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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Advanced Home Care, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

April 10, 2018



          THOMAS D. SCHROEDER, District Judge.

         The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) brings this lawsuit against Advanced Home Care Inc. (“Advanced”) alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (“ADA”), for failure to reasonably accommodate its employee, Elizabeth Pennell, and wrongful termination. Before the court is Advanced's motion to dismiss. (Doc. 6.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ready for decision. (Docs. 7, 8, 9.) For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the EEOC as the non-moving party, the operative facts are as follows:

         Advanced offers in-home health care services to patients. (See Doc. 1 ¶ 12.) On February 3, 2014, Advanced hired Pennell to serve as a Patient Accounts Representative at its High Point location. (Id.) The main function of Pennell's job was to manage cases for patients who required at home health care services. (See Id.) This required that she spend some portion of her typical work day on the telephone. (Id.)

         During the spring of 2015, Pennell began to experience frequent asthma attacks and flare ups of bronchitis. (Id. ¶ 13.) That August, she collapsed at work, was hospitalized, and subsequently was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”). (Id. ¶ 14.) As a result of these conditions, Pennell has difficulty talking continuously for extended periods of time. (Id. ¶ 15.) Her conditions are aggravated by scents and odors of the sort that she was regularly exposed to when working in a cubicle at Advanced along with hundreds of other employees. (Id. ¶ 16.)

         Following her diagnosis, Pennell was out of work under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., from August 5 through 30, 2015. (Id. ¶ 17.) When she returned to work, Pennell asked her supervisor if she could telework either part-time or full-time as an accommodation for her disability. (Id. ¶ 18.) She requested this accommodation because it would prevent her from being exposed to irritants in her work environment and because she would not have to take inbound calls while teleworking, meaning she would have to spend less time continuously talking. (Id.) The supervisor informed Pennell that she would get back to her, but never did. (Id. ¶ 18.) Between August and December of 2015, Pennell requested the accommodation of telework on at least three separate occasions, but never received a response. (Id. ¶ 19.)

         In November of 2015, Pennell was again hospitalized with COPD-related symptoms. (Id. ¶ 20.) On November 11, 2015, she went on leave again. (Id.) In December, while still on leave, she received a performance review from her supervisor that stated she had met Advanced's performance expectations. (Id. ¶ 23.) Pennell's direct supervisor told her on more than one occasion, however, that if she could not return to work without restrictions on January 7, 2016, when her FMLA leave ended, she would be terminated. (Id. ¶ 21.) Pennell exhausted all twelve weeks of her leave but could not return to work, and she was fired on January 8, 2016. (Id. ¶¶ 20-21, 25.)

         Shortly after her termination, Pennell filed an EEOC complaint against Advanced, alleging violations of the ADA. (Id. ¶ 7.) The EEOC issued Advanced a letter stating that there was reasonable cause to believe that the ADA had been violated and inviting Advance to engage in conciliation. (Id. ¶ 8.) When that failed, the EEOC filed the present action.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) provides that a complaint must contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter . . . to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss “challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint considered with the assumption that the facts alleged are true.” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir.2009) (internal citations omitted).

         A. Failure to Accommodate

         The ADA provides a cause of action to a qualified individual with a disability whose employer fails to make a reasonable accommodation to a known physical or mental limitation unless the employer can demonstrate that the requested accommodation would impose an undue hardship. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A). The elements of a failure to accommodate claim are that (1) the employee is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) the employer has notice of the employee's disability and request for accommodation; and (3) the employer failed to accommodate the employee. See Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 579-80 (4th Cir. 2015). A qualified individual is “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8). “A job function is essential when ‘the reason the position exists is to perform that function.'” Jacobs, 780 F.3d at 579 (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(1)). A reasonable accommodation is “one that ‘enables [a qualified] individual with a disability . . . to perform the essential functions of [a] position.'” Id. at 580 (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o)(1)(ii)). “The statute expressly contemplates that a reasonable accommodation may require ‘job restructuring.'” Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12111(9)(B)). Under the ADA, employers have a “good faith duty to engage with [their employees] in an interactive process to identify a reasonable accommodation.” Id. at 581 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Advanced argues that the EEOC has failed to allege sufficient facts to support the claim that Pennell is a qualified individual. (Doc. 7 at 4-7.) Specifically, Advanced contends that the complaint fails to allege facts to demonstrate the essential function of Pennell's position or that Pennell could have performed it with a reasonable accommodation. (Id. at 4-9 (citing Cabrera Mejia v. Walmart, No. 1:14CV237, 2014 WL 5531432 (M.D. N.C. Nov. 3, 2014), aff'd sub nom. Mejia v. Wal-Mart, 599 Fed.Appx. 520, at *3- 6 (granting a motion to dismiss because the complaint failed to allege “even the most basic details about [plaintiff's] job, let alone that ...

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