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Christensen v. City of Warner Robins, GA

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

March 6, 2018




         Defendant City of Warner Robins has moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff Jeremy Christensen's claims. Doc. 14. As discussed below, the City's motion (Doc. 14) is GRANTED, and Christensen's claims are DISMISSED with prejudice.

         I. FACTS[1]

         Christensen began working as a patrol officer for the Warner Robins Police Department on February 6, 2013. Docs. 14-3 ¶ 3; 16 at 40:9-14; 16-2 at 1. Christensen completed his required twelve-week certification training program, for which the City paid, on June 21. Docs. 14-3 ¶¶ 3-4; 16 at 48:13-20. On July 8, Christensen began the twelve-week Field Training and Evaluation Program, where he worked and learned under experienced Field Training Officers. Docs. 14-3 ¶ 4; 16 at 48:4-49:1; 16-2 at 4. On September 2, Christensen experienced shooting pains and leg cramps while driving and, as a result, was instructed not to drive for the rest of the day. Docs. 16 at 53:7-54:20; 16-2 at 23. Despite undergoing some periods in which he did not drive because of similar episodes, Christensen completed the Field Training and Evaluation Program on October 4, 2013. Docs. 16 at 57:17-58:12, 62:1-16; 16-2 at 38. Christensen then began the one-year probationary period required for all new city employees. Docs. 14-3 ¶ 5; 16 at 42:13-43:12; 16-1 at 54.[2]

         Christensen experienced more shooting pains after reporting for work on October 8, 2013; also, his hands shook uncontrollably.[3] Docs. 16 at 63:13-64:6; 21-16 at 9:13-13:1. Accordingly, another officer drove him home. Id. Later that day, Captain Bryan Stewart sent Christensen a memorandum, informing Christensen that he would need a release form from a physician before returning to work. Doc. 16-2 at 39. Christensen then saw a physician, Dr. Mohammad Al-Shroof, who cleared him to return to light duty on October 11. Doc. 16-2 at 42. However, Dr. Al-Shroof told Christensen he could not drive. Id. at 43. Police Chief Brett Evans then assigned Christensen to the Criminal Investigations Division (CID) to accommodate Christensen's inability to drive. Doc. 14-5 ¶ 3. In that light duty role, Christensen was assigned to call victims of crimes and document those communications in an electronic case management program. Id.; Doc. 16 at 76:4-24.

         Between October 2013 and April 2014, Christensen updated the City about his doctor appointments, and the City continued to allow Christensen to perform light duty work. Docs. 14-3 ¶¶ 7-8; 16 at 77:2-79:18. On April 10, 2014, Dr. Al-Shroof signed a letter releasing Christensen from all restrictions except for driving a city vehicle. Doc. 16-2 at 46. The City kept Christensen in his light duty position with CID based on Dr. Al-Shroof's note. Docs. 14-3 ¶ 8; 16 at 84:8-11.

         Here, the parties' accounts diverge somewhat. As discussed in a section below, four employment disputes arose that the City argues justified its discharge of Christensen. But Christensen argues that those justifications are pretext for the City's discriminatory motives for firing him.

         Regardless, the parties agree that, on July 9, 2014, Christensen was transferred from CID to Teleserve, where he was also assigned light duty work, which required him to field phone requests for non-emergency police needs and to complete reports documenting the phone calls. Docs. 14-5 ¶ 6; 16 at 103:17-104:18. The parties also agree that the City informed Christensen that it was terminating his employment on July 23, 2014 for the reason that he was an “unsatisfactory probationary employee.” Docs. 16 at 116:12-117:15; 16-2 at 59.

         On December 10, 2014, Christensen filed a charge of employment discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the EEOC issued Christensen a right to sue letter on November 17, 2015. Doc. 16-2 at 114-15. Christensen then filed this lawsuit, claiming that the City violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by treating Christensen differently because of his perceived disability and by refusing to accommodate Christensen's disability, which “le[d], at least in part, to Plaintiff's termination.” Doc. 1 ¶¶ 1, 3, 25-26, 28.[4]

         The City now moves for summary judgment on those claims, arguing that, as a matter of law, Christensen (1) is not a “qualified individual” pursuant to the ADA or RA; (2) cannot prove that the City terminated his employment for discriminatory reasons rather than legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons; and (3) cannot prove that the City failed to reasonably accommodate his disability. Doc. 14-1.


         A. Summary Judgment Standard Generally

         A court shall grant summary judgment “if the movant shows 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). In determining whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (citation omitted). A material fact is any fact relevant or necessary to the outcome of the suit. Id. at 248. And a factual dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonably jury could return a verdict for the non[-]moving party.” Id.

         B. ADA and RA Claims

         Pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, “[n]o covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). “Discriminating” as prohibited by the ADA in the employment context includes “not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business of such covered entity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A). But in cases alleging a failure to make reasonable accommodations, the employer's duty to provide a reasonable accommodation is not triggered until the employee makes a “specific demand” for an accommodation. Gaston v. Bellingrath Gardens & Home, Inc., 167 F.3d 1361, 1363 (11th Cir.1999).

         Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance from discriminating against an otherwise qualified person based “solely by reason of her or his disability.” 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). The standard for determining liability under the RA is the same as the standard under the ADA, except that, under the RA a plaintiff must prove that he suffered an adverse employment action “solely by reason of” the plaintiff's disability. Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir.2005) (citations omitted).

         C. Burden-Shifting Framework for Discrimination Claims Based on Circumstantial Evidence

         Like many plaintiffs pursuing claims of employment discrimination, Christensen does not rely on direct evidence of discrimination. As the parties agree, Christensen instead relies on circumstantial evidence to prove his case. See, e.g., Docs. 14-1 at 14; 21 at 13. Accordingly, the burden-shifting analysis established in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), applies. See Hilburn v. Murata Elec. N. Am., Inc., 181 F.3d 1220, 1226 (11th Cir.1999) (“The familiar burden-shifting analysis of Title VII employment discrimination actions is equally applicable to ADA claims.” (citation omitted)). Under the McDonnell-Douglas approach, the plaintiff must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination; to establish a prima facie case, Christensen must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he “(1) is disabled, (2) is a qualified individual, and (3) was subjected to unlawful discrimination because of [his] disability.” Id. (citation omitted).[5]

         If Christensen establishes a prima facie case, a presumption of discrimination is created, and the City has the burden of articulating legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the termination and alleged failure to accommodate Christensen. Cleveland v. Home Shopping Network, Inc., 369 F.3d 1189, 1193 (11th Cir. 2004). At this stage, the City “need not persuade the [C]ourt that it was actually motivated by the proffered reasons” but must instead produce evidence sufficient to raise a genuine issue of fact as to whether it discriminated against Christensen. Kragor v. Takeda Pharm. Am., Inc., 702 F.3d 1304, 1308 (11th Cir. 2012) (emphasis added) (quotation marks and citations omitted). If the City does so, Christensen can still avoid summary judgment if he produces sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the City's articulated non-discriminatory reasons are pretext for discrimination. Cleveland, ...

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