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Williams v. AT&T Mobility Services LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

January 27, 2017

Kirsten Williams, Plaintiff-Appellant,
AT&T Mobility Services LLC, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee at Memphis. No. 2:15-cv-02150-S. Thomas Anderson, District Judge.


         ON BRIEF:

          Steve Wilson, THE STEVE WILSON FIRM, Memphis, Tenneseeee, Matt Gulotta, THE GULOTTA FIRM, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Charles W. Hill, Meghan K. McMahon, GLANKLER BROWN, PLLC, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellee.

          Before: GILMAN, GRIFFIN, and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.


          RONALD LEE GILMAN, Circuit Judge.

         Kirsten Williams was employed by AT&T Mobility Services LLC (AT&T) as a Customer Service Representative (CSR). Williams suffered from depression and anxiety attacks, which caused her to be frequently absent from work. AT&T terminated Williams in July 2014 for job abandonment and for violating the company's attendance policy. Williams then filed a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., in the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. She asserted claims against AT&T for failure to provide her with a reasonable accommodation, failure to engage in the interactive process, disparate treatment, and retaliation.

         AT&T moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted as to all of Williams's claims. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Job duties and attendance requirements for Williams's CSR position

         Williams was employed as a CSR with AT&T from 2006 until she was terminated in July 2014. She worked at AT&T's Memphis Call Center, where her job duties included answering incoming calls and assisting customers with technical-support and billing issues. To answer calls, Williams had to be physically present at her workstation and logged in to her computer.

         CSRs work eight-hour shifts, which rotate every six months. During these shifts, CSRs are expected to remain at their workstations receiving calls, with the exception of breaks for lunch, two prescheduled 15-minute breaks per day, and unscheduled restroom breaks as needed. Although there is no requirement that a CSR field a certain number of calls per day, CSRs typically handle about 40 to 50 calls during each shift.

         If a CSR is not logged in to her workstation, any calls that would have otherwise gone to her are rerouted to another CSR. Both Darcus Payne, the Area Manager of the Memphis Call Center, and Laura McArthur, an AT&T Attendance Manager, submitted declarations explaining the consequences of a CSR's unscheduled absences. Such consequences include potential increases in customer wait times and decreases in the quality and speed of customer service. Unscheduled absences can also cause increased workplace tensions and decreased morale among the CSRs.

         For these reasons, AT&T requires regular attendance by its CSRs. AT&T has Attendance Guidelines, under which CSRs accrue "attendance points" for unscheduled late arrivals to and absences from work. A CSR who accumulates eight or more attendance points is subject to being terminated. But leave under AT&T's short-term disability (STD) policy, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), or an approved job accommodation under the ADA does not result in the accrual of attendance points.

         AT&T handles all FMLA leave requests internally. STD leave and job-accommodation requests, however, are processed by a third-party claims administrator, Sedgwick Claims Management Services. Sedgwick manages AT&T's Integrated Disability Service Center (IDSC). CSRs therefore interact with the IDSC when seeking STD leave or job accommodations. If an accommodation appears to be medically necessary, the IDSC relays the request to the employee's supervisors, who then confirm whether the request can be honored.

         B. Williams's attendance problems and requests for leave

         Williams struggled with attendance throughout her employment with AT&T. From 2007 to 2014, she received written warnings every year about her accumulation of attendance points under the Attendance Guidelines. Williams was absent from work for most of 2013 due to her depression and anxiety attacks. Most notably, she did not work from January until July of that year, using a combination of STD leave and FMLA leave to cover this time period. She worked a few days in August 2013 before returning to STD leave in September, and she remained on such leave through all of October and for large parts of November and December.

         Williams's absenteeism continued into 2014. She returned to work on January 20, 2014, after having been absent since December 3, 2013. Her supervisors discussed her poor attendance record with her in both January and February 2014, warning her that she had accumulated nearly enough points for termination. During these conversations, Williams acknowledged that she understood the attendance policy. Later in February 2014, Williams received a negative written evaluation of her 2013 performance, which stated that her attendance and punctuality "does not meet" expectations and that she needed to "mak[e] real efforts to improve her performance and attendance."

         Williams failed to heed these warnings and continued to miss work. She worked only sporadically after March 11, 2014. After April 9, 2014, she ceased to work entirely and did not return at any point before her termination on July 3, 2014.

         Williams requested a combination of FMLA leave, STD leave, and job accommodations in the form of leave to cover her absences after February 4, 2014. She was denied FMLA leave for all absences beginning in December 2013 because she failed to meet the threshold eligibility requirement of having worked 1, 250 hours in the preceding year due to her numerous prior absences. Williams obtained STD leave for her absences from April 10 to April 27 (these and all dates hereinafter refer to 2014 unless otherwise noted).

         For all dates after April 27, the IDSC initially denied STD leave on the ground that Williams had provided insufficient medical documentation. AT&T then sent Williams a return-to-work letter, informing her that she would be terminated if she did not either appear at work by May 12 or obtain approval for more leave. In response, Williams told AT&T Employee Relations Manager Priscilla Adams that she could not return during May, and that she would send additional medical information to the IDSC. After such information was submitted, the IDSC approved STD leave for absences from April 17 to May 27, but denied STD leave for absences from May 28 onward, again finding that Williams had provided insufficient medical documentation. AT&T sent Williams another return-to-work letter, this time setting a June 10 deadline.

         Williams again failed to return to work. In response, her supervisors began the process of seeking approval to terminate her on the grounds that she had accrued more attendance points than the number allowed by AT&T's policy, that she had abandoned her job, and that she had failed to return to work as directed. Her supervisors were careful to wait to take any action until Williams had submitted all of her medical information and the IDSC had evaluated the claim. Shortly thereafter, Williams's treatment providers submitted additional medical information to the IDSC in support of her STD claim for absences after May 27. The claim was denied on the basis of insufficient medical information, but Williams's supervisors decided to "make one more attempt" to contact Williams and determine whether she intended to return to work. AT&T therefore sent Williams still another return-to-work letter, requiring her to be present by June 30. Williams responded that she could not return to work on that date.

         Following Williams's third failure to return to work, her supervisors began reconsidering termination. Williams was then in the process of appealing the IDSC's denial of STD leave for all absences after May 27. But Area Manager Payne confirmed that even if the appeal were successful, Williams would still have 16 attendance points-double the amount ...

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