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Armstrong v. Potter

September 4, 2008

JENNIFER ARMSTRONG, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN E. POTTER, POSTMASTER GENERAL, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William K. Sessions III*fn8 United States District Court

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Jennifer Armstrong has brought this suit against her former employer, the United States Postal Service ("USPS"), claiming disability discrimination in violation of § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and racial discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A bench trial was held on April 1 and 2, 2008. The resolution of Armstrong's claims turns largely on the weight and credibility accorded to the parties' respective witnesses. Based on the testimony and evidence presented at trial and the Court's observation of the witnesses and assessment of their credibility, the Court makes the following pertinent findings of fact and conclusions of law.

I. FACTUAL FINDINGS

Jennifer Armstrong is a fifty-one year old woman. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, she has lived in the United States since 1981 and been a citizen of the United States since 1989. After graduating from secretarial school in 1982, she worked for various New York state agencies for approximately thirteen years. In 1994, the USPS hired Armstrong to work part-time as a data conversion operator. In 1995, Armstrong began working full-time as a data conversion operator. Her job duties primarily consisted of typing in addresses that the computer could not read.

On December 24, 1996, Armstrong first saw Dr. Richard Alfred for pain in her right wrist.*fn1 Dr. Alfred instructed Armstrong to stay out of work for a brief period in January 1997. He diagnosed her with carpal tunnel syndrome on March 20, 1997. Dr. Alfred provided the USPS with medical documentation modifying Armstrong's work hours, and then, on April 3, 1997, temporarily restricted her from work altogether while she underwent treatment and physical therapy. Armstrong was referred to Dr. David Quinn, a hand specialist and associate of Dr. Alfred, in May 1997. On May 29, 1997, Dr. Quinn provided documentation that Armstrong was temporarily totally disabled, copies of which were also forwarded to the Office of Workers Compensation Programs ("OWCP"). Over the next six months, both Dr. Alfred and Dr. Quinn corresponded regularly with OWCP, confirming her continued status and providing detailed medical information, including a work capacities assessment report dated June 26, 1997. As of September 16, 1997, Dr. Quinn concluded that Armstrong had a moderate partial permanent disability. Dr. Quinn corresponded directly with the Injury Compensation office of the USPS in March 1998 confirming Armstrong's disability and advising that she could not return to the data conversion position. The USPS requested an independent medical examination which was conducted by Dr. Shashi Patel on March 26, 1998. Dr. Patel confirmed the diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome which he opined may "last for several months or years," and concurred in Dr. Quinn's assessment of Armstrong's work capacity.

Connie Hall, a USPS employee in Injury Compensation, began attempting to secure Armstrong a more suitable position in May 1998. The USPS offered Armstrong a "rehabilitation job" as a custodian in July 1998. Armstrong consulted with Dr. Quinn about the position and the modified duties. Armstrong was eager to return to work and despite reservations regarding her ability to perform certain specified duties accepted the position on September 2, 1998. The custodial position required Armstrong to perform a number of tasks, including scrubbing, wiping and sweeping, that caused her wrist pain. In addition, the position involved frequent pushing and pulling of large, heavy bins and lifting of trash bags that weighed over twenty pounds. On or about September 22, 1998, while working in this position, Armstrong aggravated her lower back.*fn2 Armstrong saw Dr. Alfred who diagnosed a lumbosacral strain, prescribed medication and advised Armstrong to remain out of work. Dr. Alfred provided her with a note for the USPS and also forwarded copies of his report to OWCP. On September 29, 1998, Dr. Alfred advised the USPS that due to Armstrong's wrist and back injuries, she was not capable of returning to the custodial position. He recommended that she be reassigned to a "more sedentary position." On October 14, 1998, Carol Murphy of Injury Compensation notified Dr. Alfred that the USPS had a position for Armstrong that "would only require [her] to answer telephones, photocopy, and when requested access forms from a file cabinet and hand them to the requesting individual." Dr. Alfred responded within a week approving this position. He again sent copies of all of this correspondence to OWCP. Another independent medical evaluation was completed by Dr. William Rogers, an occupational medical specialist, who wrote to Connie Hall on October 27, 1998, concurring that Armstrong was capable of performing the proposed position (answering telephones and performing some clerical duties).*fn3

On October 28, 1998, Armstrong returned a signed acceptance letter to the USPS agreeing to take the proposed position. However, she was subsequently notified that the position had "disappeared." Armstrong remained eager to return to work and contacted the office of Congressman Michael McNulty who filed an inquiry with the USPS. Anderson Hodges, the USPS Chief Executive Officer for the Albany District, replied that the USPS was attempting to find a position for Armstrong in December 1998. As of March 1999, the USPS had not communicated any other position to Armstrong. On or about March 10, 1999, Armstrong advised the USPS that she had applied for disability retirement. Hall was eager to prevent Armstrong from receiving compensation; she wrote to another co-worker one week later, "[It is imperative that we offer [Armstrong] a new rehab assignment before her disability retirement is approved."*fn4

On May 13, 1999, the USPS offered and Armstrong accepted a new limited duty position in the Rensselaer Post Office ("RPO") which Hall believed accounted for all of Armstrong's physical limitations. In actuality, however, the new position required Armstrong to regularly lift large tubs of "hold mail" weighing thirty to forty pounds. Armstrong contacted Jerry Weaver, her union representative and president of the local chapter at the time. Weaver did not believe that Armstrong's position was light-duty and he spoke with the local Postmaster James Foley. Foley indicated that he did not know about Armstrong's restrictions. He advised that there was not any other work at the RPO but that Armstrong could ask for help. Due to the small size of the RPO, however, there were generally no other employees available to assist Armstrong with the lifting.

Again suffering serious lower back pain, Armstrong was treated by Dr. Alfred on June 29, 1999, who again initiated physical therapy and subsequently removed her from work on July 29, 1999. From the original aggravation of Armstrong's back injury in the fall of 1998 through the end of 1999, Dr. Alfred provided ongoing treatment, seeing Armstrong at approximately two to six week intervals. Throughout this period, Dr. Alfred and his office corresponded repeatedly with the USPS employees at the Injury Compensation office (including Connie Hall) and with OWCP, providing updated reports and information.*fn5 During this time, OWCP sought another independent medical examination, this time by Dr. Edwin Mohler. Dr. Mohler submitted a report to OWCP on September 8, 1999, based solely on a single physical examination, in which he opined that Armstrong's condition had resolved. Dr. Alfred sent OWCP letters strongly disagreeing with and refuting Dr. Mohler's conclusions in September and November of 1999.

In December 1999 and January 2000, the USPS issued Armstrong two notices advising her to provide medical documentation regarding her absence from work. During this same period Dr. Alfred continued to correspond with OWCP regarding Armstrong's continued prognosis and physical restrictions. In both his earlier correspondence with Injury Compensation and his ongoing correspondence with OWCP, Dr. Alfred repeatedly made clear that Armstrong was not capable of returning to either the data conversion or custodial positions and that he did not believe her prognosis would change. In addition, it was both the stated policy and practice of the USPS that information generally and medical documentation in particular be communicated from OWCP to Injury Compensation and vice versa. Nonetheless, between April 25, 2000, and September 1, 2000, the USPS notified Armstrong of a number of suspensions for having been absent from work without leave. During this time, Armstrong contacted Weaver who testified that at least one of the suspensions was either removed or reduced. In addition, Weaver contacted Hall and Anna Schubert, a USPS employee and labor relations specialist, to arrange a meeting.

In October 2000, Armstrong, Weaver, Schubert and Hall met at the Albany general mail facility to discuss potential positions that would conform with Armstrong's physical restrictions. The meeting lasted between thirty and forty-five minutes. Weaver testified that Hall mentioned that there might be a position available for Armstrong in the reception booth at the Albany facility (these positions were generally staffed by employees who had physical restrictions).*fn6 Hall and Schubert advised Armstrong that she needed to submit a request for a light-duty assignment in writing. On or about October 26, 2000, Armstrong submitted a written request along with a note. Weaver testified that neither Hall nor Schubert requested that Armstrong submit additional medical documentation at the meeting. There is no evidence that the USPS made any request for additional medical documentation after Armstrong submitted her written request. Nonetheless, the USPS has subsequently argued that it was not able to act on Armstrong's request because it lacked such documentation. In January 2001 the USPS notified Armstrong that she was being separated the service.

II. LEGAL CONCLUSIONS

A. Disability Claim

Armstrong has brought a claim alleging disability discrimination in violation of her rights under § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794. The Act states that "[n]o otherwise qualified individual with a disability . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any ...


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