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Boatwright v. Aspen Products Inc.

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

June 18, 2018




         Defendant Aspen Products, Inc. has moved for summary judgment on the disability employment discrimination claims of Plaintiff Mark Boatwright, who is proceeding pro se. Doc. 19. As discussed below, the motion (Doc. 19) is GRANTED, and Boatwright's claims are DISMISSED with prejudice.

         I. FACTS[1]

         Boatwright began working as a machine operator for Aspen Products, a manufacturer of paper plates and cups, on June 1, 2015. Docs. 21 at 17:7-13, 18:19-22; 22 ¶¶ 2-3. Around Friday, June 19, 2015, Boatwright injured his ankle. Docs. 21 at 52:15-22; 21-1 at 49. On Monday, June 22, Brian Lilly, Aspen Products's plant manager, and Jay Kerr, Aspen Products's production manager, sent Boatwright to Macon Occupational Medicine to have the ankle examined. Docs. 21 at 52:24-53:11; 21-1 at 49; 22 ¶ 4. Boatwright was diagnosed with an ankle sprain and released for restricted work duty; specifically, Boatwright was instructed not to lift, push, pull, carry over 15 pounds, or walk or stand for more than 20 minutes at a time, and he was told to take breaks to ice and elevate the injured ankle. Doc. 21-1 at 49.

         Boatwright expressed his desire to work in his normal machine operating capacity while using crutches, but Kerr and Lilly denied this request. Docs. 21 at 28:18-22, 29:2-12, 30:5-16; 22 ¶ 5. Lilly told Boatwright that he could not work with crutches; Kerr swore in an affidavit that, due to the safety concerns arising from heavy machinery, Aspen Products “typically do[es] not recommend employees”-machine operators in particular-“that need crutches or wheelchairs to continue working on the production floor” and that a “light duty work station is something we have always had available to accommodate employees.” Docs. 21 at 30:14-16, 32:8-13; 22 ¶ 14. Accordingly, Aspen Products instructed Boatwright that light duty work would be available for him, instead. Doc. 22 ¶ 5.[2] Kerr swore in an affidavit, and Boatwright does not dispute, that the light duty work, used for employees with work restrictions, entailed modified duties at a chair and table, usually counting, inventorying, or inspecting product. Doc. 22 ¶¶ 13-14.

         But Boatwright did not go to work on June 23, instead calling in to his supervisor and reporting that he could not work because of his ankle. Docs. 21 at 59:15-21, 62:1-8; 22 ¶ 6. On June 24, he requested a second opinion regarding his ankle. Docs. 21 at 53:23-54:9; 22 ¶ 6. An appointment with a different doctor was made; Boatwright called in again the nights of June 24 and 25; and Boatwright visited Ortho Georgia on June 26. Docs. 21 at 56:3-7; 21-1 at 50; 22 ¶ 7. The doctor at Ortho Georgia echoed the recommendations of Macon Occupational Medicine, allowing Boatwright to return to work with restrictions, including “no prolong[ed] standing without crutch [and] no stooping for [one] week.” Id.

         But Boatwright called in and did not go to work on his next three shifts, June 26, 29, and 30. Docs. 21 at 59:15-21, 62:1-8; 22 ¶ 8. Kerr swore in his affidavit that he called Boatwright on July 1 and told him that the absences were not excusable because light duty work was available and that Boatwright told Kerr that he wanted to go back to the doctor. Doc. 22 ¶ 8.[3] The same day, Boatwright returned to Ortho Georgia, where he was again instructed that he could return to work with the light duty restrictions, specifically, “no prolong[ed] standing with crutch [and] no stooping for [two] weeks.” Docs. 21 at 62:14-17; 21-1 at 53; 22 ¶ 8. That night, Boatwright called in again and did not attend work. Doc. 22 ¶ 9.

         After that latest absence, Kerr drafted a letter to Boatwright and signed it on July 2, laying out Kerr's understanding of what had happened to that point. Docs. 21 at 63:20-24; 21-1 at 54; 22 ¶ 9. Specifically, the letter stated that Boatwright had been injured on June 19, 2015, had reported for work on June 22, and had been sent to Macon Occupational Medicine on June 23; that Boatwright had been notified that Aspen Products would accommodate Boatwright's work restrictions prescribed by Macon Occupational; that Boatwright was notified that he was still scheduled to work his regular schedule; that on June 26 Boatwright requested to change doctors and was sent to Ortho Georgia and again told that Aspen Products would accommodate prescribed work restrictions; and that Boatwright had called in each day to report that he would not attend work despite these offered accommodations. Doc. 21-1 at 54. The letter also stated, “[i]t has been communicated to you at every step that your work restrictions would be accommodated according to the documentation received from each visit.” Id. And it continued, “[a]t the time of this letter, you have been unexcused from work for [seven] days to include: 6/23/15, 6/24/15, 6/25/15, 6/26/15, 6/29/15, 6/30/15 and 7/1/15.” Id. Finally, the letter instructed Boatwright “to call Aspen Products and speak to Jay Kerr or Brian Lilly within 24 hours of receipt of this letter.” Id. On July 2, Boatwright again called in absent and asked to pick up a paycheck. Doc. 22 ¶ 10.[4] On July 6, Kerr and Lilly decided to terminate Boatwright's employment due to his unexcused absences, which totaled nine. Doc. 22 ¶ 11. When Boatwright came to the Aspen Products plant to pick up a paycheck, Kerr and Lilly told Boatwright the decision and their reason. Id. They also gave Boatwright a Georgia Department of Labor form separation notice; in the place for “state fully and clearly the circumstances of the separation, ” they wrote, “[e]mployee has nine unexcused absences despite being released by two different doctors for restricted light duty work.” Docs. 21 at 65:12-66:3; 21-1 at 55; 22 ¶ 11.

         After his termination, Boatwright underwent an MRI and was ultimately diagnosed with a fractured, not sprained, ankle. Doc. 24-1 at 2-4. That doctor, however, also stated that Boatwright could complete light duty work but limited him to sitting, and the doctor completed a statement of disability form describing Boatwright as “totally disabled.” Id.

         On October 19, 2015, Boatwright filed a charge of employment discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the EEOC issued Boatwright a right to sue letter on September 13, 2016. Docs. 1-1 at 1; 24-5 at 6. Boatwright then filed this lawsuit, claiming that Aspen Products violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by “issu[ing] an unfavorable decision . . . for nine . . . unexcused absences and by not fully accommodating [Boatwright] in reference towards [his] injury sustained on or about June 19, 2015.” Doc. 1 at 3.[5]

         Aspen Products now moves for summary judgment on Boatwright's claims, arguing that, as a matter of law, Boatwright (1) is not “disabled” pursuant to the ADA; (2) is not a “qualified individual” pursuant to the ADA; (3) cannot prove that Aspen Products terminated his employment for discriminatory reasons rather than legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons; and (4) cannot prove that Aspen Products failed to provide reasonable accommodation to him pursuant to the ADA. Doc. 19-1.


         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. ...

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