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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Wesley Health System, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Eastern Division

November 14, 2018

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, PLAINTIFF
v.
WESLEY HEALTH SYSTEM, LLC DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KEITH STARRETT UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         For the reasons provided below, the Court denies Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [73].

         I. Background

         Lois Cooper was a nurse in the Transitional Care Unit (“TCU”) at Wesley Medical Center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In April 2014, she injured her shoulder and took leave. In July 2014, Cooper's doctor cleared her to return to work with restrictions. Defendant determined that Cooper could not safely return to work in the TCU because lifting and pushing patients was an “essential function” of her job. So, Defendant advised Cooper to apply for a vacant position in its network for which she was qualified. Cooper applied for one such position, but Defendant hired another candidate. Defendant finally terminated Cooper's employment on August 8, 2014.

         Cooper filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging violations of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).[1] The EEOC determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that Defendant had violated the ADA and invited Defendant to informal negotiations to address the alleged unlawful employment practices. Negotiations failed, and the EEOC filed this lawsuit against Defendant.

         II. Discussion

         Defendant argues that the Court should grant summary judgment as to Plaintiff's claim that Defendant failed to accommodate Cooper when she sought to return to work after taking leave.[2] Rule 56 provides that “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment 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); see also Sierra Club, Inc. v. Sandy Creek Energy Assocs., L.P., 627 F.3d 134, 138 (5th Cir. 2010). “An issue is material if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action.” Sierra Club, Inc., 627 F.3d at 138. “An issue is ‘genuine' if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Cuadra v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 626 F.3d 808, 812 (5th Cir. 2010).

         The Court is not permitted to make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Deville v. Marcantel, 567 F.3d 156, 164 (5th Cir. 2009). When deciding whether a genuine fact issue exists, “the court must view the facts and the inference to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Sierra Club, Inc., 627 F.3d at 138. However, “[c]onclusional allegations and denials, speculation, improbable inferences, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic argumentation do not adequately substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial.” Oliver v. Scott, 276 F.3d 736, 744 (5th Cir. 2002).

         “Under the ADA, it is unlawful for an employer to fail to accommodate the known limitations of an employee's disability.” Credeur v. Louisiana, 860 F.3d 785, 792 (5th Cir. 2017). To prove a failure-to-accommodate claim, a plaintiff must show that: “(1) the plaintiff is a ‘qualified individual with a disability;' (2) the disability and its consequential limitations were ‘known' by the covered employer; and (3) the employer failed to make ‘reasonable accommodations' for such known limitations.'” Id. (quoting Neely v. PSEG Texas, Ltd. P'ship, 735 F.3d 242, 247 (5th Cir. 2013)).

         A. Whether Lifting Was an Essential Function

         First, Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot establish that Cooper was a “qualified individual” under the ADA because the evidence demonstrates that she could not perform the “essential functions” of her job with or without a reasonable accommodation. Specifically, Defendant contends that Cooper could not lift or carry at least 50 pounds or push up to 300 pounds. In response, Plaintiff argues that these physical requirements were not actually “essential functions” of her job.

         Under the ADA, a “qualified individual” is one “who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8). “Fact-finders must determine whether a function is ‘essential' on a case-by-case basis.” Credeur, 860 F.3d at 792 (quoting EEOC v. LHC Group, Inc., 773 F.3d 688, 698 (5th Cir. 2014)). “The term essential functions means the fundamental job duties of the employment position the individual with a disability holds or desires. The term . . . does not include the marginal functions of the position.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(1). The Court must give “consideration . . . to the employer's judgment as to what functions of a job are essential, and if an employer has prepared a written description . . ., this description shall be considered evidence of the essential functions of the job.” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8).

         But “courts should not give blind deference to an employer's judgment, but should instead evaluate the employer's words along with its policies and practices.” Credeur, 860 F.3d at 794. EEOC regulations ...


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