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Cooley v. East Tennessee Human Resource Agency, Inc.

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

March 20, 2017



         Malinda Cooley was a van driver for East Tennessee Human Resource Agency, Inc. In that role she transported ETHRA clients, who were occasionally elderly or disabled. Because Cooley would have to lift these clients' wheelchairs and help them in and out of the van, the job required that she be able to lift fifty pounds. Cooley held this position from March 2006 until she was fired on August 27, 2015.

         Cooley also had back problems that required her to take painkillers. In February 2015, Cooley slipped on ice and fell, worsening her back problems. Cooley requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 so that she could undergo back surgery. ETHRA granted her request, and Cooley began her FMLA leave on May 21. Her painkiller use increased.

         Cooley exhausted her twelve weeks of FMLA leave on August 12. Her personal doctor, Bradley Hall, cleared her to work on August 24, with a thirty-pound limit for pushing, pulling, and lifting until October. Before Cooley could return to work, however, ETHRA required her to receive a medical exam to ensure that she was fit to return to work. The exam was performed by Dr. John McElligott. On August 27, Dr. McElligott deemed Cooley unfit to return to work because of her continued painkiller use. Mere moments after the exam ended, he informed ETHRA that Cooley had failed her exam, though ETHRA management never learned why.

         Cooley's executive director, Gary Holiway, soon learned that Cooley had failed. He made the call that Cooley had to be fired because she could not return to work. The human-resources coordinator completed Cooley's separation notice, which Norman signed for Holiway.

         Meanwhile, Cooley trudged to the ETHRA office to tell management that she had not passed her exam. She walked into the office, handed her exam paperwork to someone, walked out, got in her car, and drove off. While driving away, Cooley received a call from her supervisor, Melinda Norris, asking her to come back to the office. Cooley returned, bringing along a letter requesting an accommodation for her thirty-pound restriction; the parties dispute whether Cooley had previously sent the letter to ETHRA and whether ETHRA had received it. When Cooley returned to the office, she was met by Norris, Norman, and Transportation Director Mike Patterson. They told Cooley that she could not return to work because she had failed her fitness exam, and they gave her the separation notice. Cooley left either in tears or in a rage.

         Cooley sued ETHRA on October 20, 2015, and an amended complaint followed in April 2016. She alleges that ETHRA interfered with her entitlement to FMLA benefits and fired her for taking FMLA leave. She also asserts that ETHRA refused to accommodate her thirty-pound restriction, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008.

         Now before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. For the following reasons, Cooley's motion is denied and ETHRA's is granted.


         Summary judgment is proper only if there is no genuine dispute on any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute is genuine if a reasonable jury could find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is material if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Id.; Stiles ex rel. D.S. v. Grainger Cty., 819 F.3d 834, 847 (6th Cir. 2016).

         The moving party bears the initial burden of showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact on any element of the other party's claim or defense. Stiles, 819 F.3d at 847. In determining whether this burden is satisfied, the Court views all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draws all inferences in her favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. Once the movant has satisfied this burden, the other party must identify specific facts in the record that raise a genuine issue of material fact. Stiles, 819 F.3d at 847. If this is not done, summary judgment is granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The Court does not weigh evidence, judge witnesses' credibility, or decide the truth of the matter. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.


         Cooley brings claims for FMLA interference, FMLA retaliation, and failure to accommodate in violation of the ADA. The FMLA claims can be proved through either direct or indirect evidence. Cooley offers only indirect evidence. Her claims are thus governed by the three-step McDonnell Douglas test.[1] See Donald v. Sybra, Inc., 667 F.3d 757, 762 (6th Cir. 2012) (interference); Edgar v. JAC Prods., Inc., 443 F.3d 501, 508 (6th Cir. 2006) (retaliation).

         The first step falls on Cooley. Donald, 667 F.3d at 776. She must make a prima facie showing of all the elements of her claim. ETHRA asserts that Condrone cannot meet this task. But if she does, then the Court proceeds to the second step. Id. The burden shifts to ETHRA to show that it had a legitimate reason for firing Cooley. Id. Finally, if it meets this demand, then the burden shifts back to Cooley to show that this reason was pretextual. Id. ETHRA has offered a reason for firing Cooley. It contends that this reason is legitimate and that Cooley cannot show it to be pre-textual.


         Although Cooley has brought two FMLA claims against ETHRA, ETHRA offers only one reason for firing her, and Cooley levels one set of arguments against this reason. The first issue, then, is whether Cooley has made a prima facie showing on her FMLA claims.

         Cooley has stated a prima facie case of FMLA interference. To state a prima facie case of FMLA ...

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