties of a Service Aide”
[Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 59]. Ms. Rhea observed that plaintiff “moved much too slowly to complete
the typical tasks of a Service Aide. His gait, his motions, and his pace of cleaning were all
very slow. Further, he seemed very reliant on his wheeled trash barrel for support and
balance” [Doc. 34-3 at ¶ 7]. Ms. Nelson observed plaintiff “moved too slowly to complete
the responsibilities ordinarily assigned to Service Aides” [Doc. 34-5 at ¶ 5]. Thus, his
statements to University officials and their observations of his performance indicate that
he is not capable of performing the duties of a Service Aide.
The record also contains several statements by plaintiff to his doctors and their
observations of his abilities. In September 2013, plaintiff told Dr. Ayers that he was
“barely able to move” and “can only lie [on] his back or left side” [Doc. 34-7 at p. 1]. In
January 2014, Dr. Fox observed that plaintiff’s “[f]unctional impairment is severe [and]
interferes with most, but not all daily activities” and plaintiff demonstrated “hesitancy in
movement, limps” [Id.]. In March, April, and May 2014, plaintiff told Dr. Fox that
working full time was “becoming … more difficult” [Id. at pp. 1—2]. In August 2014,
plaintiff described his functional impairment to Dr. Fox as “severe” and Dr. Fox observed
plaintiff had “hesitancy in movement, uses cane” [Id. at p. 2]. In September 2014, Dr.
Ayers opined that plaintiff “needs to be able to sit down as necessary” and “encouraged
pursuing education that would allow him to do something clerical and less physical” [Id.
at p. 3]. 11 In November, plaintiff’s “[m]obility is worse [and] ambulates with assistance
from bilateral crutches” [Id.]. Again, in December 2014 and January 2015, Dr. Fox
reported that plaintiff’s mobility was “worse” and that he ambulated “with assistance from
a four point cane” [Id. at pp. 3—4]. In January 2015, plaintiff reported to Dr. Fox “My
back kills me, even just working 4 hours a day” [Id. at p. 4].
On the other hand, plaintiff has submitted evidence from some members of the
University community that he performed well as a Service Aide. Matt Kredich, Head
Swimming Coach, wrote that plaintiff did “exemplary” work and showed “a real attention
to detail” in the Aquatic Center [Doc. 37-34]. Brenda Anderson, in the Parking and Transit
office, commented that plaintiff was “doing a great job in keeping up our offices” [Doc.
37-35]. Similarly, Jill Brown, from the Parking and Transit Services Permit Office,
reported that plaintiff was doing “a great job” and “providing a wonderful service to the
University” [Doc. 37-36]. Finally, Tom Anderson, Central Supply Team, advised that
plaintiff “performed well in the time he was given” and his performance was “acceptable”
[Doc. 37-37]. Although UTK is dismissive of these comments as not representative of the
overall quality of his performance, they are some evidence that plaintiff was capable of
performing the essential functions of his job.
The Court disagrees with plaintiff’s assertion that the statements in support of his
SSDI application are “inconsequential” and have “no bearing on his ability to work four
As part of the accommodation process, Dr. Ayers wrote the University that, “As long as
[plaintiff] stays on his medication and as long as he is able to stop and rest as he needs to, then I
think that Mister Cannon will be able to perform the responsibilities of his job.” [Doc. 34-4 at p.
years later” [Doc. 37 at p. 28]. Plaintiff’s statements are not conclusive evidence that he
cannot walk sufficiently to perform the essential functions of his job, but they are
persuasive evidence. Similarly, his statements to his doctors and University officials and
their observations about his abilities are persuasive evidence of his inability to perform the
duties of a Service Aide. They are not sworn statements by plaintiff that contradict his
sworn statements to the Social Security Administration as contemplated by the Cleveland
opinion, but they are some evidence of his ability to do the Service Aide job. In contrast,
plaintiff points to testimony from Mr. Caudill, Ms. Rhea, and Mr. Nelson that each believed
plaintiff was physically capable of doing the job. Plaintiff also asserts, “[h]e simply needed
an accommodation” in order to perform the Service Aide job [Doc. 37]. The record
reflects, and plaintiff does not dispute, that UTK offered several accommodations to assist
him in the performance of his duties.
In light of the evidence on both sides of this coin, the Court cannot weigh the
evidence and determine as a matter of law whether plaintiff was a qualified individual as
required by the ADA. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. Accordingly, the Court will assume
for purposes of the pending motion that plaintiff can satisfy the elements of a prima facie
case of disability discrimination.
Whether Plaintiff Can Establish a Prima Facie Case of Disability Based
Hostile Work Environment
Plaintiff alleges that he was subject to harassment by his supervisors based on his
disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act [Doc. 28 at ¶¶ 24—27]. To establish a
prima facie case of hostile work environment under the Rehabilitation Act, plaintiff must
show: (1) he was disabled; (2) he was subject to unwelcome harassment; (3) the harassment
was based on his disability; (4) the harassment unreasonably interfered with his work
performance; and (5) defendant either knew or should have known about the harassment
and failed to take corrective measures. 12 Spence v. Donahoe, 515 F. App’x 561, 571 (6th
Cir. 2013). UTK argues that plaintiff cannot show that he was either subject to unwelcome
harassment (the second element) or that UTK knew or should have known about the
harassment and failed to take corrective measures (the fifth element) [Doc. 35 at pp. 23—
24]. UTK contends that the criticisms of plaintiff’s work do not rise to the level of
unwelcome harassment and were not connected to his medical condition. As to the fifth
element, UTK points to Ms. Richter’s testimony that plaintiff never complained to her or
to anyone else in her office about disability–based harassment [Doc. 34-4 at ¶ 34]. 13
Notably, plaintiff does not respond to these arguments at all or otherwise address his hostile
work environment claim in any way.
A hostile work environment is one that is “permeated with discriminatory
intimidation, ridicule and insult … that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the
UTK correctly notes that the elements of a hostile work environment claim, if asserted, would
be the same under the ADA. See Gentry v. Summit Behavioral Healthcare, 197 F. App’x 434,
437—38 (6th Cir. 2006).
Plaintiff has not disputed that he never complained to UTK of harassment. However, UTK has
presented no evidence of a University policy against harassment or other preventive or corrective
opportunities as required to prove both prongs of this element. See, e.g., Theus v.
GlaxoSmithKline, 452 F. App’x 596, 601 (6th Cir. 2011) (in a sexual harassment case, “[employer]
has also established that it took reasonable care to prevent sexual harassment by having a written,
properly disseminated anti-harassment policy”); Clark v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 400 F.3d 341,
349 (6th Cir. 2005) (in the Title VII context, “in determining whether [employer] took reasonable
care in preventing and promptly correctly the alleged sexual harassment in this case, we must look
not only to [employer’s] sexual harassment policy … but also to its implementation of that
conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.”
Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993) (internal citations omitted). Moreover,
the purported harassment must be “because of the employee’s protected status.” Michael
v. Caterpillar Fin. Servs. Corp., 496 F.3d 584, 600 (6th Cir. 2007); Plautz v. Potter, 156
F. App’x 812, 819 (6th Cir. 2005) (“[t]here is no evidence that [plaintiff] was ridiculed or
insulted because of his medical condition”); McDonald v. Potter, No. 1:06-CV-1, 2007
WL 2300332, at *58 (E.D. Tenn. Aug. 7, 2007) (Lee, M.J.).
Plaintiff testified that he was told, “You’re taking too long to do this,” and then
“Well now you’re doing it too fast, you must not be doing your job right,” or “You must
not be doing things thoroughly” [Doc. 34-1 at p. 12]. He claims a supervisor told him he
“should just quit, that I would be better off to just quit” [Id.]. Further, he was told, “you’re
just not interested in doing your job,” “[y]ou just don’t care about doing this,” “[y]ou just
don’t care about any of this, you’re not doing your job,” and “[y]ou don’t want to, you’re
just lazy” [Id.]. Assuming the truth of plaintiff’s testimony, none of these remarks
reference plaintiff’s medical condition. While the “you should just quit” comment might
be considered insulting, it is not linked to plaintiff’s protected status.
“conversations between an employee and his superiors about his performance does not
constitute harassment simply because they cause the employee distress.” Plautz, 156 F.
App’x at 819 (quoting Keever v. City of Middletown, 145 F.3d 809, 813 (6th Cir. 1998)).
The Court finds that no reasonable trier of fact could find that plaintiff suffered from a
hostile work environment and therefore UTK is entitled to summary judgment on this
Whether Plaintiff Can Establish a Prima Facie Case of Retaliation
Plaintiff asserts that his termination was in retaliation for complaining about
discrimination in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA. Under the ADA, “[n]o
person shall discriminate against any individual because such individual has opposed any
act or practice made unlawful by [the ADA] or because such individual made a charge ...
under [the ADA].” 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a); see 29 U.S.C. § 794(a) & (d) (incorporating
ADA standards into the Rehabilitation Act); 29 C.F.R. § 33.13. A plaintiff need not
actually be disabled to assert a claim of disability retaliation. However, the plaintiff must
have a reasonable and good faith belief that the opposed act or practice is unlawful under
the ADA. Barrett v. Lucent Tech., 36 F. App’x 835, 840 (6th Cir. 2002).
To establish a prima facie case of retaliation under the ADA, a plaintiff must
demonstrate: (1) he engaged in protected activity; (2) his engagement in that protected
activity was known to his employer; (3) his employer, thereafter, took an adverse
employment action against him; and (4) a causal link exists between his engagement in the
protected activity and the adverse employment action. Rorrer v. City of Stow, 743 F.3d
1025, 1046 (6th Cir. 2014); Spence, 515 F. App’x at 572 (applying same factors under the
Rehabilitation Act). The only prima facie element challenged here, the causal connection,
requires a plaintiff to produce sufficient evidence to infer that an employer would not have
taken the adverse employment action had the plaintiff not engaged in a protected activity.
Barrett, 36 F. App’x at 841. “A causal connection may be shown by direct evidence or by
knowledge of the complaints on the part of the employer coupled with a closeness in time
sufficient to create an inference of causation.” Id. “[W]here an employer treats an
employee differently after she asserts her rights under the ADA than before she had done
so, a retaliatory motive may be inferred. See Cantrell v. Nissan N. Am. Inc., 145 F. App'x
99, 105–06 (6th Cir. 2005); Walborn v. Erie County Care Facility, 150 F.3d 584, 589 (6th
Plaintiff sent a complaint to UTK’s Human Resources Office on July 24, 2014 in
which he complained of “discrimination, unfair treatment and targeting, corruption and
lies” and related a series of events concerning his health and attendance [Doc. 37-17]. In
support of its argument on the lack of causation between this complaint and plaintiff’s
termination on February 11, 2015, UTK points to plaintiff’s testimony that “[t]he evidence
I have is the paperwork that shows an increase in the amount that things [sic] have taken
place with these write-ups and these accusations” and that Ms. Rhea’s scrutiny of his
performance “continued on” after his complaint of discrimination [Doc. 34-1 at pp. 25—
26]. UTK contends that plaintiff’s subjective, unsubstantiated beliefs are not evidence and
are insufficient to demonstrate a causal connection [Doc. 35 at pp. 19—20].
Although the burden of establishing a prima facie case of retaliation is “not
onerous,” the plaintiff must “nevertheless establish but-for causation at both the prima facie
and pretext stages of the McDonnell-Douglas framework.” Adamov v. U.S. Bank Nat’l
Ass’n, No. 16-5458, 2017 WL 902141, at *3 (6th Cir. Mar. 7, 2017); E.E.O.C. v. Ford
Motor Co., 782 F.3d 753, 767, 770 (6th Cir. 2015) (en banc). In light of the nearly seven
month lapse between plaintiff’s complaint and his termination, the Court finds that plaintiff
cannot rely on temporal proximity, but must present other evidence of retaliatory conduct
to show causation. See Adamov, 2017 WL 902141, at *4; Montell v. Diversified Clinical
Servs., Inc. 757 F.3d 497, 505—06 (6th Cir. 2014); Cooper v. City of N. Olmsted, 795 F.2d
1265, 1272 (6th Cir. 1986) (four-month period between protected activity and discharge is
insufficient to support an inference of retaliation). Plaintiff does not directly respond to
UTK’s causation argument, but instead points to numerous events which he claims are
evidence of retaliation and/or pretext [Doc. 37 at pp. 8—25] and which UTK contends are
not credible evidence of pretext [Doc. 39 at pp. 4—8].
Because the same circumstances which establish a causal connection between the
protected activity and the adverse employment action may serve as sufficient evidence of
pretext, the Court next considers whether plaintiff’s proffered evidence of retaliation shows
causation and pretext. Cantrell v. Nissan N. Am. Inc., 145 F. App'x 99, 107 n.2 (6th Cir.
2005) (“The overlap between the causal connection requirement and a showing that the
proffered reason for termination was not the actual reason is implicitly recognized in our
case law, which permits both to be proven by the same type of evidence.”).
UTK’s Legitimate Non-Discriminatory Reason
UTK argues that it has presented “overwhelming evidence” that plaintiff was
terminated for a legitimate non-discriminatory reason, his poor job performance [Doc. 35
at pp. 21—22]. The record establishes that UTK received complaints about the quality of
plaintiff’s performance from multiple sources and that his supervisors documented their
own observations of his performance. The record also reflects, through several years of
performance evaluations, that plaintiff’s performance did not meet expectations well before
his complaint of discrimination and request for accommodation. Plaintiff does not dispute
that UTK has presented a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for his termination.
Rather, plaintiff responds that the reason is pretextual, both as to his claims of disability
discrimination and retaliation [Doc. 37 at pp. 22—25].
The Court finds that UTK has
articulated a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for plaintiff’s termination and that
reason is supported by evidence in the record.
Whether the Reasons for Plaintiff’s Termination Were Pretextual
To survive a motion for summary judgment, plaintiff need not definitively prove
that UTK's reason is pretextual, but rather “must prove only enough to create a genuine
issue as to whether the rationale is pretextual.” Ferrari v. Ford Motor Co., 826 F.3d 885,
895 (6th Cir. 2016); Whitfield, 639 F.3d at 260. Plaintiff can show pretext in three
interrelated ways: (1) that the proffered reasons had no basis in fact, (2) that the proffered
reasons did not actually motivate the employer's action, or (3) that they were insufficient
to motivate the employer's action. Romans v. Mich. Dep't of Human Servs., 668 F.3d 826,
839 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Chen v. Dow Chem. Co., 580 F.3d 394, 400 (6th Cir. 2009));
see also Smith v. Chrysler Corp., 155 F.3d 799, 805–06 (6th Cir. 1998) (reciting same
standard in ADA case). The Sixth Circuit has cautioned against a formulaic application of
this test and described pretext as “a commonsense inquiry: did the employer fire the
employee for the stated reason or not? This requires a court to ask whether the plaintiff has
produced evidence that casts doubt on the employer’s explanation, and, if so, how strong
it is. … [A]t bottom the question is always whether the employer made up its stated reason
to conceal intentional discrimination.” Chen, 580 F.3d at 400 n.4; see Ford Motor Co.,
782 F.3d at 767 (“[t]o demonstrate pretext, a plaintiff must show both that the employer’s
proffered reason was not the real reason for its action, and that the employer’s real reason
was unlawful”) (emphasis in original).
Plaintiff has proffered a series of actions which he contends show retaliation and/or
pretext [Doc. 39 at pp. 8—25], which the Court will examine below.
First, plaintiff argues that the pretermination letter for unacceptable
attendance on August 5, 2014 [Doc. 37-10], shortly after his complaint of discrimination,
is evidence of retaliation [Doc. 37 at pp. 8—9]. Assuming that Mr. Nelson was aware of
plaintiff’s complaint at the time he sent the pretermination letter, UTK correctly notes that
the pretermination process was suspended a few days later, on August 8, 2014. 14 Plaintiff
was placed on leave to engage in the interactive accommodation process with Ms. Richter.
Thus, plaintiff suffered no adverse employment action and the pretermination letter was of
Plaintiff also complains that this attempt to fire him for attendance later “turn[ed]”
to poor performance after he returned to work with accommodations [Doc. 37 at p. 23].
However, as noted above, plaintiff’s performance reviews document his poor performance
for years prior to his termination.
Next, plaintiff argues that Mr. Nelson made “impermissible medical
inquiries” when he asked plaintiff for information to confirm the diagnosis of Stiff Man
Mr. Herbstritt’s July 30 email response to Ms. Richter indicates that he will discuss plaintiff’s
complaint with Mr. Nelson “and have him talk with Seth to give him the steps he needs to follow”
for obtaining an accommodation [Doc. 37-9]. However, it is unclear when Mr. Nelson learned of
or received plaintiff’s complaint. The Court will assume, for purposes of summary judgment, that
Mr. Nelson was aware of the complaint to Human Resources at the time of the pretermination
Syndrome [Doc. 37 at pp. 9—10]. Plaintiff relies on a July 30, 2014 email from Mr. Nelson
to Mr. Herbstritt stating that he [Mr. Nelson] “spoke with Seth today regarding us not
having any statement of his accommodations. He said that he is going to his doctor on
August 4th and will bring in a statement” [Doc. 37-12]. Plaintiff also points to Mr.
Herbstritt’s testimony that Human Resources would “discourage” supervisors from asking
about FMLA medical certification and would further “recommend” that supervisors refer
employees to the Office of Equity and Diversity on questions of reasonable
accommodation. UTK correctly notes that the ADA regulations explicitly permit an
employer to request medical information in support of a request for reasonable
accommodation. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.14(c). Although UTK – and plaintiff – may prefer
that all medical information be passed through designated channels, Mr. Nelson’s inquiries
were not “prohibited” or “impermissible.” More importantly, the record reflects that UTK
Human Resources handled plaintiff’s FMLA certification process and the Office of Equity
and Diversity worked through the accommodation process with plaintiff and both of these
processes occurred many months before plaintiff’s termination.
Plaintiff also points to his August 2012 letter to Vice Chancellor Irvin [Doc. 37-15]
complaining that he was denied a pay raise due to low performance review scores and that
his performance had suffered because of his Stiff Man Syndrome. Mr. Irvin did not refer
this complaint to Ms. Richter because plaintiff had not provided confirmation of his
diagnosis and plaintiff considers this another example of an improper medical inquiry [Do.
37 at pp. 10—11]. Even accepting plaintiff’s characterization of this as a medical inquiry,
plaintiff has presented no evidence that it was anything beyond what the ADA expressly
permits. Moreover, this occurred nearly two years prior to plaintiff’s termination and is
therefore too remote to be evidence of causation or pretext.
Next, plaintiff complains that his supervisory chain of command, Mr.
Nelson, Mr. Caudill, and Mr. Irvin, were angry about accommodating plaintiff [Doc. 37 at
pp. 11—14]. Plaintiff asserts that several email exchanges among Ms. Richter, Mr.
Caudill, Mr. Nelson, and Mr. Irvin reflect their opposition to accommodating plaintiff.
Even if his supervisors’ attitude is characterized as “forced” or “very reluctant to even
accept the things that were accepted” as plaintiff testified, the record reflects and plaintiff
admits that UTK fully accommodated him [Doc. 34-1 at p. 26].
displeasure in doing so does not rise to the level of retaliation.
Plaintiff also complains that he was placed on unpaid leave during the
reasonable accommodation process and that this was an adverse employment action [Doc.
37 at pp. 14—16]. Plaintiff further notes that he remained on unpaid leave for one month
after his supervisors agreed on accommodations. 15 Thus, although not articulated as such,
plaintiff appears to be complaining about both the fact that he was not paid during this
period and the length of time the interactive process took. UTK responds that plaintiff
never asked to return to work during the accommodation process and that if he had any
accrued paid sick leave he could have used it. Further, UTK notes that neither the ADA
Plaintiff’s brief suggests that his supervisors “agreed” on the accommodations on September 11,
2014, but that he remained on unpaid leave for another month [Doc. 37 at p. 16]. This timeline is
inconsistent with the documents in the record.
nor the University’s Human Resources policies required that plaintiff be paid during the
accommodation process [Doc. 39 at pp. 5—6]. 16
The ADA regulations stipulate that, “[t]o determine the appropriate reasonable
accommodation it may be necessary for the covered entity to initiate an informal,
interactive process with the individual with a disability in need of the accommodation.
This process should identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and
potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations.” 29 C.F.R. §
1630.2(o)(3). Plaintiff has cited no statutory or regulatory authority or UTK policy that
would require UTK to pay plaintiff while engaging in the interactive process.
The EEOC guidance on the reasonable accommodation process instructs that the
interactive process “should proceed as quickly as possible.” U.S. Equal Emp. Opportunity
Comm’n, Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation & Undue Hardship Under
the Americans with Disabilities Act, No. 915.002, 2002 WL 31994335, at *10 (2002). 17
Factors to be considered in “whether there has been an unnecessary delay in responding to
a request for reasonable accommodation … include: (1) the reason(s) for the delay, (2) the
length of the delay, (3) how much the individual with a disability and the employer each
The record does not contain an official UTK “policy” on reasonable accommodations, although
the process is described generally in the testimony of Ms. Richter. She explains that she “obtain[s]
information about job responsibilities from departments, medical information about employees’
capabilities and limitations, and determine[s] what, if any, accommodations would be reasonable
under the circumstances” [Doc. 34-4 at ¶ 2].
The Court notes that the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance is not binding authority, but does
represent a “body of experience and informed judgment” which may be used as guidance or
persuasive authority. See Lee v. City of Columbus, OH, 636 F.3d 245, 256 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting
White v. Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co., 364 F.3d 789, 812 (6th Cir. 2004) (en banc)).
contributed to the delay, (4) what the employer was doing during the delay, and (5) whether
the required accommodation was simple or complex to provide.” Id. at *10, n.38.
Ms. Richter’s testimony indicates that she first met with plaintiff on August 15,
2013, long before his July 24, 2014 complaint, to discuss his physical limitations and
potential accommodations [Doc. 34-4 at ¶¶ 6—7]. Although they had further email
communication, Ms. Richter did not receive the ADA Accommodation Certification form
from plaintiff’s physician until April 14, 2014 [Id. at ¶¶ 10—13]. Notably, plaintiff’s
physician initially reported that no possible accommodations could improve his job
performance [Id. at ¶ 16]. After being directed to do so, plaintiff and Ms. Richter met again
on August 14, 2014 to discuss potential accommodations [Id. at ¶¶ 17—22]. Ms. Richter
requested supplemental documentation from plaintiff’s physician and received it on
September 18, 2014, from which she concluded that plaintiff could perform his duties with
additional rest breaks and a modest amount of additional leave [Id. at ¶¶ 24, 29],
accommodations which would be simple and inexpensive to implement. The record
reflects that, during the interim, Ms. Richter was communicating with plaintiff and his
supervisors about possible accommodations. She then confirmed the accommodations
with the Facilities Services department and with plaintiff on October 6, 2014. It appears
that the supervisors met with Ms. Richter on October 9, and Mr. Nelson’s October 10, 2014
letter instructed plaintiff to report for work on October 13, 2014 [Doc. 37-25].
Although the interactive process did not proceed “as quickly as possible,” the Court
cannot conclude there was unnecessary delay.
Prior to receipt of the supplemental
information from plaintiff’s physician, UTK only knew that plaintiff had physical
limitations and there were no possible accommodations to assist him in performing the
functions of his job. There is no explanatory reason for the delay between the receipt of
his physician’s supplemental information on September 18, and Ms. Richter’s email of
October 6, 2014. However, in light of the fact that UTK accommodated plaintiff, that he
admits he received all the accommodation he needed, and that he returned to work, the
Court does not find that this delay was retaliatory in nature.
Plaintiff contends that he was subject to “increased scrutiny, immediate
discipline, and false allegations” upon his return to work [Doc. 37 at pp. 16—17]. This
allegation concerns Ms. Rhea’s assessment of his performance and his disagreement with
her assessment. As UTK correctly points out, a plaintiff’s subjective opinion of his own
performance is “irrelevant as a matter of law.” Mynatt v. Lockheed Martin Energy Sys.,
Inc., 271 F. App’x 470, 477 (6th Cir. 2008) (citing Wrenn v. Gould, 808 F.2d 493, 502 (6th
Cir. 1987)). Moreover, Ms. Rhea’s assessment of his performance is of the same tenor as
the evaluations of his performance by prior supervisors. Therefore, Ms. Rhea’s comments
are not evidence of retaliation.
Next, plaintiff complains that UTK deviated from its progressive disciplinary
policy by issuing him a final written warning for poor performance on October 20, 2014,
without first issuing him an oral warning and a written warning [Doc. 37 at pp. 18—19]. 18
However, as Mr. Herbstritt testified, there is no “hard and fast rule” that discipline may
only be imposed in that order. “You can skip the oral and go to the written, or you can go
The Court observes that no written disciplinary policy is contained in the record.
directly to a final, depending on the circumstances of the situation” [Doc. 39-1 at p. 2]. Mr.
Nelson states that he issued a final written warning “to convey to Cannon that his
performance deficiencies were too great to be addressed through the normal three-step
disciplinary process” [Doc. 34-2 at ¶ 29]. Plaintiff has presented no evidence that the
policy was not uniformly applied, i.e., that other Service Aides received an oral or written
warning for poor performance before receiving a final written warning. Moreover, plaintiff
suffered no significant change in employment status, significantly different responsibilities
or benefits, or tangible job consequences as a result of this final written warning. See Foust
v. Metropolitan Sec. Servs., Inc., 829 F. Supp. 2d 614, 627 (E.D. Tenn. 2011) (Varlan, J.);
Andrews v. Lockheed Martin Energy Sys., Inc., No. 3:06-CV-42, 2006 WL 2711818, at
*11 (E.D. Tenn. 2006) (Phillips, J.). He continued to be employed as a Service Aide and
he received two more final written warnings before his eventual termination. This warning
does not constitute an adverse employment action and is not evidence of retaliation.
Plaintiff contends that UTK’s failure to return him to work for over a month
after a minor workers’ compensation injury is evidence of retaliation [Doc. 37 at pp. 19]. 19
The record reflects that plaintiff injured his right ankle at work on October 31, 2014. He
provided UTK with a doctor’s note dated November 3, 2014, which stated that he could
return to work on that day, but that he must use crutches [Doc. 37-29]. Mr. Nelson
informed plaintiff that he needed to provide additional information from a doctor as to his
Plaintiff claims that the testimony shows that UTK generally allows employees to return to work
within one day of receiving the doctor’s note [see Doc. 37 at p. 19]. This is not quite correct. Mr.
Caudill testified that employees are generally allowed to begin light duty work on the same or next
day as “they present the restrictions” [Doc. 37-13 at p. 9].
limitations [Doc. 39-2 at ¶ 4]. Mr. Nelson received a note on December 8, 2014, from
which he concluded that plaintiff could return to work on light duty [Id. at ¶ 5]. On
December 9, 2014, Mr. Nelson advised plaintiff that he could return to work on December
10, 2014 and he did so [Id.]. Thus, the delay in plaintiff’s return to work was due to UTK
waiting for documentation of plaintiff’s limitations and not due to retaliation.
Plaintiff next asserts that UTK violated the accommodations and/or
department policy by issuing a final written warning for his absences on December 16 and
18, 2014 to attend doctors’ appointments [Doc. 37 at p. 20]. Plaintiff contends that this
warning was retaliatory because he provided advance notice of the appointments and he
had enough accrued leave to cover the absences [Id.]. Mr. Nelson’s warning acknowledges
that plaintiff informed his supervisor of the appointments, but notes that plaintiff did not
return to work after the appointments [Doc. 34-2 at p. 33]. After plaintiff contested the
discipline, UTK decided to give plaintiff “the benefit of the doubt” that his absences fell
within the intent of the ADA accommodations and he was paid for both days [Doc. 34-2 at
pp. 37—38]. Mr. Nelson’s response emphasized that the written warning for attendance
was ultimately of no impact because he was being considered for termination due to
unsatisfactory work performance. Thus, plaintiff suffered no adverse action as a result of
the attendance warnings.
Plaintiff complains that Ms. Rhea “maliciously sabotaged” him by producing
pictures which purportedly showed that he did not clean his assigned areas [Doc. 37 at pp.
20—21]. Plaintiff disputes that the pictures accurately represent his work area after he
cleaned and claims they were taken hours or days later. As noted previously, plaintiff’s
subjective opinion of his own performance is “irrelevant as a matter of law.” Mynatt, 271
F. App’x at 477.
Next, plaintiff asserts that multiple instances of discriminatory animus show
that UTK’s legitimate non-discriminatory reason is pretextual [Doc. 37 at pp. 22—23]. He
points to Mr. Caudill’s July 30, 2014 email comment that “[plaintiff] causes me pain, can
I get FMLA and lay out for a year or so?” and Mr. Nelson’s response that “[a]t lunch he
walks with a cane and smokes. Great image” [Doc. 37-32]. Plaintiff also points to Ms.
Rhea’s October 24, 2014 email in which she discusses his pain medication and comments
that “[n]o wonder he walks, talks, and looks like he does. He is stoned out of his gourd
every day” [Doc. 37-33]. 20 UTK contends that the emails may be “inelegantly worded,”
but are merely a reflection of the supervisors’ frustration with plaintiff’s “persistent poor
performance and attendance” rather than evidence of a discriminatory animus [Doc. 39 at
In assessing the probative value of such remarks as evidence of pretext, the Court
must consider the declarant’s position in the organization, the purpose and content of the
statements, and the temporal connection between the statements and the challenged
employment act. Ercegovich v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 154 F.3d 344, 357 (6th Cir.
1998). These remarks were made four (Ms. Rhea’s) to six months (Mr. Caudill’s and Mr.
Nelson’s) prior to plaintiff’s termination and are not so close in time to show temporal
The Court observes that UTK has devoted several pages of its opening brief [Doc. 35 at pp. 3—
4] and submitted numerous medical records regarding plaintiff’s use of and purported addiction to
narcotic pain medication [Doc. 35-11 through 35-16], perhaps in an attempt to color the Court’s
impression of the plaintiff. This issue does not appear to be relevant to the instant motion.
proximity. Mr. Nelson’s and Mr. Caudill’s remarks are certainly derogatory and were
made in the context of waiting for plaintiff’s medical information on potential
accommodations. 21 The record reflects that Mr. Nelson made the decision to terminate
plaintiff’s employment, although he admittedly relied in part on Ms. Rhea’s evaluation of
plaintiff’s performance [Doc. 34-2 at ¶¶ 48—49]. Thus, the isolated remarks by Mr.
Caudill and Ms. Rhea are not connected to the adverse employment action. See Suits v.
The Heil Co., 192 F. App’x 399, 407 (6th Cir. 2006) (“stray remarks, particularly those
made by a person other than a decision-maker, are not enough to show discrimination”).
More importantly, none of these statements were made in connection with the decisional
process to terminate plaintiff. See Coburn v. Rockwell Automation, Inc., 238 F. App’x 112,
118 (6th Cir. 2007); Rowan v. Lockheed Martin Energy Sys., Inc., 360 F.3d 544, 550 (6th
Cir. 2004). On balance, the Court does not find that these remarks are evidence of pretext.
Finally, plaintiff complains that the positive letters regarding plaintiff’s job
performance – from Mr. Kredich, Ms. Anderson, Ms. Brown, and Mr. Anderson [Docs.
37-34, 37-35, 37-36, and 37-37] – were not shared with his chain of supervisory command
in contrast to the letters of complaint [Doc. 37 at pp. 24—25]. Notably, all except for the
email from Tom Anderson were sent six months or more prior to plaintiff’s termination
and are not evidence of temporal proximity. Further, this evidence does not refute UTK’s
honest — and well documented — belief that plaintiff was not meeting performance
Plaintiff suggests that Mr. Caudill’s remark is evidence of “animus against his use of FMLA”
[Doc. 37 at p. 22]. However, as set forth above, plaintiff had long since exhausted his entitlement
to FMLA leave at the time of Mr. Caudill’s email and there is simply no evidence to support an
inference that his use of FMLA leave was connected to his termination almost one year later.
expectations for several years. See Majewski v. Automatic Data Processing, Inc., 274 F.3d
1106, 1117 (6th Cir. 2001) (“[a]n employer has an honest belief in its reason for
discharging an employee where the employer reasonably relied ‘on the particularized facts
that were before it at the time the decision was made’”) (quoting Smith, 155 F.3d at 807).
“[T]he plaintiff must allege more than a dispute over the facts upon which his discharge
was based. He must put forth evidence which demonstrates that the employer did not
‘honestly believe’ in the proffered non-discriminatory reason for its adverse employment
action.” Braithwaite v. Timken Co., 258 F.3d 488, 494 (6th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted).
More importantly, these letters of support do not show that his poor performance was not
the real reason for his termination and that discrimination or retaliation was the true reason.
Ford Motor Co., 782 F.3d at 767.
In conclusion, the Court finds that plaintiff has failed to present evidence showing
a causal connection between his complaint of discrimination and his termination or that the
reason for his termination was a mere pretext for discrimination or retaliation.
Accordingly, the Court finds that UTK is entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff’s ADA
Upon review of the record, the Court cannot determine if plaintiff could not do his
job, even with accommodation, or would not do his job. However, it is clear that UTK had
substantial evidence to support its decision that he did not do his job and this decision was
unrelated to his prior use of FMLA leave or his medical condition and request for
accommodation. Thus, the Court finds there are no genuine issues of material fact in
dispute and that UTK is entitled to summary judgment on all of plaintiff’s claims. An
appropriate order will enter.
s/ Thomas W. Phillips
SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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