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Smart v. Dekalb County

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

February 26, 2018




         This matter is before the Court on Magistrate Judge Janet F. King's Final Report and Recommendation [78] (“R&R”). The Final R&R recommends the Court deny Plaintiff James Anthony Smart, Jr.'s (“Plaintiff”) Motion for Summary Judgment [52] and Defendant DeKalb County, Georgia's (“Defendant, ” or “DeKalb County”) Motion for Summary Judgment [66]. Also before the Court are Plaintiff's Objections to Order and Report and Recommendation on a Motion for Summary Judgment [80] (“Plaintiff's Objections”) and Defendant's Objections to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation [81] (“Defendant's Objections”).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Facts[1]

         On June 12, 1995, Plaintiff began working for DeKalb County Roads and Drainage as a crew worker. (Deposition of James Anthony Smart, Jr. [53] (“Smart Dep”) at 131:11-15). Plaintiff was promoted over the years to senior crew worker, equipment operator, senior equipment operator, crew supervisor, and, finally, construction supervisor. (Smart Dep. at 131-37). Plaintiff held the position of construction supervisor from June 2006 until his resignation in November of 2015. ([71.1] at 7-8).

         While employed as a construction supervisor, Plaintiff was required to maintain a Class A Commercial Driver's License (“CDL”) to perform at least some of his duties. (Smart Dep. at 24:5-23; [71.1] at 13). During the relevant period, Plaintiff possessed a Class A CDL[2] with an expiration date of March 1, 2016. (Smart Dep. at 42:10-25). Plaintiff was also required to submit to a physical examination approximately once every one to two years for purposes of assessing whether Plaintiff could maintain his CDL. (Smart Dep. at 32:12-17).

         On March 12, 2015, while at work, Plaintiff was “informed [] that he had to go down to take a CDL physical.” (Smart Dep. at 52:11-16). Later that day, Plaintiff went to the medical offices of Caduceus USA, Defendant's third-party occupational health medical provider, located in Tucker, Georgia. (Id. at 52; Deposition of Karyn Keaton-Bailey [54] (“Bailey Dep”) at 14:16-22). During his visit, Plaintiff submitted to a number of tests, including ones for vision and blood pressure. (Smart Dep. at 56). Plaintiff also informed the examining nurse that he was taking eye drops for glaucoma and medication for high blood pressure. (Id. at 56-58). Plaintiff was ultimately told that “he couldn't pass” the examination unless he received a note from his doctor stating that he was able to drive. (Id.).

         As a result, Caduceus USA issued a report stating, with regard to Plaintiff's “work status” that Plaintiff was “disqualified/off work” due to glaucoma/hypertension. ([71.1] at 21). Upon receipt of the report, DeKalb County's Nurse Manager, Karyn Keaton-Bailey, one of the people responsible for ensuring that CDL drivers receive their physicals in a timely manner, sent a work status form to Roads and Drainage refraining Plaintiff from duty. (Bailey Dep. at 11-12, 17-20, 22-23, 3162; Smart Dep. 22-23). The next day, on March 13, 2015, Plaintiff was sent home from work and placed on “refrain from duty” status. (Smart Dep. at 74:11-18).

         On March 16, 2015, Georgia Department of Driver Services (“DDS”) mailed Plaintiff a letter stating:

Changes to state and federal law require the Department of Driver Services (DDS) to collect copies of the medical certificates held by all commercial drivers beginning January 1, 2012. Additionally, each commercial driver must certify or re-certify the type of driving in which he/she engages. Any commercial driver who fails to satisfy these requirements within the time allotted in that regulation will no longer be qualified to operate a commercial vehicle until they recertify or submit a new medical qualification card to DDS.
Your driving record indicates that either your medical certificate is expired or you have otherwise failed to comply with medical certificate requirements applicable to commercial drivers. As a result, the DDS will change your CDLIS medical certification status to “NOT CERTIFIED” and you will no longer be qualified to operate a commercial vehicle effective 03/15/2015. Please note that your noncommercial driving privilege is not impacted by this. However, you cannot lawfully operate a commercial vehicle on or after this date.

(Smart Dep. at 49:3-25, 50:1-2). Shortly after receiving the letter, Plaintiff visited his personal ophthalmologist's office for follow-up tests and to request a letter demonstrating that it was acceptable for him to drive. (Smart Dep. at 64-67). On March 18, 2015, Plaintiff's ophthalmologist authored a letter for Plaintiff, stating: “James A Smart has been treated in our office for Advanced Open Angle glaucoma. He has 20/20 vision in both eyes, but a limited field of vision.” (Declaration Dr. Polly Henderson, M.D. [52.7] (“Henderson Decl.”) ¶ 6).

         Plaintiff provided Caduceus USA with a new blood pressure reading and the letter from his ophthalmologist concerning his glaucoma. (Smart Dep. at 70-71). Plaintiff was informed that this was insufficient, however, and that Caduceus required Plaintiff to provide an exemption form from the Department of Transportation (“DOT”), which could be obtained from the Georgia DDS. ([66.4] at 16-17). On April 6, 2015, after an examination of Plaintiff on March 23, 2015, Plaintiff's ophthalmologist completed the vision exemption form and shortly thereafter remitted the form directly to Caduceus. ([52.5] at 217; Smart Dep. at 81-82).

         Plaintiff asked if Caduceus would release him to return to work, but, according to Plaintiff, Caduceus advised him that “it was up to the county” to make that determination. (Smart Dep. at 84). As a result, Plaintiff approached Leo Owens, the Roads and Drainage administrative service manager, about his desire to return to work. (Smart Dep. at 84). Plaintiff testified in his deposition:

I went up to the job. I saw that [Leo] was in his office. I walked in his office and I spoke with him and I asked him, I said, Leo, I need to come back to work. Even if it means not driving a county vehicle. . . . I mean if I need to grab a shovel and be a crew worker, I can do that and he told me he couldn't let me return to work until I passed a physical because my job required a CDL physical.

(Smart Dep. at 198:14-23). Plaintiff did not return to work after this date.

         On or about June 23, 2015, Plaintiff sought out a private physician to perform an independent CDL physical examination. (Smart Dep. at 87-88). Plaintiff obtained a Medical Examiner's Certificate from Dr. Vikash Modi indicating that Plaintiff passed the CDL physical requirements. (Id. at 148-49; Deposition of Michelle Harkles [59] (“Harkles Dep.”) at 12-14; Deposition of Leonardo Owens [60] (“Owens Dep.”) at 19-21). On June 26, 2015, Plaintiff went to work and presented the Medical Examiner's Certificate to Owens's administrative assistant who informed Plaintiff that it was insufficient because it was not issued by Caduceus USA. (Smart Dep. at 149; Harkles Dep. at 12-14; Owens Dep. at 19-20).

         In 1990, DeKalb County issued a written policy regarding physical examination requirements for CDLs. (Deposition of Katherine Furlong [63] (“Furlong Dep.”) at 12). The 1990 policy provided:

All DeKalb County drivers who are required by the State of Georgia to have a valid [CDL] while operating County vehicles shall be required, as a condition of employment, to pass the same State of Georgia physical examination requirements for driver's license renewal as drivers of vehicles operated by private entities in the State of Georgia. This may be accomplished by passing a physical examination provided by DeKalb County or by the employee providing documentation that he or she passed the state required physical examination by any physician acceptable to the State of Georgia.


         On November 18, 2015, Plaintiff tendered his resignation letter to Defendant. (Smart Dep. at 26-27; CITE). According to Smart, he resigned out of necessity because he needed to access funds from his DeKalb County pension fund. On February 29, 2016, Plaintiff renewed his Class A CDL. (Smart Dep. at 98).

         B. Procedural History

         On March 14, 2016, Plaintiff filed his initial Complaint [1], and on July 1, 2016, Plaintiff filed his First Amended Complaint [13]. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant intentionally discriminated against Plaintiff in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by (i) sending him home after a physical exam showing he had high blood pressure and glaucoma, (ii) failing to provide a reasonable accommodation later requested by Plaintiff, and (iii) failing to allow Plaintiff to return to work when he presented a renewed CDL with a valid medical certification. ([13] ¶¶ 26-27). Plaintiff also alleges, for the same reasons articulated in his ADA claim, that Defendant intentionally discriminated against Plaintiff in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. (Id. ¶¶ 28-29).

         On May 5, 2017, Plaintiff and Defendant filed their respective Motions for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff argues in his Motion for Summary Judgment that (1) he is actually disabled and was “regarded as” disabled by Defendant; (2) he is a qualified employee, with or without reasonable accommodation, and he can perform all of his essential job functions; and (3) he was subject to unlawful discrimination because of his disability. ([52.1] at 1-24). Defendant argues in its Motion for Summary Judgment that (1) Plaintiff fails to meet his burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act; (2) Defendant had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons with regard to actions it took pertaining to Plaintiff's employment; and (3) Plaintiff cannot meet his ultimate burden of establishing that he was entitled to and denied a reasonable accommodation that Defendant intentionally discriminated against him on the basis of his disability. ([66.2] at 2-3).

         On January 5, 2018, the Magistrate Judge issued her Final R&R recommending denying Plaintiff's and Defendant's Motions for Summary Judgment. The Magistrate Judge found, with respect to the first element required to show a prima facie case of disability discrimination under the ADA, that, although Plaintiff failed to present facts sufficient to show he has an actual disability because he failed to demonstrate that either his glaucoma or hypertension “substantially limit[]” a major bodily function or major life activity, Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably infer that Plaintiff was “regarded as” disabled by Defendant. ([78] at 44, 46, 49, 55). The Magistrate Judge found, with respect to the second element, that Plaintiff produced sufficient evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether a Class A CDL was an essential function of Plaintiff's job, and, therefore, whether Plaintiff was a “qualified individual” under the ADA. (Id. at 67-68). Finally, the Magistrate Judge found, as to the third element, that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Defendant was discriminated against “because of” his disability. (Id. at 78) The Magistrate Judge explained that (1) Plaintiff presents evidence giving rise to a triable issue concerning whether Plaintiff identified and proposed to Defendant a reasonable accommodation and (2) a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Plaintiff was subjected to disparate treatment. (Id. at 78, 79).

         On January 22, 2018, Plaintiff filed his Objections. Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's finding that Plaintiff has failed to offer sufficient evidence that he was “actually” disabled-that is, that he suffered a physical impairment that substantially limited his major life activity of seeing, neurological function, and working. ([80] at 1). Plaintiff contends that the Henderson Affidavit [52.6], Plaintiff's medical records [52.4], Dr. Roaf's March 20, 2015, and April 1, 2015, notes, and Plaintiff's Declaration [74.1] create a question of material fact as to whether Plaintiff suffered a substantial limitation to his major life activity of seeing under the ADA and that Defendant had a record of this. ([80] at 15). Plaintiff argues that the Magistrate Judge “recites ample medical record evidence supporting a finding of a substantial impairment to vision.” (Id.). Plaintiff next objects to the Magistrate Judge's finding that “having and maintaining a Class A CDL” is a job function and not a qualification standard. (Id. at 22). Plaintiff further objects to the Final R&R's “failure to find that Defendant imposed a discriminatory qualification standard.” (Id. at 23). Plaintiff contends that the Magistrate Judge should have concluded that Plaintiff was fully qualified on March 13, 2015. (Id. at 23-24). Finally, Plaintiff objects to the finding that Defendant offered a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its actions. (Id. at 25).

         On January 23, 2018, Defendant submitted its Objections to the Final R&R.[3]Defendant first argues that the Magistrate Judge's finding that a reasonable jury could find that Plaintiff was “regarded as” disabled should be rejected because there is no evidence, and none is relied upon in the Final R&R, that any specific individuals employed by Defendant regarded or perceived Plaintiff as disabled. ([81] at 13-16). Defendant next contends that the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Plaintiff can demonstrate he was a qualified individual should be rejected because there is no genuine issue of material fact regarding whether having a Class A CDL was an essential function of Plaintiff's job. (Id. at 16-20). Defendant further objects to the Magistrate Judge's finding that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Plaintiff can demonstrate that Defendant denied his request to accommodate. (Id. at 20-23). Finally, Defendant argues that the Magistrate Judge's recommendation regarding Plaintiff's claim that Defendant violated the ADA by treating him as disabled in comparison to others was based on an erroneous application of the law. (Id. at 23-27).

         II. ...

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