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Locastro v. White Communications, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

January 14, 2019




         This cause comes before the court on the motion of defendant White Communications, LLC (“White”) for summary judgment, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Plaintiff Tony Allen Locastro has responded in opposition to the motion, and the court, having considered the memoranda and submissions of the parties, concludes that the motion is well taken and should be granted.

         This is a disability discrimination case arising out of plaintiff's termination from his position as an IT manager for defendant White, a company which serves as a contractor providing installation services to Directv. It is undisputed that plaintiff is disabled, based on, inter alia, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and arthritis in his leg following an incident in which he was electrocuted while serving in the Navy. Plaintiff has sought a variety of federal disability benefits, with mixed results. Plaintiff was deemed 100% disabled by the Veteran's Administration (“VA”), but his applications for Social Security disability benefits were denied.

         In August 2014, plaintiff began working as an IT manager for White, with the understanding that he would be doing most of his work remotely from his home in Fulton, Mississippi, with only occasional travel required to defendant's home office in Iowa. Plaintiff testified in his deposition, however, that beginning in late 2015, defendant's general manager Jeff White began asking him to move to Iowa, where he could perform additional services which he could not perform remotely. In June 2015, plaintiff finally notified White that he would be unable to move to Iowa, citing his own disability and that of his autistic son.

         Plaintiff was laid off in August 2016, and he contends that he was terminated based upon his refusal to move to Iowa. For its part, defendant maintains that it fired plaintiff not for any disability or for his refusal to move to Iowa, but because it decided to eliminate its entire IT department, including plaintiff's position, after it underwent a so-called “tech acquisition” with a company called Synergies. During this tech acquisition, Synergies purchased White's tech assets, site managers, and offices and, in exchange, defendant received an ownership interest in Synergies. White had been discussing this tech acquisition with Synergies since March 2015, and it finally went forward in September of 2016. During and after the tech acquisition, defendant laid off all of its staff, including Locastro, with the exception of the retail staff and back office employees who supported Synergies. Based upon this and other evidence, defendant has presently moved for summary judgment, arguing that no genuine issue of fact exists regarding its potential liability and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         After considering the parties' arguments, this court concludes that plaintiff's ADA claims in this case fail for two, independently sufficient, reasons. First, plaintiff has failed to establish that he was qualified for the job in question, based upon his own deposition testimony and sworn statements which he made in the course of applying for disability benefits. Second, this court concludes that, even assuming that plaintiff was qualified, continuing to work remotely from Mississippi as a salaried employee was not a reasonable accommodation for his disability, in light of the drastically changing circumstances at the company. This court discusses these two conclusions in sections I and II below. Additionally, this court notes in section III that there are serious factual and legal weaknesses in plaintiff's attempts to connect his refusal to move to Iowa to his own disability or to that of his son. While this court does not grant summary judgment on the basis of these weaknesses, it does note them for the record.

         I. Was plaintiff qualified for his position?

         In the court's view, the first reason why plaintiff's ADA claims in this case fail is because the evidence developed in discovery conclusively demonstrates that he was not qualified for the position he occupied. To be considered “qualified” under the ADA, the plaintiff must show that he is able to perform the essential functions of the relevant position with or without reasonable accommodation. Credeur v. La. ex rel. Office of Attorney Gen., 860 F.3d 785, 792 (5th Cir. 2017) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8)); Turco v. Hoechst Celanese Corp., 101 F.3d 1090, 1093 (5th Cir. 1996) (The Fifth Circuit has “defined an otherwise qualified person as one who is able to meet all of the program's requirements in spite of his handicap.”) The relevant time for determining whether an employee can perform the essential functions of the job is at the time the position was eliminated. Amsel v. Texas Water Dev. Bd., 464 Fed.Appx. 395, 400 (5th Cir. 2012).

         “‘Essential functions' are ‘fundamental[, '] as opposed to ‘marginal[, '] job duties, 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(1), such that a job is ‘fundamentally altered' if an essential function is removed.” Credeur, 860 F.3d at 792 (alterations omitted). Determining whether a function is “essential” is done on a case-by-case basis. Id. The ADA provides where this inquiry should begin:

For the purposes of this subchapter, consideration shall be given to the employer's judgment as to what functions of a job are essential, and if an employer has prepared a written description before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job, this description shall be considered evidence of the essential functions of the job.

42 U.S.C. § 12111(8).

         This court notes that the qualification analysis in this case is rather unique, since defendant acknowledges that it believed that plaintiff was qualified for his position while he was working for it, and it is only plaintiff's own statements uncovered in discovery which changed its views in this regard. And, indeed, plaintiff's statements are highly damaging to his ADA claims, since he clearly and repeatedly asserted that he was not qualified for his job and that he only managed to deceive his employer regarding this issue because he was working remotely.

         In the court's view, plaintiff's sworn statements in his deposition and in his applications for disability benefits read something like an inverse job interview, pursuant to which the applicant does his very best to assure the employer that he is not the right man for the job. In his deposition, plaintiff appeared to “touch all the bases” regarding his lack of qualification to be an IT manager, beginning with his repeated insistence that he has no interest in computers or “anything electronic.” Specifically, plaintiff testified in his deposition that:

A: I rarely touch a computer if I have to - if I don't have to at home. That's the last thing that I will touch, is computers. I hate computers. Or anything electronic, for that matter.
Q: And that's currently?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Okay. And how long has that been a problem?
A: It has gotten worse over the past couple of years, but it was already getting that way while I worked at White Communications.
Q: Okay.

[Plaintiff's Dep. at 75]. While plaintiff is to be commended for his candor, it is difficult for this court to imagine an admission which is much more damaging, on the qualification issue, than an IT manager admitting that he “hates computers” and has lost interest in “anything electronic.”

         Later in his deposition, plaintiff appeared to do this admission “one better.” While discussing the nature of his disability, plaintiff flatly testified that he is unable to do his job and, crucially, that he lost that ability approximately a year into his tenure at White. Specifically, plaintiff testified that:

Q: Okay. Do you believe that you can no longer do the job that you once had at White Communications?
A: Yes, I do.
Q: You believe you can't?
A: I believe that I cannot do that job.
Q: Okay. Whether you were in Mississippi or Iowa, right?
A: That's correct.
Q: When do you believe you became unable to perform that job?
A: I believe it was right before the - the server changeover in Iowa, which was probably about a year into it.
Q: So at that point going forward, you believe that the issues that you are currently dealing with and form the basis of your disability application, those issues were such that it was too difficult ...

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