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Caffa-Mobley v. Mattis

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

February 27, 2018



          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge

         This matter is before the Court on a Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 filed by Defendant James Mattis, [1] Secretary, United States Department of Defense (“the Secretary”). [R. 35.] Plaintiff Pricilla Caffa-Mobley responded, [R. 38], and the Secretary replied, [R. 39]. Fully briefed, this matter is now ripe for adjudication. For the reasons stated herein, the Secretary's Motion for Summary Judgment, [R. 35], is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.


         The motion before the Court stems from Caffa-Mobley's Complaint, [R. 1], filed on November 30, 2015, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq. and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.

         In or around 2009, Caffa-Mobley applied for the position of Educational Aid, AD-1702-00, at Barkley Elementary School in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. [R. 35-2 at 30-34 (Caffa-Mobley Depo.).] Before she ever applied, Caffa-Mobley was in a car accident that limited her ability to lift anything and caused her to wear a neck brace to her interview. [Id. at 35.] During the interview, Caffa-Mobley informed the panel of principals in attendance, including the principal of Barkley Elementary, Rhonda Bennett, of the doctor-ordered limitation on her lifting things, or children, due to her surgery after the car accident. [Id. at 35-36.] In October of 2009, Caffa-Mobley was hired by the Department of Defense[2] as an Educational Aid at Barkley Elementary School. [R. 35-8 at 4 (Woods 2017 Dec.).] Her position was probationary for the first twelve months of her employment. [R. 35-8 at 4; R. 35-2 at 85.]

         The position description of the job states that the purpose of the Educational Aid is to “assist teachers and other professional educators in instructional programs and classroom learning activities.” [R. 35-8 at 18 (Position Description).] Additionally, Caffa-Mobley was assigned a kindergartener, Angelina, who was mentally and physically impaired and required Caffa-Mobley's constant care. [R. 35-2 at 50.] Caffa-Mobley testified that her duties with Angelina included, changing her diapers, feeding her, pushing her wheelchair, working with her on her motor skills, and getting her on and off the school bus. [Id. at 47-49.] Caffa-Mobley's description of her duties aligns with the “Special Needs Assignment” portion of the Educational Aid position description, which includes the statement: “In most cases, lifting will be required.” [R. 35-8 at 19.] Any time Angelina needed to be lifted onto a changing table, lifted out of her wheel chair, etc., the school accommodated Caffa-Mobley by having another teacher or aid do it for Caffa-Mobley. [See R. 35-2 at 52-53; R. 35-10 at 2(Bennett Dec.).] Throughout that school year, Caffa-Mobley provided the school with doctor's notes stating that she could not lift anything greater than twenty-five pounds. [R. 35-10 at 2-3; R. 35-8 at 4.] Despite her lifting restriction, Caffa-Mobley received a four out of five rating, meaning her work was “Above Average, ” on her yearly evaluation in every category except “Appearance, ” for which she received a five, meaning “Excellent.” [R. 38-3 at 1-2 (Annual Evaluation).] Bennett concurred with the results of the evaluation. [Id. at 3.]

         On August 2, 2010, support staff returned to school from summer break. [R. 35-10 at 3.] The next day, Caffa-Mobley provided another doctor's note, this time with a restriction of no lifting anything greater than ten pounds without any end date for the restriction. [Id.] After consulting with Elgin Woods, a Supervisory Human Resources Specialist for the Department of Defense Education Activity, Principal Rhonda Bennett gave Caffa-Mobley a Reasonable Accommodations pamphlet, which included the forms for requesting reasonable accommodations. [R. 35-10 at 3; R. 35-8 at 4.] She asked Caffa-Mobley to complete and return the forms, including medical documentation to be filled out by her doctor, so they could be submitted to human resources. [R. 35-10 at 3.] Bennett claims that Caffa-Mobley never submitted the forms. [Id.] However, Woods stated in his declaration that Caffa-Mobley returned the forms on August 8, 2010, with a note from Aaron Johnson, a nurse practitioner, that said: “Until patient is cleared by Physical Therapy, I recommend that the patient lifts no more than 10 pounds.” [R. 35-8 at 4, 34.] In the copy of the packet provided in evidence, Caffa-Mobley described the reasonable accommodation she required as someone to help her lift Angelina, push the wheelchair, and change diapers. [R. 35-8 at 28.] Otherwise, she specifically stated that she could do the rest of the job herself. [Id.]

         On August 10, 2010, Caffa-Mobley alleges that she was attacked by a special needs student. [R. 35-2 at 53, 62-63; R. 1 at 3.] According to Bennett, Caffa-Mobley took two and a half weeks leave after the alleged incident. [R. 35-10 at 4.] Caffa-Mobley provided the school with a doctor's note stating that she could return to work on August 29, 2010 on “modified duty.” [R. 38-4 at 1(August 27 Doctor's Note).] Specifically the note stated: “Office or administrative duties only. No. working w[ith] children for now.” [Id.] Furthermore, the note ordered “[f]ull work while sitting” and to “[a]void lifting more than 5 lbs.” [Id.]

         On August 31, 2010, under the guidance of the human resources office, Bennett gave Caffa-Mobley a letter stating that the documentation provided by Caffa-Mobley was insufficient, and in order for the medical documentation to be acceptable it needed to contain: history of the specific medical condition, a summary of any clinical findings, an assessment of her current clinical status and plans for future treatment, a diagnosis/prognosis, the estimated date of full recovery, an explanation of the impact of the medical condition on her job duties, and an explanation of the medical basis for any conclusion that she would likely hurt herself or others by attempting to do her job. [R. 35-10 at 5; R. 35-14 at 2 (Memorandum for Caffa-Mobley).] Caffa-Mobley was required to provide this information by September 17, 2010. [R. 35-14 at 2.] Caffa-Mobley delivered this letter to her physician at Premier Medical Group. [R. 38-6 at 1 (Annotated Letter).] On an annotated copy of the letter, Melody Walls of the Premier Medical Group noted that she received the letter on September 27 and that she spoke with Bennett about responding to the letter on September 28. [Id.] Bennett did not mention this conversation in her declaration. [See generally R. 35-10.]

         During the first three weeks of September, Caffa-Mobley provided Bennett with two doctor's notes from Premier Medical Group, both stating that she should avoid lifting over five pounds, do only office work, and not work with children. [R. 35-10 at 5-6; R. 35-2 at 82-84; R. 35-15 at 3-4 (Doctor's notes).] Bennett states that she explained to Caffa-Mobley that doctor's notes would not be sufficient to provide all of the information required by human resources. [R. 35-10 at 6.] After the September 17 deadline had passed, specifically on September 24, 2010, Caffa-Mobley informed Bennett that she believed the memorandum was invalid because Bennett never signed it. [Id.] So, after consulting with the human resources offices, Bennett re-printed the letter with a new due date of October 1, 2010 and made sure Caffa-Mobley signed it to memorialize that she received it. [Id.]

         During this time, due to her restrictions, Caffa-Mobley had to work in the library grading papers and putting away books. [R. 35-10 at 6; R. 35-2 at 84.] In order to fulfill Caffa-Mobley's duties with Angelina, as recorded in Angelina's Individual Educational Plan (“IEP”), the school was responsible for finding someone else to provide those services to Angelina. [R. 35-10 at 7; R. 35-12 at 3 (Instructional Systems Specialist, Brake, Dec.).] In fact, Woods stated that Barkley Elementary paid a substitute teacher to fill Caffa-Mobley's position for the month of September. [R. 35-8 at 7.] Bennett and Woods inquired about available vacancies for other positions in the school district that would be appropriate for Caffa-Mobley; however, allegedly, the only positions available either required lifting or working with children. [R. 35-8 at 7; R. 35-10 at 5.] Caffa-Mobley testified that after the incident on August 10, Bennett told her in front of students' parents that the school “didn't have a need for [her].” [R. 35-2 at 60.] Caffa-Mobley also testified that Bennett told her to “get out of the school and leave after being on workman comp [sic], ” and that she needed “to go back and do the job [she] was hired to do.” [Id.] Furthermore, Caffa-Mobley testified that Bennett was “screaming and hollering at [her] in front of people all the time . . ..” [Id. at 61.]

         On September 27, 2010, Caffa-Mobley submitted a request for leave for October 1 through October 4. [R. 35-10 at 7.] Along with Caffa-Mobley's previous failure to turn in the required medical documentation, this submission for leave caused Bennett to believe that Caffa-Mobley would not be turning in the required medical documentation by October 1 and that Caffa-Mobley intended to return to work after completing her twelve month probationary period on October 4. [Id.] Bennett concluded that due to Caffa-Mobley's medical condition, “she could not work with or around children and that she was therefore unable to perform the essential duties of her position.” [Id.] On September 30, 2010, based on the guidance of the human resources office, Bennett gave Caffa-Mobley a termination letter thereby ending her employment. [R. 35-10 at 7; R. 35-18 at 6 (Caffa-Mobley Dec.); R. 35-8 at 91 (Termination Letter).] The letter specifically attributed her termination to the fact that her medical condition rendered her unable to perform the essential duties of her position and precluded accommodation. [R. 35-8 at 91.] Furthermore, it states that as a “probationary/trial period employee, you are not entitled to grievance or appeal rights.” [Id.]

         According to Woods, he coordinated with his staff and the legal office on the process involved in drafting and supplying the termination letter “to ensure that Plaintiff was given an opportunity to submit any new medical documentation that would change her situation.” [R. 35-8 at 9.] In contrast, Caffa-Mobley does not provide any recollection of receiving an opportunity to submit such documentation. [R. 35-18 at 7.] Woods stated that on October 7, 2010, the school received a letter, dated October 1, 2010, from an attending physician, Dr. Donald Huffman, regarding Bennett's earlier request for further medical information. [Id.] In the letter, Dr. Huffman diagnosed Caffa-Mobley with “an exacerbation of a cervical strain” and estimated her date of full recovery, at least to “her state of function prior to August 10, 2010, ” to be October 15, 2010. [R. 38-7 at 1 (Huffman Letter).]

         Subsequently, Caffa-Mobley filed claims of race and disability discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) that were dismissed. [R. 35-10 (EEOC Order).] Specifically, Administrative Law Judge Momah found that Caffa-Mobley “could not perform the essential functions of her job with or without an accommodation, ” and that “she failed to identify similarly situated employee [sic] who was on probation and was not terminated.” [R. 35-20 at 46-47 (EEOC Hearing Transcript).] Furthermore, Judge Momah found that the agency articulated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Caffa-Mobley but Caffa-Mobley failed to show pretext for that reason. [Id.]

         On November 30, 2105, Caffa-Mobley filed a complaint with this Court, [R. 1], and on December 14, 2017, the Secretary filed the Motion for Summary Judgment that is before the Court, [R. 35].


         Summary judgment is appropriate when the record, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, reveals “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). A genuine dispute of material fact exists where “there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). The Court “may not make credibility determinations nor weigh the evidence when determining whether an issue of fact remains for trial.” Laster v. City of Kalamazoo, 746 F.3d 714, 726 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Logan v. Denny's, Inc., 259 F.3d 558, 566 (6th Cir. 2001); Ahlers v. Schebil, 188 F.3d 365, 369 (6th Cir. 1999)). “The ultimate question is ‘whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'” Back v. Nestlé USA, Inc., 694 F.3d 571, 575 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52).

         As the party moving for summary judgment, the defendant must shoulder the burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact as to at least one essential element of Plaintiff's claims. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Laster, 746 F.3d at 726 (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)). Assuming the defendant satisfies his or her burden of production, the plaintiff “must-by deposition, answers to interrogatories, affidavits, and admissions on file-show specific facts that reveal a genuine issue for trial.” Laster, 746 F.3d at 726 (citing Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324).


         Caffa-Mobley alleges two different claims against the Secretary: (1) discrimination due to her disability in violation of the Americans with Disability Act (“ADA”) and (2) racial discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. [R. 1 at 4-5.]

         As a preliminary issue, the Court must address the Secretary's argument that Caffa-Mobley's disability discrimination claim should be dismissed because the ADA specifically does not apply to the United States when it, or “a corporation wholly owned by the government of the United States, ” is the employer in the matter. [R. 35-1 at 13 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12111(5)(B)(i)) (Secretary's Motion for Summary Judgment).] Indeed, “[t]he Rehabilitation Act, not the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), constitutes the exclusive remedy for a federal employee alleging disability-based discrimination.” Jones v. Potter,488 F.3d 397, 403 (6th Cir. 2007). However, the two statues run roughly parallel to one another, and, the ADA “standards apply in Rehabilitation Act cases alleging employment discrimination.” McPherson v. Michigan High Sch. Athletic Ass'n, Inc.,119 F.3d 453, 459-60 (6th Cir. 1997) (quoting Burns v. City of Columbus,91 F.3d 836, 842 (6th Cir. 1996)). Thus, the Court will interpret Caffa-Mobley's claim of disability discrimination as one brought under the Rehabilitation ...

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