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Churchwell v. City of Concord

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

June 11, 2018

JANA CHURCHWELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF CONCORD, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Catherine C. Eagles, District Judge.

         The plaintiff, Jana Churchwell, has sued the City of Concord alleging that it did not accommodate her disability and discharged her because of her disability, both in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The City moves for summary judgment and Ms. Churchwell moves for partial summary judgment. The motions will be denied.

         FACTS[1]

         Ms. Churchwell worked as a project engineer for the City of Concord from 2001 until her termination in July 2015. Doc. 14-4 at ¶ 2. Her direct supervisor was Rick Blat, the Deputy City Engineer, and her second-line supervisor was Sue Hyde, the City's Engineering Director. Doc. 14-1 at 7-8; Doc. 14-2 at 8; Doc. 20-1 at ¶ 2.

         Ms. Churchwell was diagnosed with chronic autoimmune urticaria in 2001. Doc. 14-1 at 8-9. By 2007, she was unable to work for short periods of time because of her symptoms. Docs. 14-1 at 8-9; 14-4 at ¶¶ 3-4. In 2013, she was also diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and chronic migraine headaches. Doc. 14-1 at 10-11; Doc. 17-2 at 4-5. She sought and was granted FMLA leave, as well as certain accommodations, at various times between 2007 and 2015. Doc. 17-2 at 3-5; Doc. 14-1 at 12.

         In May 2015, Ms. Churchwell was intermittently out of work due to migraines and IBS symptoms. Doc. 17-2 at 8; Doc. 14-4 at ¶ 4. From June through her termination, she was out of work nearly continuously. Doc. 17-2 at 8, 10-11. She used a combination of sick days, vacation days, and FMLA leave to cover her work absences. Doc. 17-14.

         On June 5, a Benefits Specialist with the HR Department sent Ms. Churchwell a letter advising her that she would soon exhaust her FMLA leave and enclosing a copy of the City's ADA reasonable accommodation request form. Doc. 17-12. The Benefits Specialist also told Ms. Churchwell the City would “assume [she] ha[d] resigned [her] position” if she did not return the form by June 20. Doc. 17-12.

         Ms. Churchwell exhausted her FMLA leave on Friday, June 12. Doc. 17-13. She “tried [going] back” to work on Monday, June 15, but she was able to work for only half a day before returning home. Doc. 17-2 at 11. She was absent from work on unauthorized leave for the remainder of June through her termination. Doc. 17-2 at 11.

         On June 16, Ms. Churchwell submitted a reasonable accommodation request to the City's HR Department. Doc. 14-15 at 1-3. As accommodations, she requested:

1. If in the office and come down with symptoms, may need to leave;
2. If at home and have symptoms or medication side effects, may need to stay home and away from office;
3. I may need to leave office for doctors appointments or treatment therapies, or for medication at pharmacy;
4. I may need to avoid being in extreme temperatures for extended lengths of time.

Doc. 14-15 at 3.[2] Her primary care physician submitted paperwork indicating that no accommodation would enable Ms. Churchwell to perform her job's essential duties while she was suffering from a migraine. Doc. 17-9 at ¶ 4. He also asserted that she might need medical leave of “1 day per every 2 weeks or less.” Doc. 17-9 at ¶ 5.

         The next day, Ms. Churchwell also sent an email to Ms. Hyde asking for thirty days of unpaid leave, from June 17 to July 16.[3] Doc. 14-7 at 1-2. Ms. Hyde denied Ms. Churchwell's request via a June 17 email, on which she copied the City's HR Director, Rebecca Edwards. Doc. 14-7 at 1. Ms. Hyde said she denied the request because the Engineering Department had 3.5 full time engineers, 48 active projects, and “[l]osing one full-time engineer staff person would put [the Engineering Department's] projects even further behind schedule.” Doc. 20-1 at ¶¶ 6-7. ...


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