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United States v. Woody

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

November 22, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
C.T. WOODY, JR., SHERIFF, CITY OF RICHMOND, in his official Capacity, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROBERT E. PAYNE, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the UNITED STATES' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ("U.S. Mot."), (ECF No. 29), as well as the DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ("Def. Mot."), (ECF No. 31) . For the reasons set forth below, the United States' motion for summary judgment will be denied, and the defendant's motion for summary judgment will be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The United States filed this action on behalf of Emily Hall, a former employee of the Sheriff of the City of Richmond, Virginia, alleging violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12111 et seg. (ADA or "the Act"). The remaining Defendant is Sheriff C.T. Woody, Jr. ("Woody"), appearing in his official capacity, as Sheriff of the City of Richmond.[1] The relevant facts are undisputed.

         A. Undisputed Facts

         Hall began working as a Deputy Sheriff in 2003. (U.S. Mot. 3) . In September 2012, Hall was diagnosed with familial dilated cardiomyopathy and supraventricular tachycardia, conditions that, without treatment, would substantially limit the operation of her cardiovascular system, Id. at 4. On September 21, 2012, Hall's doctors implanted an internal cardiac defibrillator and pacemaker to treat these conditions and to prevent heart failure. Id.

         Hall's health condition and restrictions prevented her from performing the essential functions of her job as a Deputy Sheriff, namely that all Deputy Sheriffs must be able to have direct contact with inmates or other individuals, Id. at 5. Given her condition and this essential function, the parties agree that no accommodation could have enabled Hall to remain a Deputy Sheriff. Id.; see also Def. Mot. 27. Hall therefore required (and timely requested) reassignment to a vacant civilian position to remain employed by the Sheriff. (U.S. Mot. 5) .

         In January of 2012, Hall was informed by Billie Windzor, then head of the Human Resources (HR) Department at the Sheriff's Office, that a Payroll Technician position had become vacant, Id. at 7. The parties agree that Hall possessed the minimum qualifications necessary for the position, and that reassignment to the job would have accommodated Hall's disability. Id.[2]

         Eight other applications were submitted for the position of Payroll Technician. (U.S. Mot. 9). All of these applications, except for Hall's, were from candidates not then employed by the Sheriff. Id. Four applicants received interviews for the position, during which they were ranked according to their comparative qualifications under the department's own internal evaluation system. Id. Woody contends, and the U.S. does not dispute, that Hall was the least qualified interviewee under these metrics. (Woody Mot. 2; U.S. Resp. 1). Hall did not receive the Payroll Technician position. Instead, the most qualified applicant was hired.

         The parties agree that the Sheriff has and maintains an official, neutral, and non-discriminatory policy of hiring the "most qualified" candidate for each position or vacancy that arises. (Def. Mot. 4; U.S. Resp. 1) Woody contends that he has consistently followed this "most qualified" hiring policy in the past, and the United States has conceded that the record does not indicate otherwise. Summ. J. Hr'g Tr. 90:14-91:5.[3]Furthermore, the parties agree that Woody's "most qualified" hiring policy was followed with respect to the filling of the vacant Payroll Technician position in question. In other words, the parties agree that Hall was not reassigned to the Payroll Technician position because, notwithstanding her disability, she was not the most qualified applicant for the job. (Def. Mot. 2; U.S. Resp. 1). The issue presented in this case is whether that decision nonetheless violated the ADA.

         B. Procedural History

         Sometime on or before October 10, 2013, Hall filed a timely charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that Woody discriminated against her in violation of the ADA by denying her a reasonable accommodation. (U.S. Mot. 12) Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5, incorporated by reference in 42 U.S.C. § 12117(a), the EEOC investigated Hall's charge. Id. The EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that Woody had discriminated against Hall in violation of the ADA. Id. After the EEOCs conciliation efforts failed, the EEOC referred the matter to the United States Department of Justice. Id.

         The United States filed the Complaint (ECF No. 1) in this case on March 2, 2016. Woody filed an Answer on May 16, 2016 (ECF No. 18) . On September 2, 2016, the parties filed these cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF No. 29, ECF No. 31). The United States filed its response ("U.S. Resp., " ECF No. 35) on September 16, 2016, and Woody did the same ("Def. Resp., " ECF No. 36) . Replies to the cross-motions were filed on September 22, 2016 (ECF No. 37, 38) ("U.S. Reply, " "Def. Reply"), and oral argument was heard on October 18, 2016 (ECF No. 68) . For the reasons stated on the record at that hearing, the Court ordered the trial in this case to be continued generally, pending resolution of the motions for summary judgment (ECF No. 67).

         II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) instructs that a court "shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine issue of material fact exists under Rule 56 "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         When evaluating a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56, any disputed "facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). In general, the "party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion" and "demonstrating] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Although the Court continues to endorse this general framework, it has also provided more specific instruction to courts assessing "reasonable accommodation" claims under the ADA.

         In United States v. Barnett, the Supreme Court endorsed a two-step, burden-shifting framework for assessing claims arising under the "reasonable accommodation" provision of the ADA. 535 U.S. 391, 401 (2002). To survive summary judgment, the employee must first demonstrate that the accommodation he or she requests "seems reasonable on its face, i.e., ordinarily or in the run of cases." Id. If the plaintiff makes this showing, the employer "then must show special (typically case-specific) circumstances that demonstrate undue hardship in the particular circumstances." Id. at 4 02.

         If the accommodation requested by the employee is not reasonable in the run of cases, summary judgment for the employer will usually be appropriate, Id. at 403 ("The statute does not require proof on a case-by-case basis that a seniority system should prevail."). Nevertheless, even where the requested accommodation would be unreasonable in the run of cases, the plaintiff-employee "nonetheless remains free to show that special circumstances warrant a finding that . . . the requested 'accommodation' is 'reasonable' on the particular facts." Id., at 405. In Barnett, the Court further explained, in the context of the seniority system at issue, what a showing of "special circumstances" might entail:

The plaintiff might show, for example, that the employer, having retained the right to change the seniority system unilaterally, exercises that right fairly frequently, reducing employee expectations that the system will be followed-to the point where one more departure, needed to accommodate an individual with a disability, will not likely make a difference. The plaintiff might show that the system already contains exceptions such that, in the circumstances, one further exception is unlikely to matter. We do not mean these examples to exhaust the kinds of showings that a plaintiff might make. But we do mean to say that the plaintiff must bear the burden of showing special circumstances that make an exception from the seniority system reasonable in the particular case. And to do so, the plaintiff must explain why, in the particular case, an exception to the employer's seniority policy can constitute a "reasonable accommodation" even though in the ordinary case it cannot.

Id. at 405-06. The United States concedes that it has not demonstrated "special circumstances" in this case, and therefore rests its summary judgment position only on the theory that reassignment would ordinarily be "reasonable" for employees like Hall, where the presence of a nondiscriminatory "most qualified" hiring policy would otherwise have resulted in the employer hiring a more qualified but non-disabled applicant. Summ. J. Hr'g Tr. 90:14-91:5.

         III. THE ADA

         The ADA was enacted "to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities" and "to provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities." 42 U.S.C. § 12101(b). In passing the ADA, Congress expressly found that "the continuing existence of unfair and unnecessary discrimination and prejudice denies people with disabilities the opportunity to compete on an equal basis and to pursue those opportunities for which our free society is justifiably famous." 42 U.S.C. § 12101(a)(8).

         To accomplish these goals, the ADA prohibits all "discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). The Act then details the different ways in which employers may ...


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