United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
MICHAEL F. URBANSKI, District Judge.
Plaintiff Michael Wayne Beckner brings this action against defendant Tread Corporation pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. ("ADA"). Beckner applied for a welding position with Tread and claims Tread regarded him as having a disability as defined in the ADA and failed to hire him as a result. Tread moves for summary judgment (Dkt. #17), arguing Beckner cannot establish a prima facie case of discrimination in violation of the ADA. The court agrees and, for the reasons set forth herein, will GRANT Tread's motion.
Tread is in the business of creating customized vehicles and storage equipment for the safe handling and transport of explosives. Harrison Decl., Dkt. #18-8, at ¶ 7; White Decl., Dkt. #18-9, at ¶ 5; see also Def.'s Answers to Interrog., Dkt. #18-7, at #6. Welders at Tread "perform all the welding needed to create this customized equipment, which includes welding custom truck bodies, storage bins, and the smaller parts that are affixed to the truck bodies and storage bins." Harrison Decl., Dkt. #18-8, at ¶ 8; see also White Decl., Dkt. #18-9, at ¶ 5. The welding shop at Tread is broken into various bays based on the product being welded, and "[a]ll welders at Tread are expected to be able to work in any of these bays at any time." Def.'s Answers to Interrog., Dkt. #18-7, at #6.
Beckner, a welder by trade, applied for employment with Tread in February 2011. Beckner Dep., Dkt. #24-7, at 33-34. In connection with that employment application, Beckner participated in several interviews, id. at 38, and successfully completed a welding test, id. at 39. Tread expressed an interest in hiring Beckner as a second shift welder and referred him to Bright Services, a temporary staffing agency. Sink Dep., Dkt. #24-11, at 9; see also Kish Dep., Dkt. #30, at Ex. 26. In order to become eligible for full-time employment with Tread, Beckner would have to complete Bright Services' application process and successfully complete a 90-day introductory period at Tread as a temporary employee through Bright Services. Kish Dep., Dkt. #30, at 8; see also Def.'s Answers to Interrog., Dkt. #18-7, at #2, 3.
In connection with Bright Services' application process, Beckner filled out a paper application, completed an interview and was referred to Valley Occupational Medicine for a physical examination and drug screening. Sink Dep., Dkt. #18-3, at 9, 14. In the course of his physical examination, Beckner indicated on a medical history form that he takes gabapentin, the generic form of Neurontin, which treats neurological pain. Castern Dep., Dkt. #29, at 11-12, at VOM17. This prompted examining physician Louis Castern, M.D., to inquire further with Beckner. Dr. Castern's notes from March 17, 2011 state: "No back injuries or disorders. Sprain - neck - 2 years ago- Bilat[eral] forearm." Castern Dep., Dkt. #29, at VOM15. Dr. Castern noted Beckner reported sensitivity that increased with hot water as a result of this injury, but no pain or limitations. Id . Dr. Castern requested medical records related to this condition, a practice he described as "pretty routine [ ] when we do find something of that nature." Castern Dep., Dkt. #29, at 11.
These medical records revealed that on August 1, 2010, Beckner presented to the emergency room after suffering a fall while intoxicated the previous night that left him unable to move his arms or hands. Ex. F to Def.'s Summ J. Br., Dkt. #42, at 55. Beckner was admitted to the hospital after he exhibited central cord syndrome upon evaluation. Id . A CT scan and MRI of his neck revealed "severe cervical stenosis, likely congenital, with a blocked vertebra at C2-3. There was evidence for cord swelling." Id . Although he demonstrated "dramatic improvement in his arm and hand function, " "he clearly was not normal at the time of discharge" two days later. Id . Treating neurosurgeon, Dr. John Feldenzer, noted Beckner would need a "decompressive procedure sometime in the future, " but recommended he wait at least six to eight weeks to allow for optimal cord recovery and decrease in swelling. Id.
Beckner followed up with Dr. Feldenzer on August 16, 2010. Records reveal Beckner's pain and dysesthesias were improving, his strength and sensation were returning to his arms and hands, and he appeared "certainly better than when he was in the hospital." Id. at 53. Dr. Feldenzer noted again that Beckner would "need a cervical decompression through laminectomy." Id . On September 8, 2010, Dr. Feldenzer noted marked improvement in Beckner's condition: "He is now able to wear shirts with sleeves having no dysesthesias in his arms. Strength has returned to his hands. There is no numbness in his hands." Id. at 52. Dr. Feldenzer removed Beckner's cervical collar and noted:
He may return to normal activities and may start the job that has been held for him as a welder. I have placed no restrictions on him. He was advised of course not to drink alcohol and put him in a situation where he could fall and injure himself again. He understands that he has an underlying problem with cervical stenosis and will need a decompressive multilevel cervical laminectomy.
Id. The last treatment note from Dr. Feldenzer dated October 28, 2010 states:
I last saw [Beckner] 7 weeks ago. He missed a visit in mid-October. He is back to work as a welder. He reports that his forearms ache especially in the morning and he notices intermittent tingling in his hands. Both hands are affected. The finger tips tingle fairly constantly. He notices that with neck extension there is some tingling in his arms and chest.
Id. at 51. Dr. Feldenzer observed upon examination that the range of motion in Beckner's neck was limited in extension, less so in flexion, "but both cause paresthesias at extremes of motion." Id . Although Beckner "continue[d] to do well, " he was noted to "still hav[e] some symptoms of spinal cord irritation." Id . Dr. Feldenzer "again urged him to consider moving ahead now with operative decompression via a C3 through C7 laminectomy, " and "recommended that he remain on the Neurontin in the meantime." Id . Dr. Feldenzer "urged him to be careful with his neck and to avoid extended extension positions and any chance of falling." Id . A work note signed by Dr. Feldenzer dated October 28, 2010 says "10/29/10 may return to work with no restrictions." Beckner Dep., Dkt. #30, at Ex. 2.
Based on these records, Dr. Castern advised Beckner that he "would need a recent evaluation and release by Dr. Feldenzer with any current restrictions indicated, " before clearing Beckner for the work as a welder at Tread. Castern Dep., Dkt. #29, at 12, VOM14. On March 25, 2011, Linda Trent from Dr. Feldenzer's office sent Valley Occupational Medicine a fax transmission concerning Beckner, which stated:
Patient informs our office that you have told him that Dr. Feldenzer placed work restrictions. That is NOT TRUE - see attached work note given to patient when last seen on 10/28/10. The last paragraph in Dr. Feldenzer's office note of 10/28/10 - Dr. Feldenzer gave a caution and recommendation to Mr. Beckner - NOT a restrictions [sic].
Beckner Dep., Dkt. #30, at Ex. 10. A handwritten note from Dr. Castern dated March 25, 2011 states: "Note from Dr. Feldenzer no restrictions other than note at last visit to avoid prolonged extension of neck or possibility of falling." Castern Dep., Dkt. #29, at VOM14. On Beckner's form, Dr. Castern classified Beckner under category "B" - "Medically Acceptable with Job Assignment Limitations: Must avoid prolonged extension of neck (looking upward) or probabily [sic] of falling." Id.
Dr. Castern explained in his deposition his reason for imposing these limitations: "[T]he recommendation was made at the last visit that [Beckner] had with Dr. Feldenzer, surgery was being strongly recommended, and he remained on the medication that was specifically treating the condition that he was supposed[ ] to have corrected." Id. at 21. Dr. Castern indicated that he did not consider the March 25, 2011 fax from Dr. Feldenzer's office to be "a removal of the restrictions or conditions that [he] had observed in Dr. Feldenzer's or Roanoke Neurosurgey's notes concerning Mr. Beckner." Castern Dep., Dkt. #29, at 17. As to Beckner's ability to work as a welder at Tread, Dr. Castern testified: "Well, I do know that they do, some of the employees at least, do overhead work and overhead welding. And that's what concerned me and felt that he did need accommodations assigned from what Dr. - or based on Dr. Feldenzer's recommendations." Id. at 18; see also Sink Dep., Dkt. #18-3, at 16-17 (stating Dr. Castern discussed the job requirements with Brian Kish); Ex. 20 to Bright Dep., Dkt. #18-6. Dr. Castern made clear in his testimony that he did approve Beckner for work in an industrial setting so long as it did not involve prolonged overhead work. Castern Dep., Dkt. #29, at 19-20.
On April 1, 2011, Tread's Human Resources Director Brian Kish sent an email to Kenneth White, Vice President of Manufacturing, on which he copied Tread's CEO Bill McClane, stating:
Good Morning Kenny,
Mike Bendrick [sic] is a welder who did well on his weld tests and in interviews with Dave H. and Bill. Mike has recently worked for KME Fire Apparatus, Apex Industrial, and General Truck and we are looking at offering Mike an opportunity.
Valley Occupational did a thorough physical of Mike and noted that Mike had a previous neck injury and has since returned to working as a welder. According to the medical records sent to Dr. Castern at Valley Occupational, Mike's treating physician recommended a procedure/operation, ...