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Gautier v. Celanese

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

October 28, 2015

CELANESE a/k/a Celanese Acetate, LLC, a/k/a Celanese Corporation, and JOSEPH J. FOX, Defendants

          For Jonathan Gautier, Plaintiff: Melvin E. Williams, Micah Douglas Wright, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Mel Williams PLC, Roanoke, VA.

         For Celanese also known as Celanese Acetate, LLC, also known as Celanese Corporation, Joseph J. Fox, Defendant: Brian Garth Muse, LEAD ATTORNEY, LeClair Ryan-Williamsburg, Williamsburg, VA; Clinton Stephen Morse, LEAD ATTORNEY, LeClair Ryan, A Professional Corporation, Roanoke, VA; James Fielding Douthat, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, LeClair Ryan, Richmond, VA.

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         Michael F. Urbanski, United States District Judge.

         This case is an employment dispute involving an employee's prescription drug

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use. Plaintiff Jonathan Gautier (" Gautier" ) claims that his employer, Celanese, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (" ADA" ) when it suspended him from work until he reduced his use of prescription pain medicine and self-enrolled in an Employee Assistance Program (" EAP" ) for drug dependency. The dispute over Gautier's suspension was previously submitted to arbitration pursuant to the collective-bargaining agreement (" CBA" ) between Celanese and the Celanese Acetate & Workers United, Local 1995 (the " Union" ). The preclusive effect of that arbitration is the sole issue raised by the parties.

         Before the court is the defendants' motion for summary judgment filed pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, ECF No. 18, and Gautier's motion to deny in part the motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, ECF No. 20. The matter has been fully briefed, and the court heard oral argument on September 30, 2015. For the reasons set forth below, the court will not give preclusive effect to the arbitration decision and will thus DENY the defendants' motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 18. The court also DENIES as moot Gautier's motion to deny in part the motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 20.


         In 2002, Gautier suffered a serious injury at the Celanese plant while he was working in a mechanical lift that overturned.[1] Compl., ECF No. 1, at ¶ 10. He returned to work six months later, and was employed at Celanese during all times relevant to this case until the company placed him on medical leave on May 23, 2013. Id. at ¶ ¶ 6, 8, 16. Gautier still suffers pain associated with his prior injury, and has been prescribed various pain medications since 2002. Id. In 2011, Celanese administered a drug test that discovered hydrocodone and Percocet in Gautier's blood. Arbitration Decision, ECF No. 19-7, at 9. The company took no action because Gautier had prescriptions for both drugs and there was no indication that the drugs affected his performance. Id.

         On or about April 8, 2013, however, Celanese supervisors noticed that Gautier appeared impaired during shifts. Id. One supervisor observed Gautier crushing and snorting pills at work. Id. Gautier also appeared tired, would bump into walls, and failed to maintain alertness. Id. at 10-12. When the behavior continued, the company restricted Gautier from work and sent him to get a medical evaluation. Id. at 12. The Union requested that Gautier not be drug tested, Celanese agreed, and the company instead put Gautier on medical leave, effective May 24, 2013. Id. at 12-13. The Union and Celanese also agreed that Gautier would benefit from an EAP drug rehabilitation course. Id. Gautier disputes that anyone told him to attend EAP. After being on medical leave for several weeks, Gautier received permission from his private doctors to return to work. Id. at 14-16. One of these doctors--Dr. Robert Devereaux--believed that Gautier's drowsiness was caused by a combination of allergy pills and Gautier's normal regimen of prescription pain medication. Id. at 14-15. Celanese claims that Dr. Devereaux's opinion is flawed because Gautier was not forthright about the extent of his drug use.

         Gautier returned to Celanese on July 15, 2013 with a work release effective July 20, 2013. Id. at 16. Gautier admitted he was taking Percocet, hydrocodone, and several

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other medications, but claimed they were prescribed by his doctor. Id. Celanese administered a drug test, which showed Percocet and several other drugs in Gautier's blood, but no hydrocodone. Id. at 16-17. Gautier provided a current prescription for hydrocodone and the other drugs, but could provide no prescription for Percocet. Id. Gautier later presented an expired Percocet prescription dated June 14, 2012, over a year prior to his positive drug test. Id. at 17. Dr. Kevin Soden, the medical director at Celanese, refused to clear Gautier to return to work. Id. at 18-19. Based on the combination of drugs Gautier was taking and his failure to provide a current prescription for Percocet, Dr. Soden believed Gautier had a drug problem. Id. The company refused to lift Gautier's suspension until he reduced his use of narcotics and attended a rehabilitation program. Id.

         Gautier filed a grievance through the Union, seeking clearance to return to work. At the same time, he filed the current complaint in federal court on November 12, 2014. The grievance was submitted to arbitration in December 2014 and January 2015, resulting in an arbitration decision favoring Celanese. The arbitrator found, among other things, that: (1) Gautier was suffering a serious work impairment in July 2013; (2) Gautier failed to inform his doctors about the full extent of his drug use; (3) Dr. Soden had a reasonable concern about Gautier's ability to work safely; and (4) Gautier must attend a rehabilitation program before returning to work. Id. at 21-28.

         Gautier has two claims before this court: (1) a failure to accommodate claim against Celanese under the ADA and (2) a state-law defamation claim against Celanese and Joseph Fox (" Fox" ). The basis for the defamation claim is a letter sent by Fox, an employee of Celanese, to Gautier's counsel that described Gautier as a " drug abuser," stated he made other Celanese employees feel unsafe, and claimed that he failed to complete drug counseling.


         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), the court must " grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Glynn v. EDO Corp., 710 F.3d 209, 213 (4th Cir. 2013). When making this determination, the court should consider " the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with . . . [any] affidavits" filed by the parties. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Whether a fact is material depends on the relevant substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). " Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted." Id. (citation omitted). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If that burden has been met, the non-moving party must then come forward and establish the specific material facts in dispute to survive summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986).

         In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court views the facts and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Glynn, 710 F.3d at

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213 (citing Bonds v. Leavitt, 629 F.3d 369, 380 (4th Cir. 2011)). Indeed, " [i]t is an 'axiom that in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor.'" McAirlaids, Inc. v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 756 F.3d 307, 2014 WL 2871492, at *1 (4th Cir. 2014) (internal alteration omitted) (citing Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1863, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 (2014) (per curiam)). Moreover, " [c]redibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge . . . ." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. However, the non-moving party " must set forth specific facts that go beyond the 'mere existence of a scintilla of evidence.'" Glynn, 710 F.3d at 213 (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252). Instead, the non-moving party must show that " there is sufficient evidence favoring the non[-]moving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party." Res. Bankshares Corp. v. St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co., 407 F.3d 631, 635 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249). " In other words, to grant summary judgment the Court must determine that no reasonable jury could find for the non[-]moving party on the evidence before it." Moss v. Parks Corp., 985 F.2d 736, 738 (4th Cir. 1993) (citing Perini Corp. v. Perini Const., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 124 (4th Cir. 1990)).


         The defendants claim they are entitled to summary judgment on two grounds. First, they argue that Gautier's ADA and defamation claims fail because the arbitration decision already decided the relevant factual issues in their favor, and thus issue preclusion applies. Next, even if issue preclusion does not apply, the defendants argue that the arbitrator's findings on contractual matters should eliminate Gautier's claims under the ADA.


         At the outset, both parties agree that this court can consider the arbitration decision when it analyzes Gautier's ADA claim. Likewise, neither party challenges the general rule that courts have discretion to decide what weight, if any, to give an arbitrator's factual findings when those findings are submitted in a subsequent federal lawsuit. See Hawkins v. Leggett, 955 F.Supp.2d 474, 502 (D. Md. 2013), aff'd sub nom. In re Canarte, 558 Fed.Appx. 327 (4th Cir. 2014). The only issue raised in the defendants' motion is whether an unreviewed arbitration decision can create issue preclusion in a subsequent federal suit under the ADA. The circuits have split on the issue: the Fifth Circuit allows courts to give preclusive effect to arbitration decisions in later federal discrimination claims, see Grimes v. BNSF Ry. Co., 746 F.3d 184, 188 (5th Cir. 2014), while the Sixth and Seventh Circuits restrict use of issue preclusion in such cases.[2] Coleman v. Donahoe, 667 F.3d 835, 854 (7th Cir. 2012); Nance v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 527 F.3d 539, 547-49 (6th Cir. 2008). The Fourth Circuit has not yet addressed the issue. For the reasons stated below, the court will adopt the majority approach

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and will not apply issue preclusion in Gautier's ADA claim.


         A series of Supreme Court cases address the preclusive effect of arbitration decisions. The traditional rule forbids courts from giving preclusive effect to arbitration decisions in later claims brought pursuant to federal civil rights statutes and regulatory legislation, including 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Title VII, the ADA, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (" ADEA" ), the Fair Labor Standards Act (" FLSA" ), and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (" ERISA" ). See 18B Charles Alan Wright et al., Fed. Prac. & Proc. § 4475.1 (2d ed.). This rule was established by a trio of Supreme Court decisions: Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 94 S.Ct. 1011, 39 L.Ed.2d 147 (1974); Barrentine v. Ark.-Best ...

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