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Wilhite v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

September 19, 2014

DONALD W. WILHITE, Plaintiff,
v.
WAL-MART STORES EAST, LP, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

THOMAS B. RUSSELL, Senior District Judge.

This matter is before the Court upon Defendant Wal-Mart Stores East, LP's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 17). Plaintiff Donald Wilhite has responded to Defendant's Motion. (Docket No. 18). Wal-Mart has filed a reply. (Docket No. 21). Accordingly, these matters now are ripe for adjudication. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion will be GRANTED.

BACKGROUND

This matter arises out of Defendant Wal-Mart Stores East, LP's ("Wal-Mart") termination of Plaintiff Donald Wilhite. Wilhite was hired as a greeter in 2006 and worked several positions for Wal-Mart. In July of 2009, Wilhite was transferred to the position of unloader at the Wal-Mart distribution center located in Hopkinsville. (Docket #18).

On March 20, 2010, Wilhite suffered a wrist injury while unloading a trailer. Wal-Mart put Wilhite on "temporary alternative duty, " a light duty which consisted of cleaning and other housekeeping duties normally shared by all employees. (Docket #18). Following his injury, Wilhite regularly visited a doctor and at least twice attempted to return to regular duty. (Docket #17). However, Wilhite continued to experience pain and was kept on temporary alternative duty by Wal-Mart.

On July 15, 2010, Wilhite saw a hand specialist who recommended surgery. Coverage for this surgery was denied by the workers' compensation insurance claims adjuster. (Docket #17). Wilhite appealed this denial. In May of 2011 an Administrative Law Judge found in Wilhite's favor and ordered Wal-Mart to pay Wilhite's disability benefits and medical costs. (Docket #18). Wilhite received wrist surgery on August 18, 2011.

After the initial denial of Wilhite's claim, Wal-Mart informed Wilhite that he was no longer eligible for temporary alternative duty. Wal-Mart offered Wilhite the choice of unpaid leave or termination. Wilhite opted for unpaid leave. He requested several extensions, ultimately up to the full year offered by Wal-Mart. (Docket #18). During this year of unpaid leave, Wilhite did not request a transfer to any other position at Wal-Mart. (Docket #17, Ex. 3, p. 174).

In August 2011, Wilhite's year of unpaid leave was ending at approximately the same time he was scheduled to have his hand surgery. Wal-Mart and Wilhite met to discuss when Wilhite would be able to return to work. Wilhite did not provide an exact date because he claimed he did not know when his wrist would be healed and because Wal-Mart had talked to his doctor and could determine the date. (Docket #17, Ex. 3, pg. 151-52). At that meeting, Wal-Mart representatives asked Wilhite to apply for an extension of unpaid leave past the one-year limit. (Docket #17, Ex. 3, p. 153). Wilhite did submit an extension request, but it was denied. Wilhite was terminated by Wal-Mart in September, 2011.

Wilhite reached maximum medical improvement in March of 2012. Wilhite was given a lifting restriction of thirty pounds and admits that he still cannot lift sixty or more pounds without assistance. (Docket #18).

STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). "[N]ot every issue of fact or conflicting inference presents a genuine issue of material fact." Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1477 (6th Cir. 1989). The test is whether the party bearing the burden of proof has presented a jury question as to each element in the case. Hartsel v. Keys, 87 F.3d 795, 799 (6th Cir. 1996). The plaintiff must present more than a mere scintilla of evidence in support of her position; she must present evidence on which the trier of fact could reasonably find for her. Id. (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)). Mere speculation will not suffice to defeat a motion for summary judgment: "[T]he mere existence of a colorable factual dispute will not defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. A genuine dispute between the parties on an issue of material fact must exist to render summary judgment inappropriate." Monette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1177 (6th Cir. 1996), abrogated on other grounds by Lewis v. Humboldt Acquisition Corp., Inc., 681 F.3d 312 (6th Cir. 2012).

DISCUSSION

The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating "against a qualified individual[1] on the basis of disability." 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). The ADA defines "discrimination" to include "not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability." Id. § 12112(b)(5)(A). A "reasonable accommodation" may include:

job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials or policies, the provision of qualified readers or interpreters, and other similar accommodations for individuals with disabilities. Id. § 12111(9).

Wilhite bases his discrimination claim on Wal-Mart's failure to accommodate his disability. Wilhite argues that Wal-Mart could have accommodated Wilhite's disability by allowing him to work as an unloader who was given "assistance with lifting items over 30 pounds." (Docket #18). Wilhite also argues that Wal-Mart could have transferred Wilhite to an open vacant position in the company which Wilhite was otherwise qualified to perform. Wal-Mart responds that lifting merchandise "greater than 60 pounds without assistance" is an essential function of the unloader position. (Docket #17). Wal-Mart also claims that Wilhite never requested a transfer to any other position in the company.

"[C]laims premised upon an employer's failure to offer a reasonable accommodation necessarily involve direct evidence (the failure to accommodate) of discrimination." Kleiber v. Honda of Am. Mfg., 485 F.3d 862, 867 (6th Cir. 2007). "[I]f the fact-finder accepts the employee's version of the facts, no inference is necessary to conclude that the employee has proven this form of discrimination." Id. In these cases, the Plaintiff's claim is analyzed under the following framework:

(1) The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that he or she is "disabled."
(2) The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that he or she is "otherwise qualified" for the position despite his or her disability: (a) without accommodation from the employer; (b) with an alleged "essential" job requirement eliminated; or (c) with a proposed reasonable accommodation.
(3) The employer will bear the burden of proving that a challenged job criterion is essential, and therefore a business necessity, or that a proposed accommodation will impose an undue hardship upon the employer.

Lane v. Bremner Food Group, Inc., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1473 *12 (W.D. Ky. 2010). (quoting Kleiber, 485 F.3d at 869).

The parties do not dispute that Wilhite is disabled. Instead, the parties dispute whether Wilhite lifting sixty or more pounds was an essential function of the unloader job, whether Wal-Mart could have provided assistance to Wilhite to accomplish his job, and whether Wilhite could have been reassigned to another job.

I. Lifting over Thirty Pounds was an Essential Function of an Unloader.

Under the ADA, "an individual is otherwise qualified' if he or she can perform the essential functions' of the job with or without reasonable accommodation." Keith v. County of Oakland, 703 F.3d ...


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