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Purewal v. T-Mobile USA, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

September 30, 2019

T-MOBILE USA, INC., Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on defendant T-Mobile USA, Inc's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 32) and Memorandum of Law in support (Dkt. 33), in which T-Mobile seeks judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff Suheil Purewal's failure to accommodate claim under 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.[1] Purewal contends that T-Mobile failed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to make reasonable accommodations for his multiple sclerosis. T-Mobile argues that Purewal has no actionable claim under the ADA because he cannot establish that he was able to perform the essential functions of the position for which he was otherwise qualified, or that he could be reasonably accommodated in that position without undue hardship to T-Mobile. For the reasons set forth below, the court denies the motion.

         Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is proper where the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must examine all evidence in a light most favorable to the opposing party. McKenzie v. Mercy Hospital, 854 F.2d 365, 367 (10th Cir. 1988). The moving party need not disprove the opposing party's claim; it need only establish that the factual allegations have no legal significance. Dayton Hudson Corp. v. Macerich Real Estate Co., 812 F.2d 1319, 1323 (10th Cir. 1987).

         To resist a motion for summary judgment the opposing party may not rely upon mere allegations or denials contained in its pleadings or briefs. Rather, the opposing party must come forward with specific facts demonstrating a genuine issue of material fact for trial along with significant supporting evidence for the allegation. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986). Once the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), the opposing party must do more than just show some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. “In the language of the Rule, the nonmoving party must come forward with ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Matshushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)) (emphasis in original).

         Findings of Fact

          The following facts are either undisputed or construed in the light most favorable to Purewal. Purewal began his employment with T-Mobile in October 2010 as a part-time Retail Sales Associate (RSA). In June 2012, Purewal was promoted to the position of Retail Sales Leader. In May 2013, he was moved to the position of Retail Associate Manager (RAM)[2] at a store in the Zona Rosa area of Kansas City, Missouri. Finally, in 2015, Purewal was promoted to the position of Retail Store Manager (RSM) for a T-Mobile store in Overland Park, Kansas. By all accounts Purewal was a good employee; there were no customer or employee complaints about him during his employment, no complaints regarding his performance at work, and he was not subject to any disciplinary actions.

         As an RSM, Purewal was responsible for the operations of the Overland Park store, including managing and coaching a staff of about six employees, covering holes in schedules, attending meetings, hosting and attending conference calls, and maintaining inventory and sales performance. Purewal scheduled himself to work 45-50 hours per week, but usually stayed an extra two hours per day. He worked six to seven days a week depending upon the attendance of other employees, the business of the store, sales and promotions taking place, and scheduled meetings.

         In 2011, Purewal was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). His MS can cause numbness and pain in his face, fingers, and feet. It also causes muscle fatigue and spasms in his legs and back, and impacts his ability to stand, sit, or walk for extended periods of time. The MS impacts Purewal's ability to sleep and forces him to avoid certain foods and temperatures. Between the initial diagnosis and the spring of 2016, Purewal did not request any accommodations from T-Mobile due to the MS. In May 2016, however, Purewal requested a leave of absence due to impairment from the MS. T-Mobile granted his request and provided him with a continuous leave of absence pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

         On July 15, 2016, T-Mobile informed Purewal that his FMLA leave would be exhausted on August 7. Purewal's health care providers had not approved him to return to work by August 7, however, so T-Mobile wrote to Purewal again on August 3, 2016, informing him that his leave had been extended from August 8 through October 9, 2016. Purewal was scheduled to return to work on October 10, 2016.

         On September 26, 2016, Purewal's medical provider, Jenny Ravenscroft, drafted a letter to his employer indicating that Purewal was ready to return to work “but only with the following strict limitations.” The letter characterized the limitations as “medically necessary, ” and cautioned that the health provider was “concerned that if the suggestions I am making are not followed, that the patient may not be able to work productively or effectively.” The letter then went on to explain:

Mr. Purewal needs a set, consistent schedule, working no more than 40 hours in any 7 day period. Additionally, I request that for every 2 hours worked, he must have a 10 minute break. The two hours consecutively may include a combination of sitting and standing, but not entirely 2 hours of standing without intermittent sitting. The more controlled the environment for noise, interruptions, etc., the better. His ability to focus can be greatly compromised in a loud atmosphere in which he has a potential to be interrupted numerous times during a business transaction.”

         Purewal interpreted the “set, consistent schedule” restriction to mean not that he needed to have a schedule where he worked the same number of days and same hours per day and per week, but that he had to know what days he was working in advance so that he could keep medical appointments and maintain his treatment schedule. Purewal testified that there were situations where an RSM would “inevitably” be interrupted during the course of the day, even when the RSM wasn't physically present. He also indicated that the T-Mobile retail stores continuously played music through a speaker system which had approximately 40 channels, but was typically on top-40 hits or “low chill” music.

         T-Mobile maintains a policy that prohibits discrimination based upon an individual's mental or physical disability. T-Mobile's workplace accommodation policy states that it is committed to providing reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with known disabilities. According to the policy, “[r]easonable accommodation may require an interactive process between the applicant or employee and the Company to identify whether an accommodation is needed and to determine whether [T-Mobile] is able to provide an accommodation without undue hardship.” The interactive process can include communications between the employee, the employee's medical provider, the employee's supervisor, HR partners, and possibly experts outside the company that might be necessary to determine whether an accommodation is reasonable. In addition, during the interactive process the employee may be required to provide medical documentation supporting the need for accommodation and/or recommending an accommodation that would enable the employee to perform the essential function of his or her job without undue hardship to the company.

         As to simple requests for accommodation, a member of the accommodation team (based in Bellevue, Washington) might make an initial determination regarding whether an employee's request is “reasonable.” In most instances, though, T-Mobile acknowledges the question of whether an employee's accommodation request is reasonable should involve communications between an accommodation team member, the employee's manager, and the local human resources representative. Whether an accommodation is granted should be considered on an individual basis.

         Jennifer Lamb was T-Mobile's Senior Accommodation Specialist at the pertinent times of Purewal's employment, and managed employee accommodation. With respect to accommodation cases, Lamb worked with employees and their healthcare providers to get necessary medical information and worked with human resources and the employee's manager to determine whether T-Mobile could provide the accommodation. T-Mobile's normal procedure was to send a standard questionnaire to the employee's medical provider to determine whether the employee had a qualifying disability, identify any restrictions that would prevent the employee from performing an essential function of the job, and, if necessary, engage in follow-up questions or communication. With respect to the employee's manager and local HR, T-Mobile's normal procedure was to review an employee's essential job functions, discuss those functions with the manager and local HR, then determine possible accommodation options. Lamb indicated that the final decisionmaker on an employee's accommodation request was the employee's manager.[3] If the employee could not return to his or her old job due to the accommodation requests, T-Mobile would consider alternative assignments. Lamb's goal with an employee's accommodation requests is to be accurate, thorough, review any relevant documents, speak to the employee's supervisor, and consider all opportunities to get the employee back to work.

         Purewal's accommodation request was initially assigned to Lamb. Lamb never spoke directly with Purewal's physicians regarding the meaning of the “set, consistent schedule” restriction. Lamb interpreted the “40 hours per week” restriction to mean that Purewal could not work more than 40 hours in a seven-day week. Lamb did not speak directly to Purewal's health providers regarding that restriction. Lamb interpreted the restrictions on breaks and sitting to mean that Purewal would need a ten-minute break for every two hours that he worked, and that he would need to sit intermittently. She interpreted Ravenscroft's statement related to noise as a restriction, rather than a request, but did not speak directly with Ravenscroft about that restriction.

         In an October 3, 2016 email sent to William Etzenhouser, an “Employee Success Partner, ”[4] Lamb noted Purewal's requested accommodations of a consistent, set work schedule, limitation to no more than 40 hours per 7-day period, 10-minute break for every two hours worked, allowance of intermittent sitting, and controlled environment for noise and interruptions and indicated “I think the last bullet points can't reasonably be accommodated. There is no way to control a retail environment in the manner requested. I don't see any issue with providing the stool and breaks, but I think that a consistent set schedule probably can't be met without disrupting other staff scheduling. Let me know you(sic) thoughts.” Etzenhouser responded “I would agree, schedule/40 hrs and controlled environment are not easy in a retail environment.”

         Lamb did not have any conversations with Purewal's medical providers regarding the September, 2016 accommodation requests as they related to the RAM or RSM position. Lamb never sent T-Mobile's healthcare provider questionnaire to the medical providers to determine whether Purewal could perform the essential functions of the RSM or RAM position. Etzenhouser admitted in his deposition that information from the medical providers would have been helpful to determine whether Purewal could perform the essential functions of the RAM or RSM positions.

         Lamb never inquired of Purewal's physicians whether the restrictions had any kind of temporal limitation, nor did Lamb or Etzenhouser inquire of Purewal whether his restrictions were permanent.

         Neither Lamb nor Etzenhouser reviewed other management employees' schedules or spoke with other employees to determine whether their schedules would have been interrupted as a result of the accommodation requests.

         A few days after the October 3, 2016 email exchange between Lamb and Etzenhouser, Lamb called Purewal and explained that T-Mobile could not accommodate his medical restrictions in his RSM position at the time and would move forward with finding him another position. According to plaintiff, he and Lamb did not have any specific discussions as to what restrictions could be accommodated, the length of the restrictions, or the severity of the restrictions.

         Subsequent to that conversation, Purewal called his immediate supervisor, Michael Laughlin, and indicated his belief that the restrictions would not affect his job as an RSM. He then asked whether Laughlin believed a Retail Associate Manager role could accommodate the restrictions.

         Laughlin responded that Purewal had worked in both positions and knew that Laughlin's expectations of both RSM's and RAM's were the same, so Laughlin did not believe the restrictions could be accommodated even in an RAM role. Laughlin testified that RAM's do not typically work more than 40 hours per week. There is no 40 hour per week minimum written requirement in the job description for the RAM position. RAMs are not allowed to work more than 40 hours per week without permission, but would occasionally work excess hours due to staffing issues or sales.

         Lamb indicates she never reviewed any data to determine how many hours per week an RAM works.

         Etzenhouser testified that if Purewal did not have to work more than 40 hours per week as an RAM the position would have fit his restrictions “with regard to the time and hour component, ” but Purewal had additional restrictions, such as those requiring a set, consistent schedule and the ...

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