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Mayfield v. Target Corp.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

October 29, 2019




         Plaintiff Nikita Mayfield brings this action against his employer, Defendant Target Corporation, asserting various employment-related claims, including: (1) disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101, et seq. (Count I); (2) failure to accommodate under the ADA (Count II); (3) race-based disparate treatment and harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq. (Count III); and (4) retaliation in violation of the ADA, Title VII, and the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601, et seq. (Counts IV-VI). Doc. 64. Defendant moves for summary judgment on each claim. Doc. 66.

         The Court grants Defendant's request for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims. The Court finds that, although Plaintiff has met the prima facie burden on his race-based disparate treatment and FMLA retaliation claims, Plaintiff cannot rebut Defendant's legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for taking adverse employment actions against him by showing that those reasons were mere pretext for discrimination. And the Court finds that Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case on his disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, race-based harassment, and ADA and Title VII retaliation claims; thus, the Court need not even consider pretext for those claims. The Court accordingly concludes that summary judgment is warranted.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         A. Plaintiff's Anxiety and FMLA Leave

         Defendant hired Plaintiff in 2004 as a warehouse worker at its Topeka distribution center (the “Center”), where he still works today. Doc. 64 at 3 ¶¶ (a)(v)-(vi). In 2014, Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. James Barnett, diagnosed him with generalized anxiety disorder. Doc. 67-23 at 10:8 -17. Plaintiff testified that his anxiety disorder causes him to lose sleep, makes him irritable, and causes him to have difficulty in social interactions, thinking, and concentrating. It also caused him to lose weight and have suicidal thoughts in 2017. Doc. 67-1 at 47:18-49:8.

         Defendant contracts with The Reed Group to administer leaves of absence for employees, including leave taken pursuant to the FMLA. Doc. 67-2 at 4:1 9-5:9 . The Reed Group approves leave and tracks time used. Id. at 3:12-18, 5:25-6:4. It notifies Defendant when it approves or denies an employee's request for FMLA leave but does not inform Defendant of the underlying medical condition providing the basis for leave. Id. at 33:5 -14; Doc. 67-9 at 10:13-22. Since 2013, Plaintiff has taken FMLA leave on numerous occasions. Doc. 67-1 at 17:9 -18, 18:4 -8, 19-22, 23:22-24:7. He has never been denied FMLA leave and continues to use it. Id. at 24:13-18; 12:21-13:3.

         B. Defendant's Corrective Actions

         Defendant has a progressive counseling and corrective action policy pursuant to which employees receive counseling corrective actions (“CCAs”) for engaging in unacceptable conduct. Doc. 67-8 at 2. On March 3, 2017, Plaintiff received a CCA after he told an operational manager (“OM”): “I'm tired of people acting like I don't know what the fuck I am doing. I have been here for too long to be told what to do like I don't know anything.” Doc. 67-10 at 2, Doc. 67-1 at 25:12-14; 26:20-27:10. Less than two months later, on April 28, 2017, Plaintiff received a second CCA because he failed to report for a scheduled half day of work or call in his absence. Doc. 67-1 at 28-29. Plaintiff subsequently met with Human Resource (“HR”) Business Partner Haley Catterson concerning his second CCA and, a few minutes after the meeting, she found him in the breakroom sitting down and using his cell phone outside of break time. Doc. 67-1 at 30:23-31:12. Plaintiff explained that his badge to get into the warehouse had malfunctioned. Doc. 67-1 at 30:13-16. But he neglected to use the HR radio or the phone in the breakroom to call to be let into the warehouse. Doc. 67-1 at 30:13-31:7; Doc. 67-12. On May 9, 2017, Plaintiff received a third CCA based on the incident for “loafing.” Doc. 67-1 at 29:13-16; Doc. 67-13.

         Each of Plaintiff's three CCAs provided that, for a six-month period, Plaintiff was ineligible for transfer (except under limited circumstances with HR approval) and ineligible for promotion. Doc. 70-4 at 35, 39-41. And because the “loafing” CCA was Plaintiff's third within a twelve-month period, he also received a final warning, which extended his ineligibilities for transfer and promotion from six months to a year. Id. at 37. The final warning also added the possibility of termination if he incurred another CCA. Id.

         C. Plaintiff's Complaints and Leave of Absence

         After Plaintiff received the final warning, he made a complaint through Defendant's integrity hotline claiming Defendant issued him the CCAs in retaliation for his FMLA use. Doc. 67-16. On May 17, 2017, Paul Palazzo, a lead labor relations consultant for Defendant, interviewed Plaintiff in connection with his complaint. Doc. 67-15 at 6:13-17. Plaintiff claimed his OMs talked to him about his FMLA leave in December 2016 and in 2014 and 2015. He thought they retaliated against him specifically because he had complained about their comments regarding his FMLA leave. Doc. 67-15 at 6:18-9:6; Doc. 67-16.

         The day after his interview with Mr. Palazzo, on May 18, 2017, Plaintiff sent an email to HR explaining that he had a diagnosed anxiety disorder. Doc. 67-2 at 16:8-24; Doc. 67-17. In the email, Plaintiff further alleged he had experienced race- and age-based discrimination and FMLA retaliation while working at the Center and, due to this negative work environment-which he claimed had “caused or contributed to [his] anxiety disorder”-he was applying for short term disability to “keep [himself] healthy.” Id. He stated he would rather be working and wanted to start talking to Defendant about ways to accommodate his disability, so he could work without anxiety. Doc. 67-17. This was the first time Ms. Catterson or Plaintiff's OMs heard about his diagnosis. Doc. 67-2 at 7:12-18, 8:23-9:10; 15:16-21; Doc. 67-9 at 11:7 -12:10-18; 14:21-25; 15:3 -23; 16:18-17:3; 18:6 -11; 30:4 -9; Doc. 67-6 at 6 at 3:19-24; Doc. 67-18 at 5:4-8; 5:20-22; Doc. 67-19 at 5:3 -17.

         On May 26, 2017, Ms. Catterson emailed Plaintiff asking whether he wanted to discuss the issues in the email or wait until he returned from leave. Doc. 67-2 at 17:2-22; 67-20. On May 31, 2017, Mr. Palazzo informed Plaintiff that Defendant had determined that his CCAs were issued according to Defendant's policies-and not in retaliation for his FMLA leave. Plaintiff and Ms. Catterson met in person on June 1, 2017. Doc. 67-2 at 23:2-8. Plaintiff claimed OM David Carlton and a coworker, Randy, wanted to get rid of him. He also provided the names of two employees who had cursed in front of an OM. Doc. 67-2 at 18:8 -23. By this point, Plaintiff's doctor had certified that Plaintiff was unable to work due to his anxiety. Doc. 67-1 at 4:21-25. Ms. Catterson told Plaintiff to let her know when he was ready to return to work. Doc. 70-4 at 56.

         On July 28, 2017, while still on leave, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination (“Charge”) with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), claiming continuous retaliation and discrimination since 2010 on the basis of race, age, and disability. Doc. 1-1; Doc. 67-1 at 46:12-19.

         D. Plaintiff's Return to Work

         On July 31, 2017, Plaintiff spoke with Ms. Catterson and stated that he might be able to return to work with restrictions. Doc. 67-1 at 8:22-9:2; Doc. 67-2 at 20:13-17. He picked up an “accommodation questionnaire” the next day. Doc. 67-2 at 21:7 -24. Plaintiff's doctor released him for work on August 24, 2017 with one restriction: that he not operate order picker machinery. Defendant accommodated this restriction. Doc. 67-1 at 10:4 -11:16, 43:11-24. After his return to work, Plaintiff claimed he needed to be able to leave work if he experienced increased anxiety, and his OMs permitted him to do so. Id. at 12:21-13:3. He did not ask for any other accommodations. Doc. 67-1 at 41:14-24.

         Ms. Catterson followed up with Plaintiff on September 1 and 28, 2017 to see how he was feeling and if he was comfortable at work. Doc. 67-2 at 22:1 4-23:8. Plaintiff confirmed that he had no concerns regarding his use of FMLA leave or because of his race. Doc. 67-2 at 26:24-27:11; Doc. 67-21 at 2. Plaintiff also admits that, since 2016, no one has used racist language with him, cursed or screamed at him, or touched him offensively at work. Doc. 67-1 at 37:3 -39:5.

         Plaintiff nonetheless continued to pursue his EEOC action, and, on February 14, 2018, the EEOC issued Plaintiff a notice of right to sue letter. Plaintiff proceeded to file this action on May 11, 2018, asserting claims for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate his disability under the ADA, race-based disparate treatment and harassment under Title VII, and retaliation under the ADA, Title VII, and the FMLA. Doc. 1; Doc. 64 at 14-15.

         II. STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate if 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). In applying this standard, courts must view the facts and any reasonable inferences that might be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Henderson v. Inter-Chem Coal Co., 41 F.3d 567, 569 (10th Cir. 1994). “There is no genuine issue of material fact unless the evidence, construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Bones v. Honeywell Int'l, Inc., 366 F.3d 869, 875 (10th Cir. 2004) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Counts I-II (ADA)

         Counts I and II of the complaint allege Defendant violated the ADA by discriminating against Plaintiff based on his disability (Count I) and failing to accommodate his disability (Count II). Doc. 64 at 13-14. As a threshold matter, the Court addresses whether Plaintiff is disabled within the meaning of the ADA.

         The ADA defines “disability” as “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1). To satisfy the first test for disability, “a plaintiff must (1) have a recognized impairment, (2) identify one or more appropriate major life activities, and (3) show that the impairment substantially limits one or more of those activities.” Carter v. Pathfinder Energy Servs., Inc., 662 F.3d 1134, 1142 (10th Cir. 2011). The question of whether a plaintiff has a recognized impairment and identifies one or more major life activities are questions of law for the court, and the question of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity is generally a question of fact for the jury. Id.

         Here, Defendant does not contest that Plaintiff has a recognized impairment of generalized anxiety disorder. See U.S. EEOC, EEOC Enforcement Guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities (2008) (listing anxiety disorders as a mental impairment under the ADA). And Defendant also does not appear to contest that Plaintiff has identified a number of major life activities affected by that disorder, including self-care, sleeping, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(i)(1)(i) (defining “major life activities” as including activities such as “caring for oneself, ” “performing manual tasks, ” “concentrating, ” “thinking, ” “interacting with others, ” and “working”). Instead, Defendant argues the record does not include any evidence establishing that Plaintiff is substantially limited in those major life activities.

         The Court disagrees, and, for the following reasons, finds there is a genuine issue of ma terial fact regarding whether Plaintiff's generalized anxiety disorder “substantially limits” one or more of his major life activities. The Court notes that the applicable regulations dictate the term “substantially limits” be construed broadly and that the determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity requires an individualized assessment. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(i), (iv); Vannattan v. VendTech-SGI, LLC, 2017 WL 2021475, at *3 (D. Kan. 2017). Here, Plaintiff cites The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, which include: difficulty concentrating, irritability, and “clinically significant distress or impairment in life functions.” Doc. 70-2 at 32. The doctor who diagnosed Plaintiff, Dr. Barnett, testified that a panic attack (such as those experienced by Plaintiff) can limit an individual in performing life functions such as walking, eating, sleeping, thinking, concentrating, breathing, driving, or working. Doc. 70-1 at 54:10-17. He explained that “panic attacks can cause patients to be unable to focus on anything but their fear” and “they may or ma y not be able to drive, work, and so forth, ” but clarified that these symptoms would just be during the time the individual was experiencing the panic attacks. Id. at 54:18-24. Dr. Barnett further testified that Plaintiff reported experiencing symptoms of feeling “keyed up, ” fatigued, and irritable. Id. at 56:14-25. Dr. Barnett ...

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