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Mulvey v. Hugler

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

May 4, 2017

JOHN A. MULVEY, Plaintiff,



         This matter is presently before the Court on defendant's motion for summary judgment [docket entry 65]. Plaintiff has filed a response in opposition and defendant has filed a reply. As the issues have been fully briefed, the Court shall decide the motion without a hearing.

         This is an employment discrimination action. Plaintiff, a former paralegal employed by the Department of Labor (“DOL”), alleges that he was subjected to discrimination and a hostile work environment because of his disability, denied medical leave, and retaliated against, in violation of his rights under the Rehabilitation Act, Title VII, the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Plaintiff also asserts a claim under the Privacy Act, based on the alleged disclosure of some of his medical information by one DOL employee to another. In a previous opinion and order, the Court dismissed plaintiff's FMLA and FLSA claims. In the instant motion, defendant seeks summary judgment on plaintiff's remaining claims.

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), summary judgment is appropriate “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.” “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original). Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the opposing party, summary judgment may be granted only if the evidence is so one-sided that a reasonable fact-finder could not find for the opposing party. See Id. at 248-50; Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1478-80 (6th Cir. 1989). In other words, “[a] material issue of fact exists where a reasonable jury, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, could return a verdict for that party.” Vollrath v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., 899 F.2d 533, 534 (6th Cir. 1990). “The pivotal question is whether the party bearing the burden of proof has presented a jury question as to each element of its case.” Hartsel v. Keys, 87 F.3d 795, 799 (6th Cir. 1996).

         Plaintiff's Rehabilitation Act claim is that defendant denied his requests for workplace accommodations necessitated by his physical and mental impairments. Plaintiff's Title VII claim is that defendant took various adverse action against him, and created a hostile work environment, in retaliation for testifying against a supervisor in an internal DOL sexual harassment investigation. Plaintiff's Privacy Act claim is that his supervisor disclosed in an email to the office timekeeper that plaintiff was seeking leave due to side effects from two medications, and the medical condition and the medications were named in the email. Having reviewed the parties' briefs and voluminous exhibits, the Court concludes that defendant is entitled to summary judgment on these claims. The Rehabilitation Act claim fails because defendant actually granted a number of the accommodations plaintiff requested, and no reasonable jury could find that defendant violated plaintiff's rights in denying the remaining requests. The Title VII claim fails because no reasonable jury could find in plaintiff's favor that a hostile work environment existed or that defendant's allegedly adverse actions were causally linked to his engagement in protected activity. And the Privacy Act claim fails because the email in question was not part of a “system of records” and because no reasonable jury could find that the disclosure of plaintiff's medical condition and medications was willful or intentional.

         Rehabilitation Act

         Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff's Rehabilitation Act claim.

         The legal standards governing this claim are as follows:

In order for a plaintiff to prevail on an allegation of handicap discrimination based on failure to accommodate, he must first establish a prima facie case by showing that: (1) he is an individual with a handicap as defined in 29 C.F.R. § 1614.203(a)(1); (2) he is qualified for the position as discussed in 29 U.S.C. § 1614.203(a)(6); (3) the agency was aware of his disability; (4) an accommodation was needed, i.e., a causal relationship existed between the disability and the request for accommodation; and (5) the agency failed to provide the necessary accommodation. Once the plaintiff has presented a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to demonstrate that the employee cannot reasonably be accommodated, because the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its programs. Id. at 883. If the plaintiff fails to establish a prima facie case, it is unnecessary to address the question of reasonable accommodation.

Gaines v. Runyon, 107 F.3d 1171, 1175-76 (6th Cir. 1997) (citation omitted). In the present case, the claim fails because defendant granted several of plaintiff's requested accommodations and plaintiff has failed to show that the accommodations defendant denied were necessary.

         In June 2012, plaintiff requested the following accommodations: (1) that his computer monitor be positioned between 20 and 24 inches from his eyes; (2) that his keyboard and mouse “should be positioned in a constant L shape when typing”; (3) that his “computer monitor screen height be accurately positioned 5-15 degrees below horizontal line of sight”; (4) that he be provided with “natural office lighting, ” not fluorescent lighting; (5) the he be provided with a portable humidifier; (6) that he be provided with a computer monitor with increased resolution; (7) that he be allowed to move to a quieter office; (8) that he be permitted to “work from home 3 days a week for a 60 day trial period”; and (9) that he be permitted to wear dark glasses “in all brightly lit fluorescent areas.” Docket entry 79-7, PageID 1462. In response to these requests, plaintiff's supervisor, Theresa Ball, noted that the first, second, and third requests were within plaintiff's own control; that the fourth request had been granted by providing plaintiff with incandescent office lamps; and that the ninth request had been granted inasmuch as “you should continue to use your sunglasses . . . [as] you have done for several months.” Id., PageID 1460. Ball further noted that she had attempted to accommodate the sixth request by providing plaintiff with a larger, higher-resolution computer monitor, but that plaintiff had found the new monitor unsatisfactory and requested that the old monitor be brought back (and it was), and that “you never responded concerning any model you thought fit your needs.” Id.

         The remaining requested accommodations were for a portable humidifier, to change offices, and to work from home. These requests, along with whatever medical documentation plaintiff wished to present, were submitted to “the Civil Rights Center . . . for a medical assessment by [Federal Occupational Health].” Id., PageID 1459-60. Dr. Neal Present, a consultant with FOH, reviewed the requests and letters from plaintiff's physicians. He also spoke with three of plaintiff's physicians. In his written report, Dr. Present concluded that “[t]he documentation supports [plaintiff's] working away from fluorescent lights and possibly wearing sunglasses at meetings if they are held under bright fluorescent lighting. I have no documentation that supports a portable humidifier, working in a quieter work area, or telework.” Id., PageID 1513-14. Ball denied these three requested accommodations for the reasons cited by Dr. Present and, in addition, noted that the office plaintiff sought to occupy “was an attorney's office next to a very busy conference room frequented by groups of people engaged in group activities, training, and meetings regularly using audio and visual equipment.” Id., PageID 1461. Ball also noted that the office plaintiff currently occupied was, in fact, quieter than the one to which he requested to move.

         In response to defendant's summary judgment motion as to this claim, plaintiff argues only that his request to telework was supported by the “[r]ecommendation by Deborah Sherman M.D. to work at home for trial period.” Pl.'s Resp. Br. at 29, citing Attachment 35 to his declaration. However, Dr. Sherman, an ophthalmologist, did not recommend that plaintiff telework, but indicated only - in a letter post-dating Ball's decision by nine months - that it would be reasonable for him to do so “to see if this improves your symptoms.” Docket entry 80-1, PageID 1711. The symptoms regarded plaintiff's “sensitivity to fluorescent lighting, ” id., which had already been addressed by providing plaintiff with incandescent lighting in his office and allowing him to wear sunglasses. Far from recommending that plaintiff telework or suggesting that this requested accommodation was necessary, Dr. Sherman expressed skepticism that plaintiff's symptoms (“sensitivity to fluorescent lighting which is causing eye strain, blurred vision, loss of concentration/focus and frequent headaches”) were related to the impairments for which she was treating him (“blepharospasm and hemifacial spasm”). She suggested plaintiff consult with a neurologist.

         Plaintiff has essentially abandoned his “failure to accommodate” claim. He apparently concedes either that defendant granted his requested accommodations or that defendant legitimately concluded that the requests were not medically necessary, as he does not oppose defendant's motion as to eight of his nine requested accommodations. The only requested accommodation plaintiff mentions in his response brief is teleworking, and, as noted, he has failed to show that he had a medical need for this accommodation. The Court shall therefore grant summary judgment for defendant on this claim.

         Title VII

         Plaintiff's Title VII claim is that defendant retaliated against him and created a hostile work environment after he testified in August 2011 in a sexual harassment investigation against his supervisor at the time, attorney Thomas Grooms. Plaintiff points to a long list of adverse employment actions and instances of workplace harassment, which he believes were taken in retaliation for his testimony in the Grooms matter: in October 2011 Ball gave plaintiff a “minimally satisfactory” rating on his year-end appraisal; in November 2011 Ball scolded plaintiff for arriving late at work; in November 2011 Ball asked plaintiff why he claimed he was medically restricted from driving when this restriction was not included in the doctor's note he had provided; in November 2011 Ball “knocked on [plaintiff's] door and waved her hands in the air and motioned him out of the office summoning him [sic] that he had to leave the office”; in December 2011 Ball emailed plaintiff that she was unaware of the severity of his eye problem, while in fact, according to plaintiff, he had previously provided Ball with a doctor's note regarding this impairment; on two occasions in December 2011 Ball turned on the fluorescent lights in plaintiff's office “without any humanity or compassion” and “[i]n an act of remarkable cruelty”; in 2011-2012 Ball denied plaintiff's claim for overtime pay[1]; in April 2012 Ball responded to an email from plaintiff in which he requested administrative leave to work on his EEO complaint (regarding Ball's October 2011 rating of plaintiff) and Ball copied her response to two individuals who, according to plaintiff, did not need to know about the matter; at plaintiff's mid-year review in May 2012, Ball told plaintiff he was “moving in slow motion and if he picked up a bit of speed he would be well on his way to reaching his performance goals, ” a statement plaintiff says “was a complete fabrication” because he was working productively; that during his mid-year review plaintiff told Ball his eye condition interfered with his work, but that in an email to plaintiff one week later Ball indicated that plaintiff had told her his arm and eye conditions did not interfere with his work; that during his mid-year review Ball falsely accused plaintiff of referring to other staff as “trailer trash” and pointed out “typos and grammatical errors” in his work while later claiming she had pointed out substantive errors; that in June 2012 Ball told plaintiff his performance was slipping but she did not provide specifics; that in June 2012 Ball assigned plaintiff a project that should have ...

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