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Frontera v. SKF USA

July 29, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John T. Curtin United States District Judge

In this action, plaintiff Maria Frontera seeks damages and equitable relief against her former employer, SKF USA, Inc. ("SKF")*fn1 based upon alleged violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq.; the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq.; and New York Human Rights Law ("NYHRL"), N.Y. Exec. L. § 296, et seq. Defendant has moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint.

For the reasons that follow, defendant's summary judgment motion is granted.


Plaintiff was hired by SKF in 1996 as a cost accountant for its manufacturing plant in Jamestown, New York (Manno Aff., Item 17-3, ¶¶ 2, 3). In 1999, plaintiff was diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disease with symptoms similar to Lupus (Frontera Aff., Item 25, ¶¶ 8, 9). Certain environmental factors such as florescent or UV lights, dry air, and airborne pollutants aggravate the plaintiff's condition (id. at 10). From the onset of her condition through November 2004, plaintiff was able to control her symptoms by wearing hats and sunglasses to work, turning off the florescent lights above her work cubicle, and making other adjustments to her work environment which were approved by SKF (id. at 15-20).

In 2003, SKF announced its intention to close the Jamestown manufacturing facility, which resulted in a reduction in the work force and the eventual sale and lease-back of the building in which plaintiff worked. The sale took place in November 2004, and the Accounting Department was relocated in early December from the third floor to the second floor, where the Information Services ("IS") Department was also located (Item 17-3, Manno Aff., ¶¶ 5-10, 14). Prior to the relocation, plaintiff sent her supervisor, John Manno, an email indicating that she would prefer to remain in her old office but, "[i]f not, should we discover that my new location . . . becomes problematic, I am confident the company will make every effort to accommodate me then." (Item 17-7, Ex. 9.) Mr. Manno advised plaintiff that her department had to move because the building had been sold, and that she would be better able to control her working environment in the new location (Manno Aff., ¶ 12).

Plaintiff alleges that she immediately felt sick upon moving to the new office area, and became "sicker with each passing hour" (Item 25, Frontera Aff., ¶ 30). Mr. Manno arranged to have the florescent lighting in the new work space turned off, and desk lamps were provided. There was also a cover placed over the window near plaintiff's desk to block the lighting emanating from an adjoining office area, and a humidifier was installed (see Item 17-3, ¶ 15). When SKF's Nurse Laura Riley spoke with plaintiff on December 20, 2004, plaintiff told her that "the area was working ok since some accomodations [sic] were made." (Item 17-7, Ex. 19.)

On January 6, 2005, plaintiff sent Human Resources Supervisor Sandy Martin an email indicating that the work space was too dark for the other employees, and requesting that "some serious thought be given to locating me in an area where I can control the lighting and environment without disrupting others." (Id., Ex. 11.) Ms. Martin replied that she was working on it (id., Ex. 12). The next day, Ms. Martin emailed plaintiff asking for medical documentation of her condition, stating: "[i]n order to make sure that our responsibilities are fully met under the ADA, please make sure that your physician specifies what reasonable accomodations [sic] should be in place to provide you with proper accomodations [sic] to remedy this situation." (Id., Ex. 13.)

SKF's "Record of Medical Department Visits" indicates that on January 13, 2005, Nurse Riley visited plaintiff's new work area to address plaintiff's complaint that the move to the third floor "has upset [plaintiff's] working climate . . . ." (Id., Ex. 8.) Plaintiff advised Ms. Riley that she suffered from Sjogren's Syndrome, and that her symptoms had become more severe after the move because she was unable to control her work environment. Ms. Riley advised plaintiff "to have her Dr. provide us some medical documentation and we [w]ill go from there." (Id.)

In a letter dated January 14, 2005, Dr. Leonard Calabrese reported that plaintiff had been under his care for Sjogren's disease since 1999. He indicated that plaintiff's symptoms included "light sensitivity, muscle aches, fatigue, and lethargy" which could be influenced by her work environment, and he "encourage[d] the HR department to make every effort" to accommodate plaintiff (id., Ex. 24). Dr. Calabrese did not otherwise specify any particular accommodations necessary to address plaintiff's workplace requirements.

Also on January 14, 2004, Ms. Riley reported to Ms. Martin that she had evaluated plaintiff's work area in light of the medical information received from Dr. Calabrese, and stated that she did not believe it was "possible to accommodate this problem in the current location." (Id., Ex. 17.) Ms. Riley recommended that plaintiff be moved to a work area where she could control her environment without causing further disruption to other workers (id.).

Meanwhile, plaintiff stayed home from work that day (Friday, January 14), indicating by voice mail that she was ill and was unable to work in her current office (id., Ex. 8). On Monday, January 17, plaintiff emailed SKF's Director of Finance, Terry Papincak, reporting that she had outpatient bladder surgery that day and "will be in as soon as a suitable workplace is made available." (Id., Ex. 18.) She also advised Mr. Papincak that the reason she had recently missed several days of work was "because my work area makes me very sick." (Id.)

On Wednesday, January 19, plaintiff was evaluated by Dr. Conner, SKF's company physician, to determine her medical work restrictions. Dr. Conner recommended a work environment with employee control of lighting, heat, air quality, and climate (see id., Ex. 8).

Also on January 19, Mr. Manno responded to plaintiff's email to Mr. Papincak, stating that he found plaintiff's characterization of her work area "insulting" (id., Ex. 21):

I would never let a solution to a problem be to let a person get sick. I was never aware that you had gotten to a serious health state until Friday morning when you called. I knew that the lights were an issue and one that we had worked out. I also knew that there could be other work environment concerns but I did not know nor did you communicate to me that it was [a]ffecting you to the point that you got to on Friday. (Id.) He advised plaintiff that a small private office was being prepared for her use, and should be ready for her that day. The office was 10' x 10', and was equipped with controllable baseboard heating, desktop lamps, light filtering blinds and curtains on an outside window, a space heater, and a cool water humidifier (Item 17-3, Riley Aff., ¶ 24).

Plaintiff returned to work on January 20, 2005, and advised Ms. Riley by email that the new office space "is going to be much better I am sure." (Item 17-7, Ex. 22.) She complained about her knees aching and her fingers swelling, but those symptoms had diminished by the next day (id.). Ms. Riley advised plaintiff to keep her "up to date" (id.). On February 3, plaintiff informed Ms. Riley that her symptoms were "not as bad . . . ," and "[b]eing out of the light and away from the other environmental factors . . . are lifesaving and 'job preserving' for me." (Id., Ex. 23.)

Meanwhile, Dr. Calabrese sent a letter dated January 26, 2005, and addressed "To Whom It May Concern," in which he reported that plaintiff was having "moderate complications from Sjogren's syndrome," and requested that plaintiff be given a week off to recuperate (id., Ex. 24). According to Mr. Manno and Ms. Riley, this letter was received by SKF's Human Resources Department sometime during the first week of February 2005 (see Item 17-3, Manno Aff., ¶ 29; Riley Aff., ¶ 29). As a result, on Monday, February 7, 2005, Ms. Riley sent plaintiff a letter stating as follows:

At this time you are not to return to work until such time that your treating physician states in writing that you are allowed to work safely in an office environment with reasonable accommodation for your medical condition during normal working hours.

Enclosed you will find a Short Term Disability form with instructions for completion. Also enclosed are [Family and Medical Leave Act] papers with instructions for completion.

Again, if you think of something that we can alter or add to the office space that has been designated your office, please feel free to let me know.

We hope you are soon well enough to return to work. Please call us as soon as your doctor feels you can return to work and we will go from there. (Id., Ex. 26.)

On February 22, 2005, Ms. Riley wrote Dr. Calabrese, describing in detail plaintiff's new office space and requesting that he provide specific recommendations on how to accommodate plaintiff if the company's modifications were insufficient (id., Ex. 28). Dr. Calabrese responded by letter dated April 21, 2005, stating as follows:

Upon [plaintiff]'s return to work May 1, 2005, please make every effort to locate her in an office or area that can be configured and furnished with the following:

* Office or work area that has been well-vacuumed and cleaned

* Office or work area without direct fluorescent lighting

* Office or work area with control of overhead and ...

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