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Watson v. Fairfax County

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

February 28, 2018

RACHEL WATSON, Plaintiff,
v.
FAIRFAX COUNTY, VIRGINIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. S. ELLIS, III UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         At issue in this Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”)[1] is defendant's motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff, a former probationary mental health therapist for defendant who took substantial amounts of leave during her probationary period, was diagnosed with diabetes in late March 2014 and shortly thereafter was terminated. According to plaintiff, defendant (i) terminated plaintiff because of her disability (ii) failed to provide plaintiff with a reasonable accommodation for her disability, and (iii) terminated plaintiff in retaliation for plaintiff's request for a reasonable accommodation for her disability. Defendant now seeks summary judgment on all three of plaintiff's claims, arguing that defendant did not terminate plaintiff because of her disability or in retaliation for her request for an accommodation, but rather for the legitimate non-discriminatory reason that plaintiff was excessively absent and did not fulfill the attendance requirements of her job. As this matter has now been fully briefed and argued, it is ripe for disposition.

         I.[2]

         Plaintiff, Rachel Watson, is a resident of Maryland and former employee of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board (“CSB”), a Fairfax County agency. Defendant, Fairfax County, is a municipal agency within the Commonwealth of Virginia.

         On April, 22, 2013, plaintiff began her 12-month initial probationary period[3] as a mental health therapist for the CSB's Wraparound Program. The Wraparound Program provides intensive support for high-risk youths. Plaintiff's responsibilities in her role as mental health therapist were enumerated in a position description form and in a manual of policies, procedures, and training for the Wraparound Program. Specifically, plaintiff was responsible for providing various program services to 10-15 high-risk youths and their families, including face-to-face contact with the youth and family every week, [4] Youth and Family Team (YFT) meetings every month, [5] and regular communications with a case manager. Because these responsibilities required plaintiff to deliver services in the community 85% of the time, plaintiff needed to be capable of driving a vehicle independently and of working at various locations across the Fairfax-Falls Church regional area, including at client's homes and schools. In addition to her service provision responsibilities, plaintiff was required to document her activities internally, including developing an initial Plan of Care (“POC”) for each youth within 30 days of the Wraparound Program start date, and then both updating the POC every 30 days and updating records for each youth in a database on a weekly basis. These weekly updates were particularly important because the population CSB serves is at considerable risk for psychiatric emergencies.

         Shortly after plaintiff began working as a probationary mental health therapist with CSB, she began taking annual leave, sick leave, and leave without pay. In particular, in her first six months at CSB, plaintiff took leave on the following occasions:[6]

• May 27, 2013- plaintiff took leave to go on a deep sea fishing trip.
• June 12-14, 2013- plaintiff took leave because her daughter was sick.
• June 18, 2013- plaintiff took three hours of leave for her own medical appointments unrelated to her subsequent diabetes diagnosis.
• July 15, 2013- plaintiff took leave for her own medical appointments unrelated to her subsequent diabetes diagnosis.
• July 24-26, 2013- plaintiff took five hours of leave on July 24, a full day on July 25, and four hours of leave on July 26 because her daughter was sick.
• August 2013- plaintiff took leave to go on a trip to Alabama.
• August 2013- plaintiff took leave to go to the zoo for her daughter's birthday.
• September 3-5, 2013- plaintiff took leave because her daughter was sick.
• September 6, 2013- plaintiff took leave for her own medical appointments unrelated to her subsequent diabetes diagnosis.
• September 25-October 2, 2013- plaintiff took leave because of her daughter's illness. Plaintiff took six hours of leave on September 25 and two hours of leave on October 2, 2013.

         In total, plaintiff took 132 hours of annual leave, sick leave, and leave without pay in her first 31 weeks with CSB.[7] As a result of plaintiff's absences, plaintiff failed to conduct some weekly meetings with clients, cancelled some scheduled meetings, and missed required documentation deadlines.[8] In addition to plaintiff's leave, plaintiff also frequently arrived at work late, claiming that her commute and traffic made it difficult for her to arrive at work by the scheduled start time.[9]

         In preparation for plaintiff's six-month probationary review, plaintiff's supervisor, Jacqueline Sott (“Sott”), raised concerns to Program Manager Jean Bartley (“Bartley”) and Service Director Allen Berenson (“Berenson”) over plaintiff's absences and tardiness and the impact of those absences on plaintiff's provision of Wraparound Program services. In turn, Bartley and Sott raised these concerns with Tana Suter (“Suter”), the Human Resources Manager for CSB. After raising these concerns with Suter, Bartley and Sott documented the attendance issues in plaintiff's six-month probationary evaluation on November 26, 2013. Specifically, the six-month evaluation noted that plaintiff's attendance was “not acceptable” although her overall performance was “acceptable.” This six-month probationary evaluation was shared with plaintiff.

         In November 2013, around the time of plaintiffs six month review, plaintiff began to experience symptoms that would eventually be diagnosed as diabetes. Specifically, plaintiff suffered from fatigue, blurred vision, extreme headaches, impaired cognitive abilities, and digestive problems. As a result, she had difficulty driving, [10] standing for long periods of time, and completing daily life activities.

         Following plaintiffs six-month probationary evaluation and the onset of plaintiffs yet undiagnosed diabetes symptoms, plaintiff continued to take annual leave, sick leave, and leave without pay at a rate higher than the rate of her absences for the first six months. Indeed, plaintiffs records reflect that she took 107 hours of annual leave, sick leave, and leave without pay, in the 18 weeks between November 27, 2013 and April 3, 2014.[11] For example, plaintiff took leave on the following days:

• December 9, 2013 - plaintiff took two hours of leave for medical issues and appointments related to her as yet undiagnosed diabetes.
• December 30-31, 2013- plaintiff took a full day of leave on December 30 and two hours of leave on December 31 because her daughter's illness.
• January 6, 2014- plaintiff took three hours of leave for medical issues and appointments related to her as yet undiagnosed diabetes.
• February 18-19, 2014- plaintiff took a day and a half of leave for medical issues and appointments related to as yet undiagnosed diabetes.
• March 4-5, 2014- plaintiff took leave because she was having issues operating her vehicle.
• March 20-21, 2014- plaintiff took leave to go on a trip to New York for her birthday.
• March 24, 2014- plaintiff took two hours of leave for medical issues and appointments related to her as yet undiagnosed diabetes.
• March 28, 2014- April 2, 2014- plaintiff took leave for medical issues and appointments related to her now diagnosed diabetes.

         Plaintiff continued to miss deadlines and meetings[12] as a result of her leave. Indeed, on January 13, 2014, as a part of her nine-month review of probationary employees, Sott sent plaintiff an email to inform her that documentation was missing from the database for three weeks-worth of cases.[13] In March 2014, in preparation for plaintiffs year-end probationary evaluation, Sott conducted an additional review of plaintiffs documentation and database entries. As a part of this review, Sott created a chart summarizing plaintiffs performance, and concluding that 32% of plaintiffs documentation was submitted late and 25% of plaintiffs documentation was not submitted at all. Sott shared these results with Bartley, noting that plaintiff was not meeting the demands of her job and was not meeting with families, as required, nor was plaintiff submitting the necessary documentation. Accordingly, Sott could not recommend that plaintiff be permitted to transition from a probationary employee to a merit employee. These issues were also raised with Berenson in early April 2014.

         Around this same time, plaintiff's medical condition worsened. She was extremely tired, could barely get out of bed, and had difficulty driving. On March 25, 2014, plaintiff was diagnosed with diabetes. Plaintiff understood that from that point forward, she would need to test her blood sugar regularly and either to telework or to arrive late to work in the event her blood sugar levels were high. Accordingly, she would be unable to attend meetings with her clients when her blood sugar prevented her from driving. Plaintiff is unaware of the frequency or duration of the leave or teleworking that she would have needed as a result of her condition.

         The day after plaintiff was diagnosed with diabetes, plaintiff informed Sott about her diagnosis and asked to discuss a potential accommodation. Sott told plaintiff they would set up a time to discuss an accomodation. Plaintiff did not inform any other individuals at CSB about her diagnosis at that time. Shortly thereafter, on April 1, 2014, plaintiff had a telephone conversation with Sott at which time Sott informed plaintiff that Sott was not satisfied with plaintiff's work, that plaintiff's attendance was ...


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