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Kelly Keehner v. the Jackson Laboratory

May 21, 2012



Plaintiff Kelly Keehner brought this action against her former employer, defendant The Jackson Laboratory, alleging various claims under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), Cal. Gov't Code § 12940 et seq., arising out of defendant's allegedly unlawful termination of plaintiff based on her physical disability. Defendant now moves for summary judgment on all claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.

I. Relevant Facts

Defendant is a nonprofit biomedical research organization with a mission to discover the genetic basis for preventing, treating, and curing human diseases. (Vandegrift Decl. ¶¶ 2, 7 (Docket No. 16-14).) Defendant breeds and uses mice as a research tool and supplies mice to laboratories and research institutions around the world. (Id. ¶¶ 8-9.)

Defendant hired plaintiff on May 10, 2010, to work at its Sacramento facility as an Animal Care Trainee I at an hourly rate of $12.25 per hour. (Lee Decl. Ex. A ("Pl.'s Dep.") at 29:18-21, 35:9-10 (Docket No. 16-3).) Plaintiff was hired as an "at-will" employee for a ninety-day introductory period that could be extended by defendant. (Id. at 30:5-32:13, Ex. C; McClure Decl. ¶ 4, Ex. B (Docket No. 16-12).) As an Animal Care Trainee I, plaintiff's duties consisted primarily of physical activities related to caring for the research mice. (Pl.'s Dep. at 73:20-74:19, 80:10-81:6, 99:24-100:1; Escobedo Decl. ¶ 3 (Docket No. 16-9).)

Trainees spent approximately two full days each typical work week conducting "animal welfare checks."*fn1 (Pl.'s Dep. at 79:13-20.) During animal welfare checks, a trainee visually checks each cage to determine if the mice look healthy or need food or water, and then refills the food or water if needed. (Id. at 73:5-74:19, 99:24-25, 100:1; Escobedo Decl. ¶ 3.) The remaining three full days each week are dedicated to "cage changes" and "inventory" in which the mice are transferred from dirty to clean cages with the use of forceps. (Pl.'s Dep. at 73:5-74:19, 79:13-21, 80:10-23; Escobedo Decl. ¶ 3.)

The majority of a trainee's job duties, including animal welfare checks and cage changes, occur in "barrier rooms" where the mice are bred. Before entering the sterile barrier room, an employee must shower and then change into scrubs, safety glasses, booties, hairnet, and a respirator. (Pl.'s Dep. at 33:21-34:23; Escobedo Decl. ¶ 4; Vandegrift Decl. ¶ 5.) Employees repeat the showering and changing procedure when moving between barrier rooms to prevent the transfer of contamination from one room to another. (Pl.'s Dep. at 33:21-34:23; Escobedo Decl. ¶ 4.)

On June 21, 2010, plaintiff reported a right arm and shoulder injury she allegedly sustained while repetitively using forceps to transfer mice between cages. (Pl.'s Dep. at 49:13-18.) Following the injury, defendant instructed plaintiff to pause once an hour to stretch and broke up plaintiff's daily activities. (Id. at 66:24-67:25, Ex. F.)

On June 23, 2010, plaintiff's physician instructed her to work more slowly and placed her on modified work duty. (Id. at 57:5-10, 69:21-70:12; Lee Decl. ¶ 5, Ex. C at 84.) Defendant reduced the number of cages that plaintiff was responsible for to roughly one half of her pre-injury responsibility. (Pl.'s Dep. at 58:4-7, 68:3-18.) Plaintiff's hourly wage remained the same during this period. (Id. at 88:4-11.) Plaintiff confirms that no one asked her to work faster, (id. at 58:13-14), but states that she felt pressured to do so because there was a lot of work to be done and her supervisor asked her if she felt that she could do more, (id. at 58:7-16).

When plaintiff had difficulty accomplishing her duties, she would ask her supervisors if she could do something else for a while to give her arm a break. (Id. at 59:17-21.) Plaintiff's requests were accommodated by her supervisors and she was provided alternate tasks. (Id. at 59:19-61:9.) Plaintiff did not make any other accommodation requests at this time. (Id. at 68:19-23.)

On July 27, 2010, plaintiff's physician further restricted plaintiff's ability to work by limiting the use of her right arm and shoulder and prohibiting any reaching above her right shoulder. (Id. at 98:25-99:7; Lee Decl. ¶ 5, Ex. C at 82.) As of July 30, 2010, defendant had plaintiff stop doing cage changes, a core job function, and limited her to animal welfare checks for the middle and bottom rows of cages. (Pl.'s Dep. at 99:13-20, 109:18-110:9, Ex. N.) In lieu of cage changes, plaintiff was assigned administrative work. (Id. at 110:11-19, 111:13-19; Escobedo Decl. ¶ 6; Ramos Decl. ¶ 5 (Docket No. 16-13).)

On August 6, 2010, defendant extended plaintiff's introductory period for an additional ninety days to allow her more time to learn the Trainee position. (Pl.'s Dep. at 117:21-118:20, 120:10-13, Ex. O.)

On August 18, 2010, defendant issued plaintiff a new schedule. Due to her injury, plaintiff requested additional time to change clothes when leaving the barrier room, more time in the barrier room, and less time in the administrative area. (Id. at 138:23-139:20, Ex. R.) Plaintiff also told defendant which specific tasks she felt she could perform in the barrier room. (Id. at 140:4-143:21, Ex. R.) Based on plaintiff's suggestions, defendant updated plaintiff's schedule and she had no further issues with the modified schedule. (Id. at 143:22-144:4, Ex. R.)

On August 23, 2010, plaintiff's physician ordered plaintiff to cease all work with her right arm. (Id. at 146:1-9; Lee Decl. ¶ 4, Ex. B at 81.) Defendant was unable to find tasks for plaintiff to perform with this restriction but allowed plaintiff to take temporary medical leave beginning on August 24, 2010. (Pl.'s Dep. at 147:24-148:13, Ex. S; Escobedo Decl. ¶ 7; Ramos Decl. ¶ 7.)

On September 27, 2010, plaintiff's physician modified plaintiff's restrictions to no lifting over ten pounds, no overhead work, and no repetitive use of her right arm (defined as "no more than ten minutes per half hour"). (Pl.'s Dep. at 152:15-153:9, 161:23-162:6, Exs. T, U; Lee Decl. ¶ 4, Ex. B at 61, 64.) Defendant would have permitted plaintiff to remain on disability leave longer to facilitate recovery, but plaintiff returned to work on October 1, 2010, because of personal financial reasons. (Pl.'s Dep. at 150:12-13, 151:18-152:8; Lux Decl. ¶ 4 (Docket No. 16-11).) Defendant provided plaintiff with a modified schedule and sought to incorporate plaintiff's medical appointments into the schedule. (Ramos Decl. ¶ 10.)

Under plaintiff's modified schedule, she was no longer required to provide mice with food and water during animal welfare checks and instead only had to check the cages to see if food and water was needed. (Pl.'s Dep. at 156:3-8; Escobedo Decl. ¶ 9.) When plaintiff reported difficulty marking the cages to report whether food or water was needed, defendant came up with ways for plaintiff to report the cages without having to write. (Pl.'s Dep. at 156:9-157:2, 163:22-164:22; Escobedo Decl. ¶ 9.) When plaintiff reported difficulty with filing documents in the administrative area, defendant requested that her physician provide a written restriction to that effect. (Pl.'s Dep. at 173:4-13, 174:10-23.) Plaintiff's modified duties also included photocopying, data entry, archiving, and stickering and strapping boxes, which plaintiff could do at that time. (Id. at 171:1-13, 172:22-173:1-22.)

On October 5, 2010, plaintiff's hourly rate was raised to $12.40 an hour even though she had not fulfilled the requirements of the Trainee position. (Id. at 185:6-17; McClure Decl. ¶ 6, Ex. D.)

On October 11, 2010, plaintiff was once against restricted by her physician from any use of her right arm. (Pl.'s Dep. at 192:2-5; Lee Decl. ¶ 4, Ex. B at 49.) Defendant had plaintiff stop working in the barrier room entirely because dressing and undressing was painful for plaintiff and instead scheduled her to read Standard Operating Procedures and review in vivo project folders. (Pl.'s Dep. at 185:19-25, 186:1-9, 188:8-189:1, 197:6-19, 198:25-199:11, Ex. W; Escobedo Decl. ¶ 10.)

On November 17, 2010, plaintiff underwent arthroscopic surgery on her right shoulder. (Pl.'s Dep. at 199:12-13.) Defendant allowed plaintiff to take medical leave for her surgery and recuperation and informed plaintiff that it was working to create a schedule to accommodate her restrictions. (Id. at 199:12-18, 201:11-18, 228:23-230:15, Ex. CC; Dominguez Decl. ¶ 3 (Docket No. 16-8).)

On January 5, 2011, plaintiff's physician changed her work restriction to no lifting over ten pounds, no pushing, no pulling, no overhead work, no repetitive use of her right arm, and to ice as needed. (Pl.'s Dep. at 223:9-24, Ex. BB; Lee Decl. ¶ 4, Ex. B at 37.) Defendant accommodated plaintiff's request that she be allowed to do exercises four times a day and ice her arm for twenty minutes after each exercise session. (Pl.'s Dep. at 260:23-262:10, Ex. EE; Lux Decl. ¶ 7, Ex. B.)

When plaintiff returned to work on January 13, 2011, defendant presented her with a Notice of Offer of Modified or Alternative Work ("Modified Work Offer") listing a description of duties, activities, and physical requirements of plaintiff's light-duty position. (Pl.'s Dep. at 231:1-8, Ex. DD; Dominguez Decl. ¶ 4, Ex. A.) Plaintiff's light duties were to read and understand study files, perform animal welfare checks, perform other Trainee duties in the barrier room, archive custom breeding folders, distribute mail, and catalogue tissue samples. (Pl.'s Dep. at 234:3-241:8, Ex. DD.) The physical requirements to complete plaintiff's modified work duties included dressing and undressing, walking, standing, sitting, typing, filing, writing, reading, lifting less than ten pounds, bending, stacking at normal height, opening doors, applying stickers, non-repetitive hand gripping, hand-held computer use, sweeping and mopping, wiping surfaces below the shoulder, and observing. (Id. at 248:10-250:23, Ex. DD.) Plaintiff understood that she was not taking over someone else's job when she performed the modified light duties and that she would eventually return to her Animal Care Trainee I position after she recuperated. (Id. at 307:4-16, 414:17-25, 415:1-3; Dominguez Decl. ¶ 4; Lux Decl. ¶ 6.)

Plaintiff believed that some of the light duties fell outside of her work restriction, however her physician had not told her specifically what duties were outside her restrictions. (Pl.'s Dep. at 254:6-255:25, 317:4-320:2, 382:11-14, Ex. E.) Defendant told plaintiff that she would be expected to complete the duties on the Modified Work Offer unless her physician specifically stated what activities she was unable to do. (Id. at 258:1-5, 270:1-6, 284:16-18.) Plaintiff called her physician's office to report that her restrictions needed to be more clearly defined because otherwise she would be expected to sweep, mop, and repetitively use her right arm. (Id. at 258:8-15.) Plaintiff faxed her physician a copy of the Modified Work Offer and her physician noted that she was no longer to sweep or mop and that she should not repetitively use her right arm. (Id. at 250:25-251:9, 258:18-22, Ex. DD; Lee Decl. ΒΆ 4, Ex. B at 26.) ...

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