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Croons v. New York State Office of Mental Health

United States District Court, N.D. New York

May 12, 2014

CHARLES M. CROONS, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW YORK STATE OFFICE OF MENTAL HEALTH, CENTRAL NEW YORK PSYCHIATRIC CENTER; DONALD SAWYER, Executive Director; DEBBIE COLLVER; SHARON M. SCHOEN; JOHN DOES; JANE DOES; PATRICIA L. BARDO; and COREY CONLEY, Defendants

Page 194

For Plaintiff: AJ BOSMAN, ESQ., DANIEL W. FLYNN, ESQ., OF COUNSEL, BOSMAN LAW OFFICE, Rome, NY.

For Defendants: MICHAEL G. MCCARTIN, ESQ., Ass't Attorney General, OF COUNSEL, HON. ERIC T. SCHNEIDERMAN, Attorney General for the State of New York, Albany, NY.

OPINION

Page 195

DAVID N. HURD, United States District Judge.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. INTRODUCTION

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Croons' Injury

B. Croons' Termination

C. Croons' Reinstatement

III. DISCUSSION

A. Motion for Summary Judgment--Legal Standard..

B. Race Discrimination Claims

1. Light Duty

2. Termination

C. Retaliation

D. Disability Claims

IV. CONCLUSION

MEMORANDUM--DECISION and ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Charles M. Croons (" plaintiff" or " Croons" ) brings this action against the New York State Office of Mental Health's Central New York Psychiatric Center (" CNYPC" ); Donald Sawyer, the former Executive Director of CNYPC (" Sawyer" ); Debbie Collver, a Human Resources (" HR" ) secretary at CNYPC (" Collver" ); Sharon Schoen, a retired HR secretary formerly employed at CNYPC (" Schoen" ); and John and Jane Does (the " Does" ). Plaintiff later amended his complaint to add defendants Patricia Bardo, Director of CNYPC's HR Department (" Bardo" ) and Corey Conley, the Director of CNYPC's Security Department (" Conley" ).

Croons' Amended Complaint enumerates fourteen causes of action for alleged violations of federal and state law. Plaintiff brings claims against CNYPC for race and disability discrimination (Counts One, Three, Four, and Five) as well as retaliation (Counts Nine, Ten, and Eleven) pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (" Title VII" ), Titles I and II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (" ADA" ), and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (" Rehabilitation Act" ). Plaintiff also brings claims against Sawyer, Collver, Schoen, Bardo, Conley, and the Does (collectively the " individual defendants" ) for race discrimination and retaliation (Counts Eight and Thirteen) as well as alleged violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments (Counts Seven and Fourteen) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § § 1981 and 1983. Finally, plaintiff brings claims against the individual

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defendants for race and disability discrimination (Counts Two and Six) as well as retaliation (Count Twelve) pursuant to New York State Human Rights Law (" NYSHRL" ).

Following the completion of discovery, CNYPC and the individual defendants (collectively " defendants" ) moved for summary judgment on all fourteen causes of action pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (" Rule" ) 56. The motion was fully briefed. Oral argument was heard on September 27, 2013, in Utica, New York. Decision was reserved.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

CNYPC is a mental health treatment facility administered by the Office of Mental Health (" OMH" ), an agency of the Executive branch of the New York State government. See Defs.' Statement of Material Facts, ECF No. 39-47, ¶ 1 (" Rule 7.1 Stat." ).[1] In 2006, CNYPC hired Croons, an African-American male, as a Security Hospital Treatment Assistant (" SHTA" ). Id. ¶ 7; Croons Aff., ECF No. 41, ¶ ¶ 3-4. SHTAs supervise potentially violent patients, including the criminally insane, and are often required to use physical force while on duty. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 8. For example, SHTAs must respond to " red dot" alerts throughout the facility--violent situations where other CNYPC personnel need assistance restraining a patient. Id. ¶ ¶ 8-9; McCartin Decl., Ex. A, ECF No. 39-3, 17 (" Croons' First Dep." ).[2]

A. Croons' Injury

On June 1, 2007, Croons was on duty at CNYPC when he was alerted to one of these " red dot" situations. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 9. In his haste to arrive at the scene of the alert, plaintiff collided with a doorframe, injuring his shoulder and neck. Id. ¶ 10; Croons' First Dep. 19-21. Although he was still able to work a full eight-hour day, plaintiff's injury prevented him from lifting heavy objects with his right arm or restraining violent people, as required of SHTAs. Id. ¶ 17. Plaintiff was placed on leave in accordance with the terms of a contract between his Union, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, Inc. (the " Union" ), and New York State.[3] Id. ¶ ¶ 12-13.

An injured CNYPC employee placed on Union leave, such as Croons, is eligible to return to work in a " light duty" capacity prior to making a full recovery subject to certain restrictions established as part of a Memorandum of Understanding (" MOU" ) between New York State and the Union.[4] Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ ¶ 27-28; Bardo Decl., Ex. A, ECF No. 39-16, 3. The employee seeking

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light duty must provide CNYPC's HR Department with medical documentation detailing his or her particular work restrictions as well as a doctor's statement indicating the employee is expected to recover and be prepared for " full duty" within forty-five days or less. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 51. Once an injured employee supplies the requisite documentation, an HR secretary contacts the appropriate CNYPC department, usually by telephone or e-mail, to determine if a light duty position is available. Id. ¶ 52; see also Sawyer Decl., ECF No. 39-14, ¶ 8; Conley Decl., ECF No. 39-22, ¶ 5; Schoen Decl., ECF No. 39-23, ¶ 4.

B. Croons' Termination

After he was placed on Union leave, Croons underwent a series of medical evaluations by different physicians to determine his fitness to return to full duty. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ ¶ 19-24. These evaluations, conducted largely between September 21, 2007, and July 11, 2008, characterized plaintiff's injury as " moderate," " temporary," " partial," and " mild." Id.; see also McCartin Decl., Ex. 1, ECF No. 39-6 (" Medical Records" ). Each of these evaluations indicated that although plaintiff could return to work in a light duty capacity, he could not be in a " potentially violent environment" and was restricted from lifting various weights with his injured right arm. See generally Medical Records.

On January 16, 2008, James Schuster, M.D. completed an " Estimated Capabilities Report," which stated that Croons could work an eight-hour day, but was still restricted from pushing or pulling with his right arm or restraining combative patients. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 23; see Croons Aff., Ex. B, 34. Notably, Dr. Schuster's report indicated that plaintiff would be ready to return to full duty on March 1, 2008, within the forty-five day period required by the MOU for clearance to light duty. Id. However, a later " work ability report," completed by plaintiff's personal physician Nathaniel Gould, M.D. on March 3, 2008, indicated plaintiff was still limited from lifting more than ten pounds with his right arm, could not be in a " potentially violent environment," and that plaintiff should follow-up with him in six weeks. Medical Records 15. Plaintiff did not receive any light duty assignments at CNYPC during this period and remained on continuous Union leave. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 16.

On June 12, 2008, CNYPC sent Croons a letter informing him that his employment would be terminated on July 13, 2008 pursuant to New York Civil Service Law § 71. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 69; McCartin Decl., Ex. 3, ECF No. 39-7. Section 71 provides, in relevant part, that " [w]here an employee has been separated from the service by reason of a disability resulting from occupational injury . . . [he] shall be entitled to a leave of absence for at least one year, unless [his] disability is of such a nature as to permanently incapacitate [him] for the performance of the duties of [his] position." N.Y. Civ. Serv. Law § 71.

On July 11, 2008, Dr. Gould completed a " work ability report" indicating that Croons could return to full duty on August 4, 2008, again within the forty-five day period required by the MOU for clearance to light duty.[5] Medical Records 25. However, plaintiff did not work any light duty on July 11 or 12, and on July 13 he was terminated. See Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 74; Medical

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Records 21, 24 (noting that " patient reports he was laid off for being on light duty too long). Shortly thereafter, New York State instituted a state-wide hiring freeze.[6]

Following his termination, Croons pursued reinstatement under other provisions of the Civil Service Law, which provide that an employee who has been terminated pursuant to § 71, such as plaintiff, can apply to be examined by a physician from the New York State Department of Civil Service (" Civil Service" ) Staffing Services Division, the central personnel agency of the Executive branch of New York State. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ ¶ 74, 76; Ryan-Lynch Decl., ECF No. 39-41, ¶ 2. If the employee can show that his injury has healed and he is fit to return to work without limitations, a medical clearance letter is transmitted to the relevant facility, such as CNYPC, to begin a reinstatement process. Ryan-Lynch Decl. ¶ 9.

In February 2009, Croons reported to the Civil Service's Employee Health Services (" EHS" ) office, where he was evaluated by John E. Hargraves, M.D. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ ¶ 77-78. On February 11, 2009, Dr. Hargraves issued a letter clearing plaintiff to return to work as an SHTA without restrictions. Id. ¶ 78; Ryan-Lynch Decl., Ex. A, ECF No. 39-42 (" Clearance Letter" ). This Clearance Letter indicated that it was " cc'ed" to both " Staffing Services -- Director" and " [CNYPC], Personnel." Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 79.

For reasons the parties dispute, CNYPC did not reinstate Croons following his medical clearance.[7] However, what is certain is that plaintiff filed an administrative complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights (" DHR" ) alleging discrimination and retaliation on June 26, 2009, which was later cross-filed with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (" EEOC" ). Bosman Aff., Ex. 1, ECF No. 44-1, 2-8. On December 1, 2009, a " two party" telephone conference was held between DHR and CNYPC to discuss plaintiff's administrative complaint. Bosman Aff., Ex. 2, ECF No. 44-1, 10-11. On October 25, 2010, plaintiff filed this lawsuit.

C. Croons' Reinstatement

During the pendency of this litigation, CNYPC applied for a " budgetary waiver" to reinstate Croons despite the hiring freeze. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 93. In August 2011, New York State approved CNYPC's budgetary waiver application and plaintiff was directed to report to EHS for a physical exam and drug test prior to being reinstated as an SHTA. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ ¶ 93-94; Bardo Decl., Ex. D, ECF No. 39-19. However, plaintiff was initially

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deemed ineligible for reinstatement when his urine tested positive for marijuana.[8] Bardo Decl., Ex. E, ECF No. 39-20; Ciulla Decl., Ex. C, ECF No. 39-40. While discovery in this matter continued, CNYPC attempted to reinstate plaintiff a second time. Bardo Decl. ¶ 19. After passing a second drug test and physical exam, plaintiff finally returned to work at CNYPC as an SHTA on November 1, 2012. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ ¶ 109-10; McCartin Decl., Ex. B, ECF No. 39-4, 39-40 (" Croons' Second Dep." ). He has since testified that there have been no incidents of race or disability discrimination since his return. Rule 7.1 Stat. ¶ 111.

III. DISCUSSION

Each of the fourteen causes of action asserted in Croons' Amended Complaint incorporates all of the factual allegations preceding it as well as adopting all of the allegations of each preceding count. Consequently, " it is virtually impossible to know which allegations of fact are intended to support which claim(s) for relief." Anderson v. Dist. Bd. of Trs. of Cent. Fla. Cmty. Coll., 77 F.3d 364, 366 (11th Cir. 1996). The initial confusion undoubtedly caused by this " shotgun pleading" strategy was only exacerbated by defendants' decision not to move against either plaintiff's initial or amended complaint seeking clarification of the issues. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 590 n.9, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (" The remedy for an allegation lacking sufficient specificity to provide adequate notice is, of course, a Rule 12(e) motion for a more definite statement." ) (Stevens, J., dissenting) (internal quotations omitted). Instead, the parties elected to sort things out by engaging in a protracted course of sweeping discovery spanning several years before delivering this motion for consideration.

But this is exactly backwards. " Civil pleadings are supposed to mark the boundaries for discovery; discovery is not supposed to substitute for definite pleading." Paylor v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co., 748 F.3d 1117, No. 13-12696, 2014 WL 1363544, at *7 (11th Cir. Apr. 8, 2014). And left unchecked, this type of litigation strategy ultimately acts to thwart meaningful legal analysis. This is especially true where, as here, the parties can barely seem to agree on even the most inconsequential background facts in the case. Left with little in the way of useful guidance on the critical disputes, a court must instead attempt to stitch together the plaintiff's various theories of recovery by slogging through the inevitable morass of discovery materials. The result is a " massive waste of judicial and private resources." Johnson Enters. of Jacksonville, Inc. v. FPL Grp., Inc., 162 F.3d 1290, 1333 (11th Cir. 1998). Indeed, " [e]xperience teaches that, unless cases are [pleaded] clearly and precisely, . . . discovery is not controlled, the trial court's docket becomes unmanageable, [and] the litigants suffer[ ]." Anderson, 77 F.3d at 366.

The repercussions of Croons' " successful" shotgun pleading strategy are readily apparent from a review of the docket in this action--when the dust settled on the briefing ...


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