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Rogers v. Norman W. Fries, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Statesboro Division

September 27, 2019

CHARLES ROGERS, Plaintiff,
v.
NORMAN W. FRIES, INC. d/b/a CLAXTON POULTRY FARMS, Defendant.

          ORDER

          R. STAN BAKER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In this lawsuit, Plaintiff Charles Rogers alleges that Defendant Norman W. Fries, Inc. d/b/a Claxton Poultry Farms violated his rights pursuant to Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended by the ADA Amendment Act of 2008, 42 U.S.C. §12101 et seq. (hereinafter the “ADA”) by refusing to hire him when he applied for a job in June 2016. (Doc. 5.) The case is presently before the Court on Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, in which Defendant argues that Plaintiff cannot show that he was a qualified individual under the ADA. (Doc. 50; doc. 50-1, pp. 10–21.) Defendant additionally argues that summary judgment should be granted on the issue of damages pursuant to an “after-acquired evidence” defense. (Doc. 50-1, p. 21). In response, Plaintiff contends that genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether he was a qualified individual under the ADA, (doc. 57, p. 5), and that a ruling on damages at the summary judgment stage is inappropriate, (doc. 73, p. 11). For the reasons which follow, the Court GRANTS Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, (doc. 50).[1]

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are relevant to the disposition of Defendant’s Motion and, except where specifically noted otherwise, are undisputed.

         Defendant operates a raw chicken processing plant in Claxton, Evans County, Georgia. (Doc. 5, p. 3; doc. 11, p. 2; doc. 58, p. 10.) At the plant, chickens are killed, eviscerated, cut up, and processed in various ways. (Doc. 58, p. 27.) The incident giving rise to this case took place in June 2016, when Plaintiff applied to work for Defendant.[2] (Doc. 5, p. 4.) It is undisputed, for purposes of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment that Plaintiff was legally blind at the time of this application.[3] (See Doc. 50-2, p. 1; doc. 57-1, p. 1.) While Plaintiff had previously worked for Defendant intermittently between 1998 and 2001, (doc. 63-1, pp. 24–28), the undisputed evidence indicates that his vision had worsened by the time he applied for re-hire in 2016, (see Id . at pp. 11–14, 24–28). As described more fully below, Plaintiff was given a conditional offer for a specific job, but Defendant ultimately refused to hire him after it received documentation from his medical provider regarding the limitations resulting from his vision issues. In this lawsuit, Plaintiff challenges Defendant’s refusal to hire him as well as its failure to engage in an “interactive process” to attempt to determine and provide a reasonable accommodation so that he could perform the job. (Doc. 5, pp. 14–15.)

         I. The Application and Interview Process

         Defendant’s application process has several different parts. (Doc. 50-1, p. 2.) First, applicants must complete an employment application. (Doc. 50-5, pp. 4–6.) Here, Plaintiff testified that a friend of his, who also drove him to the interview, helped him complete the application, explaining, “[H]e would read the questions out and I would give him the answer and he would fill it in[ because] he could write faster and see a lot better than I could.” (Doc. 63-1, p. 60.) Per Plaintiff’s deposition testimony, in the application, he specifically requested a “seasonal” job, which the Court construes from the context of the surrounding testimony as a reference to a job involved with the “seasoning” process (as opposed to a job that is only available during certain seasons or periods of the year).[4] (Doc. 63-1, pp. 61–62 see also doc. 73, p. 4 (where Plaintiff states, in his Sur-reply, that he “wrote on the application for the Defendant[] that he was applying for the position of seasoning meat . . .”).) Plaintiff’s application was given to Defendant’s human resources representative, Mr. Prater, who reviewed it and also reviewed Defendant’s record from his previous employment at the plant, in order to determine if Plaintiff had any disqualifying factors related to his prior employment and severance. (Doc. 50-5, p. 45; doc. 50-1, pp. 2–3.) After determining that nothing from Plaintiff’s previous employment with the company made him ineligible, Plaintiff was called in for an interview with Mr. Prater, who, according to Plaintiff, “got on his computer screen and . . . told [Plaintiff] that [the type of job he requested] was open.” (Doc. 50-6, pp. 2–3.) Plaintiff claims that Mr. Prater told him that the available position would involve “seasoning chicken, ” including “put[ting] it in the tub.” (Doc. 63-1, p. 62.) He also claims that at this point he discussed the fact that he was legally blind with Mr. Prater. (Id. at pp. 61–62.) According to Plaintiff, Mr. Prater told him that he would “be able to do this, ” that “it was a pretty easy job, ” and was “something [Plaintiff] can do.” (Id. at p. 62.) At this time, Mr. Prater gave Plaintiff a “conditional offer of employment” for the job. (Doc. 50-2, p. 6; doc. 57-1, p. 7; see also doc. 50-6, pp. 3, 6.) Plaintiff, however, would still need to be cleared for the employment by the plant nurse. (Do. 62-1, pp. 17, 21.)

         A. Plaintiff was Offered a Job as a “Marination Mixer”

         It is undisputed that the at-issue position was “on the seasoning line” at the plant. (See Doc. 50-2, p. 6; doc. 57-1, p. 7.) Plaintiff refers to it only as “meat seasoning” or “nugget seasoning, ” (doc. 5, pp. 8–9; doc. 57, p. 2), but there are multiple jobs on the seasoning line. Plaintiff’s testimony that he was being considered for a job involving the use of a “tub” to “season chicken” matches most closely the specific position on the plant’s seasoning line known as “marination mixer.” (Doc. 50-8, pp. 2–3; doc. 63-1, p. 62.) In an effort to refute this as the specific job that was offered to him, Plaintiff’s Brief in Opposition to Summary Judgment repeatedly asserts that the term “marination” was never used in Plaintiff’s interview and therefore this cannot be the position he was being offered. (Doc. 57, p. 2 (citing doc. 63-1, p. 50).) In support of his claim that the word “marination” was never used, Plaintiff cites to his own deposition transcript. However, the specific page to which he cites does not include any testimony on this point and is actually a portion of his testimony in which was discussing his 2015 interview for re-hire, not the at-issue 2016 interview. (See id.; see also id. at p. 10 (citing to “Monroe Depo Pg. 26, 1. 16–24, ” which also does not support this assertion).) Additionally, Plaintiff fails to point to any evidence to support a determination that the at-issue position was not the “marination mixer” job or to support a finding that Plaintiff’s description instead matches up with some other position at the plant.

         B. Overview of the Seasoning Line and the “Marination Mixer” Position

         Employees holding a marination mixer position at the plant are responsible for applying spices and seasoning to the chicken. (Doc. 50-8, p. 2.) The job requires the employee to operate and interact with multiple large machines: a “tumbler, ” a “hopper, ” and a “marination tank.” (Id.; see also doc. 50-9, p. 2.) Specifically, employees in this position must “lift[] and measure[] 30 pound bags of spices into a massive hopper to be mixed with . . . [raw] chicken pieces [that have already been placed in a] large tumbler, ” which is described as being “like a concrete mixer.” (Doc. 50-8, p. 2.) Employees must weigh and mix the seasoning exactly according to the specific instructions of each of Defendant’s customers. (Id.) The employees in this position also must “visually monitor the equipment” during the process, “to ensure that the chicken is tumbled and marinated for the correct amount of time.” (Id.) During the process, employees are also required to climb stairs, to use hand trucks to transport items, and to “unload” the batch from the tumbler at the end of the tumbling cycle. (Doc. 50-9, p. 2.) The area where the job is performed includes a conveyor belt that moves the marinated chicken pieces from the marination tank to an area where they are scooped and prepared for shipment. (Doc. 50-5, pp. 17–18; doc. 50–8, p. 2.)

         The other positions on the seasoning line are scooper/scale operator, packer, and floorman. (Doc. 50-8, p. 1.) All employees on the seasoning line are cross-trained to perform all of the jobs on the line to ensure that all jobs are covered in the event of employee absences or restroom breaks. (Id. at p. 2.) All of the positions on the seasoning line, however, involve interaction with or the operation of equipment and machinery. (Id.; see also docs. 50-10, 50-11, 50-12.)

         The plant environment in general presents varying hazards, including standing water, chicken fat and chicken pieces on the floor, water hoses “strewn about, ” moving conveyor belts, moving motorized pallet jacks and forklifts, and sharp cutting wheels. (Doc. 50-8, p. 3.) Defendant presented evidence that “[o]ne must often duck under machinery in order to move from one place to another, ” and, “in order to get to the seasoning lines from the entrance of the facility, one must walk through a very complicated maze of machinery and also avoid the hazards [already listed].” (Id.)

         II. The Medical Screening Process

         After conditionally offering Plaintiff the marination mixer position, Mr. Prater directed Plaintiff to the plant nurse’s office for the preemployment medical screening portion of the process, during which Plaintiff was required to fill out a medical questionnaire. (Doc. 50-6, p. 4; doc. 50-5, p. 9; see also doc. 61-1, pp. 15–16.) The questionnaire was designed to help Defendant determine whether an applicant can safely perform the at-issue job or whether there are any medical issues that could impact the applicant’s job performance. (Doc. 50-5, p. 9; doc. 50-7, p. 2.) If more information was needed, the plant nurse would tell the applicant to have his or her medical care provider fill out a Pre-employment Medical Screening Form. (Doc. 50-4, p. 38; doc. 50–5, p. 10; doc. 50-7, pp. 2–3.)

         On his medical questionnaire, Plaintiff wrote, inter alia, that he had a “little vision issue” and that he had previously hurt his wrist. (Doc. 50-2, p. 6; doc. 57-1, p. 7; see also doc. 50-4, pp. 36–37.) Annette Monroe, the plant nurse, reviewed the document and, in light of these two disclosures regarding potential physical limitations, she directed him to have both his general physician and his eye doctor complete Pre-employment Medical Screening forms (which she provided to him). (Doc. 61-1, pp. 17–18; doc. 63-1, p. 64; doc. 50-5, p. 12.) These forms list a variety of functions (i.e., “May carry up to 80 pounds, ” “Able to walk w/o restrictions, ” “Able to work near machinery, ” “Able to bend/turn/twist wrist, ” etc.) and has a space for the medical providers to circle “yes” or “no” regarding whether the patient is capable of performing the given function. (See Doc. 60-3, p. 2.) The form also has an area where it provides “[c]omments” or makes specific requests to the provider. (Id.) In her deposition, Ms. Monroe explained that these forms are used “[a]ny time that someone has a condition . . . that could cause them to be harmed if [Defendant] put them in [one of its] jobs, ” and that she uses these forms so that the applicant’s physician can tell her “what they can and can’t do.” (Doc. 61-1, p. 19.)

         The comments section of the form provided to Plaintiff’s general physician stated, in bold letters, “Please evaluate left wrist.” (Id.) It also provided some information about what the job could entail. (Id. (“May be lifting 40 pounds, may be walking or standing, bending or stooping, may be pulling skins, cutting with a knife or scissors . . . . May be doing 8 hours of repetitive work that involves hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders.”).) The general physician circled “yes” in response to all of the items on the form, wrote “No medical limit” next to “Max push/pull weight, ” and signed the form at the bottom. (Id.)

         Plaintiff also provided a form to Dr. Robert King at the Georgia Eye Institute. (Doc. 50-4, p. 38.) According to Plaintiff, he told Dr. King that this job would involve “seasoning the chicken and putting it in the tubs.” (Doc. 66-1, pp. 3–6.) Plaintiff did not inform Dr. King that any machinery would be involved in the job. (Id.) The comments section of the form provided to Dr. King stated, in bold letters, “Please evaluate vision vs[.] work environment.” (Id.) It also provided the same information as the general physician’s form (described above) regarding what the job could entail. (Id.) While Dr. King’s responses on the form affirmed that Plaintiff could perform most of the listed functions, he answered “no” regarding whether Plaintiff was “[a]ble to operat[e] equipment, ” and added a handwritten note stating: “not able to see well enough to operate equipment[;] can work in environment that does not require good vision.” (Doc. 50-4, p. 38.) Although he answered “yes” to the query “[a]ble to climb w/o restrictions, ” Dr. King wrote “not high levels” in the comment area next to it. (Id.) In the comments section where he was asked to “evaluate vision vs[.] work environment” (with the information about what the job could entail stated thereunder), he wrote: “Patient is visually impaired and is able to do job that does not require good vision.” (Id.) An additional note written by Dr. King in the bottom margin states: “Can use scissors only. No. sharp knives, saws, or machinery. Can work in job applied for.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff returned the Pre-employment Medical Screening Forms to Defendant. (Doc. 63-1, p. 65.) Based on the form completed by Dr. King, Defendant determined that Plaintiff could not perform any of the jobs on the seasoning line, including “marination mixer, ” either “with or without reasonable accommodation or without posing a direct threat to himself or others.” (Doc. 50-8, p. 3; doc. 61-1, pp. 26–27.) According to Plaintiff, Ms. Monroe told him that he could not work at Claxton Poultry until he got his “eyes fixed.” (Doc. 63-1, pp. 65, 69.) According to Plaintiff, he then asked Monroe if he could bring his vocational resource counselor to the plant and “let him walk through the plant and see the departments that were available for [him] to work, ” but Ms. Monroe told him no. (Doc. 63-1, p. 70; doc. 65-1, pp. 3–5.)

         III. Plaintiff Seeks Legal Recourse

         After filing a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), (doc. 50-4, p. 39; doc. 66-1, p. 12), Plaintiff requested a Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC, (doc. 5, p. 5). In December 2017, he filed a Verified Complaint initiating this lawsuit, (doc. 1), and subsequently filed the Amended Complaint, (doc. 5), alleging that Defendant violated his rights under the ADA. Specifically, he alleges that Defendant refused to hire him because of his disability and “refused to engage in the interactive process regarding any accommodation necessary for the Plaintiff to perform the essential functions of the job.” (Id. at p. 6). Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on February 4, 2019, (doc. 50), and Plaintiff filed a Response, (doc. 57). Defendant filed a Reply, (doc. 71), and Plaintiff filed a Sur-Reply, (doc. 73).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment “shall” be granted if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” FindWhat Inv’r Grp. v. FindWhat.com, 658 F.3d 1282, 1307 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A dispute is “genuine” if the “evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.

         The moving party bears the burden of establishing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. See Williamson Oil Co. v. Philip Morris USA, 346 F.3d 1287, 1298 (11th Cir. 2003). Specifically, the moving party must identify the portions of the record which establish that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Moton v. Cowart, 631 F.3d 1337, 1341 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). When the nonmoving party would have the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may discharge his burden by showing that the record lacks evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case or that the nonmoving party would be unable to prove his case at trial. See id. (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322–23 (1986)). If the moving party discharges this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and present affirmative evidence to show that a genuine issue of fact does not exist. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257.

         In determining whether a summary judgment motion should be granted, a court must view the record and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Peek-A-Boo Lounge of Bradenton, Inc. v. Manatee County, 630 F.3d 1346, 1353 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Rodriguez v. Sec’y for Dep’t of Corr., 508 F.3d 611, 616 (11th Cir. 2007)). However, “facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party only if there is a ‘genuine’ dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Id. (citation and emphasis omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff purports to bring claims against Defendant for violating the ADA by “fail[ing] to hire and fail[ing] to engage in the interactive process with Plaintiff.” (Doc. 5, p. 1.) The Amended Complaint focuses on Defendant’s failure to hire him in June 2016 and failure to “engage in the interactive process regarding any accommodation necessary for the Plaintiff to perform the essential functions of the job.” (Id. at pp. 4, 6.) In Count One of the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that he is a “qualified individual” pursuant to the ADA because, “according to [his] doctors, ” he, with or without reasonable accommodations, “can perform the essential functions of the job for which [he] applied, ” which he alleges “did not require the use of machines.” (Id. at pp. 13–14.) Plaintiff then asserts, within Count I, that Defendant violated ...


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