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Alford v. Turbine Airfoil Coating & Repair, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. New York

April 17, 2014

THOMAS ALFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
TURBINE AIRFOIL COATING & REPAIR, LLC, Defendant.

Joseph J. Ranni, Ranni Law Firm, Florida, NY, for the Plaintiff.

Erin Carney D'Angelo, DLA Piper LLP (U.S.), New York, NY, for the Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

DENISE COTE, District Judge.

Thomas Alford ("Alford") brings this disability discrimination suit against his former employer, Turbine Airfoil Coating & Repair, LLC ("TACR"). Alford was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD") on or about March 2010. He alleges that, through the events leading up to his discharge in June 2010, TACR discriminated and retaliated against him due to his disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL"), N.Y. Exec. Law § 290. TACR moved for summary judgment. During 2010, TACR reduced its workforce from 159 employees to 89 through seven rounds of layoffs. Alford lost his job during the third round of layoffs. For the reasons set forth below, the motion for summary judgment is granted.

BACKGROUND

The following facts are undisputed, or taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. TACR was formed in June 2000 as a joint-venture between Chromalloy Gas Turbine, LLC ("Chromalloy") and Siemens Westinghouse Power Corporation ("Siemens"). Siemens manufactures gas turbine engines, including jet engines for aircraft. The engines rotate a series of blades. Chromalloy is a specialist in such blades. It both repairs the protective thermal coating applied to these blades and manufactures new blades, known as Original Equipment Manufacturer ("OEM") work. Siemens and Chromalloy created TACR so that Siemens would provide a continuous supply of turbine engines to be repaired, and meanwhile Chromalloy could continue its OEM work in manufacturing new blades. TACR was based at a pre-existing Chromalloy facility in Middletown, New York.

To repair and manufacture turbine blades, TACR used at least three different processes. One involved coating machines called Low Pressure Plasma Spray ("LPPS") or Air Plasma Spray ("APS"). Another involved a High Velocity Oxygen Fuel ("HVOF") machine, which involved a different method of coating than LPPS or APS and required a specifically trained operator. A third involved laser drilling and welding (collectively referred to as "laser"), which also required a specifically trained operator.

Alford was hired in 2000 as a machine operator. Alford developed an expertise with the LPPS and APS procedures. His experience in HVOF was more limited. Alford was never certified in the laser process.

Alford's job generally consisted of moving blades from a cart, weighing them, loading them into the coating machine, operating the coating machine, and then unloading the blades. For eight hours each day, Alford was required to reach, to handle, grab, or grasp large objects, and to handle small objects. He was frequently required to lift ten pounds and occasionally required to lift 75 to 80 pounds. Additionally, his job required standing for six hours and sitting for two hours, with one hour of walking.

Between 2000 and 2010, Alford received two warnings for his workplace conduct. In 2005, in response to allegations that he threatened some employees, Alford was suspended for one month and referred to a psychiatrist. In 2008, in response to an allegation that he threatened a co-worker, Alford was sent to a psychiatrist.[1] Other than these two incidents, Alford's performance reviews ranged from satisfactory to commendable. In 2010, Alford was working as an APS operator.

Alford's COPD

On or about March 20, 2010, Alford was diagnosed with COPD. COPD is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. Alford submitted to TACR a letter from his doctor, dated March 30, which stated that Alford has COPD and requires medical treatment, and that the disease may be occupation-related. This letter did not state that Alford's COPD required any accommodation, although Alford contends that he requested a respirator from his supervisors.

On or around April 13, Alford filed a claim for worker's compensation with the New York Worker's Compensation Board relating to his COPD diagnosis. On or around April 29, Alford submitted a complaint to the Occupation Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA") regarding the workplace conditions at TACR, including inadequate ventilation, lack of respiratory protection, and insufficient sound protection. This led to an OSHA inspection, and OSHA eventually penalized TACR in the amount of $975 because "[TACR's] written respiratory program was not established for employee required to wear a 3M full-face respirator while working in the Acid Room." The acid room was the only place where employees were required to wear respirators. Alford did not work in the acid room.

In a letter dated May 17, 2010, Alford's doctor recommended that Alford use a "HEPA respirator" during work "to minimize chemical and dust exposure." This was the first time that TACR received medical documentation stating that Alford's COPD required accommodation.

In response to the May 17 letter, Ben Groff ("Groff"), the Human Resource and Environmental Health and Safety Manager at TACR, arranged for Alford to undergo a medical evaluation to determine if Alford was able to use the respirator. OSHA regulations state that "[t]he employer shall provide a medical evaluation to determine the employee's ability to use a respirator, before the employee is fit tested or required to use the respirator in the workplace." 29 C.F.R. § 1910.134(e)(1). The evaluation was performed by Chrystal Run Healthcare, where Alford had periodically undergone exams and tests during his time at TACR.

Alford failed the medical examination. In a one-page report dated May 21, the Chrystal Run Healthcare examiner stated that a "respirator clearance exam" in accordance with OSHA regulation 29 C.F.R. § 1910.134 had been performed on Alford and that he was not medically certified to wear a respirator in the performance of his job. The report further stated that Alford's spirometry results (which are measures of one's breathing capacity) did not meet OSHA's minimum levels.

On the same day, May 21, Groff emailed Alford's supervisors - including Dan Finnin ("Finnin"), Plant Manager - to inform them of the test results and instructed them that Alford should not operate a machine in areas with high levels of dust. Groff, Finnin, and other TACR supervisors changed Alford's duties to eliminate "grit blasting" from his required tasks.[2]

Approximately one month later, on or about June 19, Alford injured his shoulder by tearing his rotator cuff. This was an exacerbation of a prior shoulder injury. As a result of this injury, Alford ceased coming to work. In late June 2010, TACR laid off Alford and others in the third round of layoffs that are further described below. Alford was informed of this decision on July 2, 2010.

At some point, Alford applied for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits. In his disability report, Alford stated that he stopped working on June 19, 2010 due to the following twelve conditions:

1. Back
2. COPD
3. Asthma
4. Sleep Apnea
5. High Blood Pressure
6. Left shoulder
7. Diabetes
8. Left wrist - carpal tunnel
9. Lumbar and cervical herniated discs
10. [L]ymphedema - both legs
11. Ulcer - non-healing ...

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