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Molina v. City of Rochester

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 30, 2017


          DECISION & ORDER

          JONATHAN W. FELDMAN United States Magistrate Judge.

         Procedural Hi story

         Plaintiff Richard Molina (hereinafter "plaintiff" or "Molina"} filed this action alleging unlawful discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA") and discrimination under the New York Human Rights Law ("NYHRL"). See Am. Compl. (Docket # 33) at ¶ 29, 35.[1] Plaintiff moved for summary judgment on January 15, 2015, and defendant cross-moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim (Docket ## 23, 28}.[2] The Court heard oral argument on both motions on July 15, 2015, denying the motions on the record and by brief Order the following day. Docket # 37. The parties thereafter engaged in further discovery, and plaintiff filed the instant motion, a second motion for summary judgment, on June 14, 2016. See Pl's Mot. (Docket # 43) . Defendant cross moved for Summary judgment on June 25, 2016. See Def.'s Mot. (Docket # 45). The Court heard oral argument on the motions on October 21, 2016 (Docket # 50), and both parties submitted post-hearing briefs to address questions that arose during the hearing. See Docket ## 49, 51. For the reasons stated below, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Docket #43) is denied, and defendant's motion for summary judgment (Docket #45} is granted.

         Factual Background

         Richard Molina was hired by the City of Rochester (hereinafter "the City" or "defendant") in the Department of Environmental Services as an ESO/Trainee in September 2006. Ex. "C" attached to Def.'s Mot. (Docket # 45-6) . He was appointed to the Solid Waste Management Division as an ESO I on February 12, 2007. See PI. ' s Mot. (Docket # 43-1) at 1. The primary duty of this position is to collect refuse and recycling along established routes within the City of Rochester. Id.

         Plaintiff began having disciplinary issues soon after he began his employment with the City. His employee performance history notes that he (1) received a written reprimand for poor work performance on July 9, 2007; (2) was fined fifty dollars for poor work performance/violating work on December 13, 2007; (3) received a written reprimand for poor work performance/absence on April 8, 2008; (4) had a one day suspension for poor work performance on July 7, 2008; (5) received a written reprimand for excessive sick leave on August 11, 2008 and another written reprimand on September 2, 2008 for "MVA-preventable"; (6) was suspended for three days for poor work performance on January 5, 2009; and (7} received a written reprimand for "MVA preventable" on August 9, 2010. Ex. "C" attached to Def.'s Mot. (Docket # 45-6). Notes from these infractions describe that plaintiff, among other things, did not service certain sections on his route/ did not clean his truck, and did not drive safely. Id.

         Plaintiff began to have medical issues related to his job beginning in 2009. Plaintiff injured his left shoulder while working and was placed on a "light duty" assignment beginning January 2, 2009. See Pl's Mot. (Docket # 43-1) at 2. Plaintiff was out on Worker's Compensation from June 17, 2009 to June 17, 2010, and had rotator cuff surgery on his left shoulder in December 2009. Plaintiff returned in June 2010 with no restrictions. See id.; see also Def.'s Mot. (Docket # 45-2) at 2 (timeline of plaintiff's employment history).

         Back on the job, plaintiff injured his other shoulder, his right shoulder, on August 18, 2010 and was out oh Worker's Compensation from August 19, 2010 to August 31, 2010. See Ex. # 2 attached to Def.'s Post-Hearing Submission (Docket # 49) at 1. He was then placed on light duty or out oh Worker's Compensation for most of the rest of 2010. Def.'s Mot. (Docket # 45-2) at 2. Plaintiff underwent right shoulder surgery in January 2 011 and was out on Worker's Compensation from January 20, 2011 to January 6, 2012. See Ex. # 2 attached to Def.'s Post-Hearing Submission (Docket # 49) at 7. On November 28, 2011, while out on Worker's Compensation, plaintiff received a letter from the City stating that his one year leave of absence provided by his contract[3] would be exhausted on January 7, 2012, at which time he would be removed from the payroll if he did not return to his regular duty assignment. See Pl's First Mot. for Summ, J. (Docket # 23) at 27.

         Plaintiff returned to full-duty work on January 6, 2012 with a disability status report from his doctor, P.K. Peartree, MD, returning him to regular work with no restrictions. See Ex. # 2 attached to Def.'s Post-Hearing Submission (Docket # 49) at 9. A "physician's return to work form" completed by Registered Nurse (RN) Samuel Cappiello of Occupational Health Centers of New York, an affiliate of Concentra Medical Centers -, on January 5, 2012, noted that plaintiff had restrictions of never crawling and never lifting more than sixty pounds. Id. at 10. However, a "return to work evaluation" completed by a physician (signature illegible} at Concentra Medical Center, also on January 5, 2012, stated that plaintiff had no present complaints, had full range of motion and strength in the right shoulder, and repeated that plaintiff had "no limitations." Id. at 11. Plaintiff's physician, Dr. Peartree, wrote a follow-up letter to Human Resources on February 14, 2012, stating that plaintiff "ha[d] requested to return to work without restrictions, anticipating a transfer to another department, but has continued pain in the shoulders." Other than the recommendation for transfer, the letter asked for no specific accommodations nor listed specific work related restrictions. Ex. "B" attached to Pl's Mot. (Docket #43) at 8.

         Molina was not transferred, however, and he continued to be employed as an EOS I upon return from his Worker's Compensation leave in January 2012. He continued to have disciplinary problems and in July 2012 received a ten-day suspension for "faulty work performance" and then was cited for "misconduct" on November 19, 2012. Ex. "C" attached to Def.'s Mot. (Docket # 45-6) . A detailed letter from Paul Holahan, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services, described plaintiff's "faulty work performance" during the prior three months, reciting incidences such as leaving work without permission, exhibiting rudeness towards members of the public, failing to service customers, working without proper safety attire, and being involved in a motor vehicle accident with a City truck. See Ex. "D" attached to Def.'s Mot. (Docket # 45-7). On June 21, 2013, plaintiff received a Notice of Termination from the City, outlining at least six additional instances of. violations of standards of conduct and procedure. See Ex. "B" attached to Def.'s Mot. (Docket # 45-5).

         Plaintiff's lawsuit contends that the City's failure to provide reasonable accommodations constituted discrimination and retaliation on the basis of his disability, in violation of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. 12112(b) (1), (3) (A) and (5), and the NYHRL, New York Executive Law §§ 296, et. seq. See Amended Complaint (Docket # 33).


         Presently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment under Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, each alleging that there is no genuine dispute of material fact between the parties. Plaintiff claims that the City's failure to engage in an interactive process to accommodate plaintiff's disability was a violation of the ADA, entitling him to summary judgment. Defendant argues that plaintiff has failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination by failing to show (1) a cognizable disability, (2) a request for an accommodation, and (3) that he was otherwise qualified to perform his job. Defendant also contends that, even if this Court finds a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, summary judgment should be granted to defendant because plaintiff has failed to rebut defendant's proffered legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons for plaintiff's termination.

         Summary. Judgment Standard: Summary judgment is appropriate where "the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). "By its very terms, the standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original) . A dispute of fact is material "only if it has some effect on the outcome of the suit." Eagley v. State Farm Ins. Co., No. 13-CV-66530, 2015 WL 5714402, at *6 (W.D.N.Y. Sept. 29, 2015) (citation and quotation omitted). Moreover, a genuine issue exists as to a material fact "if the evidence is such that a -reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. When deciding a summary judgment motion, courts must resolve all inferences and ambiguities in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is sought. Thompson v. Gjivoje, 896 F.2d 716, 720 (2d Cir. 1990); Donahue v. Windsor Locks Bd. Of Fire Comm' rs, 834 F.2d 54, 57 (2d Cir. 1987). The reasonableness of those inferences, though, depends on "the record taken as a whole." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co.. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         The burden of showing the absence of any issue of material fact rests with the movant. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) . Once the moving party has established its prima facie entitlement to summary judgment, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to "go beyond the pleadings and by . . . affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories/ and admission on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324 (internal citations omitted). Put differently, the non-moving party must show that materials cited establish "the presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 5 6(c). It is not enough for the non-movant to present evidence that just raises doubts; the non-movant must present "concrete evidence from which a reasonable juror could return a verdict in his favor." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256. The "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" to support the non-moving party's claims is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 252.

         In analyzing the merits of a summary judgment motion in the context of a discrimination claim, courts must be cautious in granting relief where the conduct at issue "requires an assessment of individuals' motivations arid state of mind.” Brown v. Henderson, 257 F.3d 246, 251 (2d Cir. 2001). These are "matters that call for a sparing use of the summary judgment device because of juries' special advantages over judges in this area." Id. (internal quotations and citations omitted). Nevertheless, "the salutary purposes of summary judgment avoiding protracted, expensive, and harassing trials - apply no less to discrimination cases than to commercial or other areas of litigation." Meiri v. Dacon, 759 F.2d 989, 998 (2d Cir. 1985). Indeed, "summary judgment remains available to reject discrimination claims in cases lacking genuine issues of material fact." Chambers v. TRM Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 40 (2d Cir. 1994}; see also Abdu-Brisson v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 239 F.3d 456, 466 (2d Cir. 2001) ("It is now beyond cavil that summary judgment may be appropriate even in the fact-intensive context of discrimination cases."). Ultimately, at this juncture of the case, the Court is limited to "issue-finding, " and not resolution, while keeping "in mind that only by reference to the substantive law can it be determined whether a disputed fact is material to the resolution of the dispute." Gallo v. Prudential Residential Serv., Ltd., 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994) .

         Discrimination Under the Americans with Disabilities Act:

         The Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") prohibits an employer from discriminating against an otherwise qualified individual with a disability because of that disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). According to the statute, the term "discriminate against a qualified individual oh the basis of disability" includes

not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business.

42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A).

         It is well established that disability discrimination claims brought pursuant to the ADA are evaluated under the burden-shifting paradigm set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973) . See McBride v. BIC Consumer "Prods., Mfg., 583 F.3d 92, 96 (2d Cir. 2009} (applying the McDonnell Douglas test to ADA claims). "A plaintiff alleging employment discrimination under the ADA bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case, " Ryan v. Grae & Rybicki, P.G., 135 F.3d 867, 869 (2d Cir. 1998) (citing Wernick v. Fed. Reserve Bank of N.Y., 91 F.3d 379, 383 (2d Cir. 1996)). To establish a prima facie- case of discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that: (1) his employer is subject to the ADA; (2) he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA or perceived to be so by his employer; (3) he is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation; and (4) he suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability. Giordano v. City of New York, 274 F.3d 740, 747 (2d Cir. 2001) .

         Proving that a plaintiff is capable of performing his job with a reasonable accommodation - the third factor - requires its own separate analysis. To prove a prima facie reasonable accommodation case, "a plaintiff must show that: '(1) [he has] a disability under the meaning of the ADA; (2) an employer covered by the statute had notice of [his] disability; (3) with reasonable accommodation, [he] could perform the essential functions of the job at issue; and (4) the employer has refused to make such accommodations. '" Young v. New York City Dep't ofEduc., No. 09 Civ. 6621, 2010 WL 2776835, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. July 13, 2010) (quoting Rodal v. Anesthesia Grp. Of Onondaga, P.C., 369 F.3d 113, 118 (2d Cir. 2004)}. Once the plaintiff has established a prima facie case of disability discrimination, "the burden of production shifts to the defendant, who must articulate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its challenged actions." Rodal, 369 F.3d at 118 n.3. If such a reason is offered, the burden returns to the ...

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