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Mullenix v. Eastman Chemical Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Greeneville

February 15, 2017

JUDY MULLENIX, Plaintiff,
v.
EASTMAN CHEMICAL COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Thomas W. Phillips SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Judy Mullenix worked for defendant Eastman Chemical Company at its Kingsport, Tennessee facility for over 24 years. In October 2012, she suffered a broken right arm in a workplace accident. One year and two surgeries later, plaintiff continued to have some physical restrictions and she was terminated. Plaintiff claims her termination was discriminatory in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq.

         Eastman has filed a motion for summary judgment [Doc. 13], with supporting briefs, affidavits and exhibits [Docs. 14, 15, 16, 17, 26], and the plaintiff has responded in opposition [Docs. 21, 22, 23]. Eastman has also moved to strike plaintiff's affidavit [Docs. 25, 26] and plaintiff has responded [Doc. 27]. After careful consideration of the pending motions and all related pleadings, the defendant's motion to strike will be DENIED and the motion for summary judgment will be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. Relevant Facts

         Ms. Mullenix began working for Eastman on March 6, 1989 [Doc. 14-1 at p. 4]. In 2000, she began working as a First Operator in the Film Esters Department [Id. at p. 5]. During the time period pertinent to this case, plaintiff reported to Randy Britton, Principal Team Manager, who reported to Brian McCloud, the Area Manager of Film Esters [Id. at pp. 10-11].

         The Film Esters Department chemically creates plastic pellets that Eastman's customers can use to create a thin layer of plastic film for products such as LCD televisions [Doc. 15 at ¶ 3]. This is a multi-phase process in which cellulose rolls are reacted with chemicals to create “dope” that is then processed into plastic pellets and packaged for the customer [Id.]. This process involves a significant amount of manual labor by the First Operators [Id.].

         The Film Esters Department operates with four different crews that work 12-hour rotating shifts [Id. at ¶ 4]. During the time relevant to this case, plaintiff worked on Crew 3, which included one or two Utility Operators and six First Operators, including plaintiff [Id.]. The Utility Operator supports the Principal Team Manager and performs responsibilities such as scheduling, time entry, safety procedures, and other tasks [Id. at ¶ 5]. Eastman considers it critical that a Utility Operator be free to address the myriad issues that might arise during a shift [Id.]. Thus, while a Utility Operator may occasionally fill-in for or assist a First Operator, they could not consistently fulfill the essential duties of a First Operator [Id.].

         First Operators in Film Esters are required to be certified and trained on at least three of the First Operator rotations to ensure coverage within the area in the event of absences for vacation, sick leave, etc. [Id. at ¶ 6]. During 2012 - 2013, the rotations in Film Esters included the following: Activation, Acetylation Control Room, Acetylation Field Operator, Precipitation, Wash Room, and Dryer & Water Softener [Id.]. The First Operator performing the Field Operator rotation during a shift was required to fill in for the Activation Operator, as needed, for meal and rest breaks [Id. at ¶ 9].[1] The Acetylation Control Room rotation primarily involved working with computers as the First Operator would control and monitor the process [Id. at ¶ 10].

         On October 22, 2012, plaintiff tripped and fell at work and landed on her right shoulder, breaking her arm [Doc. 14-1 at pp. 37-38]. The injury required surgery and plaintiff was out of work on Workers' Compensation leave from October 23, 2012 through March 14, 2013 [Doc. 16 at ¶ 5]. Plaintiff returned to work on March 24, 2013, but was out again on Workers' Compensation leave for a second surgery from April 26, 2013, through May 20, 2013 [Id.].

         Per Eastman policy, when an employee returns to work with medical restrictions, her supervisors are not privy to her medical records [Doc. 15 at ¶ 12]. The Eastman Medical Department receives and reviews all medical documentation and restrictions from an employee's treating physicians and communicates with the employee's line management and Human Resources regarding any restrictions that are in place for purposes of determining whether the restrictions can be accommodated and the employee can be returned to work at that time [Id.; Doc. 16 at ¶ 3]. The Medical Department does not provide any medical information to line management - it simply advises them of the applicable restrictions [Id.].

         According to Eastman's Activity Restrictions and Accommodations Evaluation policy, an employee's temporary activity restrictions can be temporarily accommodated with light duty assignments for up to four months, where such activity restrictions can be accommodated and light duty assignments are available [Doc. 16 at ¶ 4, Ex. 1]. If an employee's temporary activity restrictions require light duty work in excess of this four-month period, one of two things may happen. First, there may be an assessment to determine whether the activity restrictions can be reasonably accommodated in order for the employee to perform his/her essential job functions. Unlike light duty assignments that may be available during the four-month period covered by Eastman's policy, this process considers longer term reasonable accommodations. If the activity restrictions cannot be accommodated, the employee may be placed on a leave of absence, utilizing available short term disability (“STD”) benefits, vacation, or other leave benefits. If that option is not available (for example, if the employee has already exhausted his/her available leave), the employee may apply for long term disability benefits (“LTD”) and their employment will be administratively terminated once all STD benefits, vacation, or other leave options have been exhausted [Id.].

         The policy of accommodating temporary activity restrictions for four months typically applies on a continuous, calendar basis [Doc. 16 at ¶ 7]. In other words, an employee may be provided with light duty work to accommodate temporary activity restrictions for a continuous four-month period [Id.]. According to this policy, since plaintiff first returned to work on March 24, 2013, in a light duty capacity due to her temporary restrictions, her four-month period of light duty work should have expired on July 24, 2013 [Id.]. However, upon consideration of the fact that plaintiff was unable to actually work during part of that period, Eastman recalculated the four-month period after plaintiff returned from her second surgery in May 2013 with temporary activity restrictions and did not count the time that plaintiff was off work for vacation or other leave. Thus, plaintiff's four-month period of light duty work was set to expire on October 11, 2013 [Id.].

         When plaintiff returned to work on March 24, 2013, Eastman Medical provided Mr. McCloud the following information regarding her temporary activity restrictions: no lifting above 2 pounds with right arm (including above and below shoulder level), no ladder climbing, reaching above shoulder level only occasionally, and no forceful grasping with her right hand [Doc. 15 at ¶ 13]. Because these were temporary restrictions, Eastman determined that it could temporarily accommodate those restrictions by limiting plaintiff's assigned work solely to the Acetylation Control Room rotation and having the other crew members perform all other crew assignments [Doc. 15 at ¶ 13].

         On April 24, 2013, plaintiff had a second surgery on her arm [Doc. 14-1 at p. 14]. She was released to return to work effective May 24, 2013, with the following temporary restrictions: no lifting above 2 pounds, no ladder climbing, reaching above shoulder level only occasionally with her right arm, and no forceful grasping with her right hand [Doc. 15 at ¶ 14]. As previously, Eastman determined that it could temporarily accommodate these restrictions by limiting plaintiff's assigned work solely to the Acetylation Control Room rotation and having other crew members perform all other crew assignments [Id.]. Plaintiff states she could perform all the duties of the Control Room position by using both arms for activities below shoulder-level and her left arm for any work above shoulder level [Doc. 23 at ¶ 9].

         On June 17, 2013, plaintiff's temporary restrictions were modified as follows: no lifting above 5 pounds, no ladder climbing, reaching above shoulder level only occasionally with her right arm, and no forceful grasping with her right hand [Doc. 15 at ¶ 15]. Eastman continued to accommodate these restrictions by limiting plaintiff's assigned work solely to the Acetylation Control Room rotation and having other crew members perform all other crew assignments [Id.].

         Plaintiff learned in July 2013 that she had a four-month limit on working with restrictions and that her “time was almost up” [Doc. 14-1 at p. 13]. She was off work on unrelated medical leave from August 8, 2013 through September 17, 2013 [Id. at p. 14].[2]

         On September 16, 2013, plaintiff's temporary restrictions were modified again to the following: no lifting above 10 pounds, no ladder climbing, and reaching above shoulder level only occasionally with her right arm [Doc. 15 at ¶ 16]. Eastman continued to accommodate plaintiff's restrictions in the same manner [Id.]. At some point in September, plaintiff went to her doctor to try and get her restrictions lifted, but he refused to do so [Id. at pp. 26-27]. She also claims Mr. McCloud told her to check Eastman's “E-Jobs” website for other positions, but there was nothing listed for which she was qualified [Id. at pp. 26, 28].

         Plaintiff met with Linda Burchfield, Eastman's Human Resources Manager for the Acetate Fibers & Cellulose Esters and Specialty Plastics Divisions, on September 23, 2013, to discuss Eastman's policy for accommodating temporary activity restrictions and to discuss plaintiff's options [Doc. 16 at ¶ 8]. Plaintiff claims Ms. Burchfield told her that the only way to save her job was “to have all restrictions lifted and come back 100 percent” [Doc. 14-1 at p. 25]. Plaintiff told Ms. Burchfield she was discriminating against her and violating the ADA [Id. at p. 30]. During this meeting, they scheduled an appointment with Dr. Heiba in Eastman's Medical Department to review plaintiff's activity restrictions and essential job duties and to perform a Functional Capacity Evaluation (“FCE”) [Id.]. The FCE was conducted on October 1, 2013, and Eastman received the results on October 7, 2013 [Doc. 17 at ¶ 3].

         As a result of the FCE report, on October 8, 2013, Eastman Medical advised Mr. McCloud and Ms. Burchfield that plaintiff no longer had temporary restrictions, but she “may require overhead reaching assistance” [Doc. 15 at ¶ 17; Doc. 16 at ¶ 9; Doc. 17 at ¶ 4]. In fact, only the ladder climbing restriction had been removed [Doc. 14-1 at p. 16]. Based on the incorrect report that plaintiff had no restrictions, Mr. McCloud believed that plaintiff was able to return to her normal rotations and he prepared to begin her training and certification on her required job rotations [Doc. 15 at ¶ 17].[3] Mr. McCloud anticipated that plaintiff would work in the following rotations: Activation, Acetylation, Acetylation Field Operator, and Precipitation, among other duties [Id.].

         On October 13, 2013, Mr. McCloud, Mr. Britton, and Ms. Burchfield met with plaintiff to discuss her return to work [Doc. 15 at ¶ 19]. During this meeting, plaintiff stated she did not believe she could perform several of her job duties [Id.]. Plaintiff stated that her temporary activity restrictions were still in place and that there were job functions she could not perform without assistance [Doc. 16 at ¶ 10]. This was contradictory to the FCE report that Ms. Burchfield and Mr. McCloud received from Eastman Medical. Later that day, Mr. Britton met with plaintiff to discuss which of her job duties she could not perform and how Eastman could accommodate her [Doc. 15 at ¶ 20]. Mr. Britton ...


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