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Woods v. Mannứꙺ Filtration Technology U.S. LLC

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

August 7, 2019

CHARLES A. WOODS, Plaintiff,
v.
MANNᵃఐ FILTRATION TECHNOLOGY U.S. LLC, et al. Defendants.

          ORDER

          Kenneth D. Bell United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Charles Woods (“Woods”) was a long-time manufacturing line employee of Defendants Mannứꙺ Filtration Technology U.S. LLC, Mannứꙺ USA, Inc. and Mannứꙺ Filtration Technology Group, Inc. (together, “Mannứꙺ” or the “Company”). In this action, Woods asserts claims for employment discrimination based on alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA”), racial discrimination, retaliation, wrongful discharge and other related state law and declaratory claims. Now before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (“Motion”) on all claims (Doc. No. 36), which Woods opposes.

         The Court has carefully considered the Motion and the parties' briefs and exhibits and heard oral argument from the parties' counsel during a hearing on the motion held July 25, 2019. The parties do not materially dispute the applicable legal principles and the elements of the various causes of action. They do, however, dispute whether there is enough evidence in the record to create a genuine issue of material fact, i.e. a basis on which a reasonable jury could rule in favor of the Plaintiff on his various claims. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the Company is not entitled to summary judgment on Woods claims under the ADA but is entitled to summary judgment on Woods' remaining claims of racial discrimination, retaliation, alleged FMLA violations and other causes of action. Accordingly, the Court will in part GRANT and in part DENY the Motion and enter Partial Summary Judgment in favor of Defendants as set forth below.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment must be granted “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 factual dispute is considered genuine “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). “A fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Vannoy v. Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, 827 F.3d 296, 300 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013)).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact through citations to the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions or affidavits in the record. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003). “The burden on the moving party may be discharged by ‘showing' ... an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. Once this initial burden is met, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party. The nonmoving party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial, ” Id. at 322 n.3. The nonmoving party may not rely upon mere allegations or denials of allegations in his pleadings to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 324.

         When ruling on a summary judgment motion, a court must view the evidence and any inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 657 (2014); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. “Summary judgment cannot be granted merely because the court believes that the movant will prevail if the action is tried on the merits.” Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 568-69 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting 10A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 2728 (3d ed.1998)). “The court therefore cannot weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations.” Id. at 569 (citing Mercantile Peninsula Bank v. French (In re French), 499 F.3d 345, 352 (4th Cir. 2007)).

         However, “[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009) (internal citations omitted). “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.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Also, the mere argued existence of a factual dispute does not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion. Id. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment is appropriate. Id. at 249-50.

         In the end, the question posed by a summary judgment motion is whether the evidence as applied to the governing legal rules “is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 252.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

         Woods was hired by MANNᵃఐ, formerly known as Wix Filtration Corp., in August 1972. In his last five to six years of employment, Woods, who is African American, worked as a Set-Up Person (a/k/a “Set-Up Operator”) at the company's Allen plant, which is one of the most highly paid hourly wage positions. In the Allen plant, the Company manufactures filters, primarily for automotive and industrial applications. As a Set-Up Operator, Woods was expected to set up the equipment to run the desired product and to “assist in maintaining all equipment according to engineering specifications and appropriate work instructions.” The physical requirements of the Set-Up Operator position include the “[a]bility to move a minimum of 50 lbs.” Woods worked on the first shift, which is the most desirable.

         Woods was diagnosed with prostate cancer in January 2015. Following his diagnosis, Woods requested and received approved FMLA leave[2] to have surgery. He remained out of work on leave from April 20, 2015 through July 23, 2015. Although Woods exhausted his FMLA leave in early July, the company gave him additional unpaid medical leave until he was ready to return. When he returned to work, Woods went back to his regular job as a Set-Up Operator. While on leave, Woods was entitled to receive short term disability payments for up to twenty-six (26) weeks.

         After his return from surgery, Woods was able to perform his job, but his prostate surgery resulted in male incontinence and the problem was exacerbated by heavy lifting. Defendants claim that they did not regard Woods as disabled since he continued to perform all duties of his regular job satisfactorily but did allow him to take all the bathroom breaks necessary to “accommodate” his incontinence.

         In early November 2015, Woods discussed his incontinence issues with his urologist and the doctor gave him a three-month medical restriction that prohibited him from lifting 50 lbs. or standing greater than 50% of the time. As a result of these medical restrictions, Woods was restricted from performing the essential functions of his regular job as a Set-Up Operator. Although the Company says that it continued to believe that Woods could perform his job because he had been doing satisfactory work since he returned from surgery in July 2015, the Company honored Woods' medical restrictions and removed him from the Set-Up Operator position on November 4, 2015.

         Woods filed an affidavit in which he alleges that he requested a reasonable accommodation based on his disability when he received these medical restrictions. He further alleges that he was told by Wes Sorrells, his supervisor, that “the company would not allow me to return to work with the restrictions, and that there would be no accommodation of [Woods'] restrictions…. Sorrells told me … that I should file for short-term disability instead; and when that expired, I should apply for long term disability; and when that expired, I should go ahead and retire.” The Company's HR manager, Scott Carter, filed an affidavit alleging that he and others tried to find a position that would comply with Woods' medical restrictions, but were unsuccessful.

         Woods never returned to work after November 4, 2015. Without a position to work in, Woods applied for FMLA leave, but his request was denied because he had already exhausted his FMLA leave during the preceding 12-month period. However, the Company did provide him with an unpaid medical leave of absence and some opportunity to apply for work as discussed below. There is no dispute Woods was paid everything he was owed for his work through November 4, 2015, and Woods received short term disability benefits until they were exhausted in February 2016. The company does not offer sick pay or severance pay to hourly employees.

         The Company's “process” for allowing employees who are on unpaid medical leave to return to work is in dispute, or at least uncertain. While the Company has indisputably allowed some employees to return to the positions they held prior to their FMLA or medical leave, the Company alleges that its typical process for filling positions that become available in the plant is through a “bid” process in which current employees are given an opportunity to apply for open positions. The Company contends that it maintains an “open jobs list, ” which is a list of jobs in the plant that either no one bid on or for which there were no qualified bidders. They include all available jobs for all shifts, including all open assembly line positions. Any employee is free to take a job on the “open jobs list” at any time.

         On the one hand, the company says that open positions are filled on a first come basis so that the most desirable positions are filled quickly. On the other hand, some positions in higher pay grades are apparently filled based on a comparison of qualifications among those who have applied. Carter's affidavit acknowledges, however, that “[m]ost jobs at the plant are filled on the basis of seniority.”

         While Woods was out on medical leave, Defendants did not proactively offer him jobs that he could do with his medical restriction or even give him immediate notice of open positions, but instead simply permitted him to come in and “bid” on open positions as if he was still working in the plant (which, of course, he was not). In January 2016, Woods bid on a Utility/Parts Operator position (a/k/a Line-Hauler position).[3] Woods was one of four applicants for the job, which the company says was awarded based on merit rather than seniority. The candidates were scored using what the company alleges is its standard scoring matrix for awarding such jobs. Woods scored a “26.” Two other candidates scored higher than Woods, and one scored lower. The job was awarded to Clifford Hartness, a white man who the company says scored a “30, ” although Woods correctly points out that Hartness only had 28 points, the same score as the second-place applicant. There is no evidence in the record as to the race of the other two applicants for the position.

         At his follow up doctor's appointment on February 8, 2016, there was no change to Woods' medical restrictions. On February 11, 2016, Woods reviewed his medical restrictions with the plant nurse and, according to the company, indicated that “he would probably apply” for long term disability benefits (“LTD”) rather than seek one of the jobs on the open jobs list that he could do with his medical restriction. While Woods apparently began a portion of the process for seeking LTD with the Company's third party LTD benefit program provider UniCare as early as February 8, 2016, there is no evidence in the record of when the application was completed or, more significantly, what or when the Company knew about his application. In Carter's affidavit, he states, without explanation, that “by applying for LTD benefits Woods abandoned his claim to his regular job as a Set-Up Operator, ” and that “the plant nurse discussed this with Woods on February 11, 2016.”[4]

         Shortly after this meeting with the plant nurse, Woods saw his doctor again on February 23, 2016, and the doctor revised Woods' medical restrictions after learning that the restrictions were preventing Woods from working. The next day, February 24, 2016, Woods presented the Company with the doctor's note that said Woods could return to work without restrictions. Upon receiving this note removing Woods' medical restrictions, Carter contacted Woods, who was still on unpaid medical leave and no longer receiving short term disability. Despite the absence of restrictions (and presumably the Company's continued belief that Woods could still do the job because of his satisfactory performance after returning from surgery), Woods was not given the opportunity to return to his former job. There is no evidence in the record that no SetUp Operator position was available on February 24, 2016 nor is there any evidence of when all such positions were filled or if Set-Up Operator positions ever became available after February 24, 2016. Instead, Woods was asked to select a job from the “open jobs list.” Woods came in to select a job from the open jobs in March but was told that the job he selected was unavailable because it had already been taken by another employee.

         Woods application for LTD benefits was denied on April 8, 2016. Woods did not appeal this decision because he said he didn't know how and, without short term disability benefits, he decided to draw from his retirement savings instead. Woods does not allege that Defendants were responsible for the denial of his application for LTD benefits.

         Woods filed an EEOC charge on April 18, 2016.[5] In his charge, Woods alleged he had been discriminated against based on his race and disability in violation of Title VII and the ADA. The Charge refers to a medical condition for which he had surgery and a doctor's note requesting “an accommodation of lifting restrictions.” He also specifically complained in the Charge about the Line-Hauler position being given to an employee of a different race with less seniority.

         After Woods filed his initial EEOC charge, the company tried to get him to come in and again select a job from the “open jobs list.” This was not immediately successful. Carter sent Woods a letter telling him that if he did not communicate with the company by July 18, 2016 the company would consider Woods to have voluntarily resigned his employment. Woods came in on July 19, 2016 and reviewed the open jobs list. The company says that he asked for a few days to consider his options; Woods says that he was told to take two or three days. Woods says he came back on July 25, 2016 when Carter was on vacation and was told to wait until Carter came back. He ultimately discussed his “open job” selections with Carter on August 1, 2016. But, by then, the jobs which Woods selected - the only first shift jobs on the list - were again “not open” because they had been previously taken by other employees.

         Woods then returned on August 22, 2016 and selected another job - a “Pack End” job - that was listed as open and the Company said was available. The parties dispute what happened next. The company says that Woods needed only to revisit his doctor, bring in a new return to work slip and commence his new job. Woods does not directly address the “Pack End” job opportunity but claims that he felt that he was led to believe that he did not have a real option to return to work. On August 30, 2016, Woods voluntarily retired, according to the company. Woods does not deny that he wrote that he “retired” on “a scrap piece of paper, ” but he disputes the characterization of the voluntariness of the “retirement, ” claiming that he was effectively “terminated” because “Defendants refused to allow me to work at their place of business, and Defendants refused to pay me.”

         III.DISCUSSION

         A. ADA Disability Claims

         The ADA provides that “[n]o covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to ... the ... discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Failing to reasonably accommodate an employee's disability is a type of discrimination, 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A).

         To establish a prima facie case for failure to accommodate an employee under the ADA, a plaintiff must allege facts to show “(1) that he was an individual who had a disability within the meaning of the statute; (2) that the [employer] had notice of his disability; (3) that with reasonable accommodation he could perform the essential functions of the position ...; and (4) that the [employer] refused to make such accommodations.” Wilson v. Dollar Gen. Corp., 717 F.3d 337, 345 (4th Cir. 2013) (internal citations omitted).

         1. Was Woods “Disabled”?

         The first defense raised by the Defendants is that Woods was not “disabled” within the meaning of the ADA. Defendants argue that Woods was able to perform his job despite the incontinence caused by his prostate cancer, so he was not disabled and that the company did not regard him as disabled, despite his medical restrictions. Woods argues in response that the “evidence of Woods' cancer diagnosis, medical treatment, and subsequent remission” establishes that he has a “disability” under the ADA. The Court finds Woods' position more persuasive, particularly under recent Fourth ...


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