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Johns v. Brennan

United States District Court, E.D. California

May 26, 2017

TONIA JOHNS, Plaintiff,
v.
MEGAN J. BRENNAN, POSTMASTER GENERAL, UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, Defendant.

          PHILLIP A. TALBERT United States Attorney VICTORIA L. BOESCH Assistant United States Attorney, Attorneys for Postmaster General Megan L. Brennan.

          ORDER GRANTING POSTMASTER GENERAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          HON. JOHN A. MENDEZ UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         United States Att 00 Attorneys for Postmaster General Megan L. Brennan The Postmaster General respectfully submits the following proposed order reflecting the Court's ruling during the May 16, 2017 hearing that granted summary judgment to the Postmaster General on all of Plaintiff's remaining claims. The Postmaster General provided this order to Plaintiff's counsel for her review. Plaintiff's counsel provided extensive proposed edits, some of which the Postmaster General incorporated. The Postmaster General then provided the revised order to Plaintiff's counsel, who indicated that she would not object to this version.

         The parties in this employment discrimination case filed cross motions for summary judgment on Plaintiff Tonia Johns' three claims for (1) failure to accommodate her disability resulting in constructive termination, (2) failure to engage in the interactive process to provide a reasonable accommodation for her disability, and (3) interference with her right to medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (the “FMLA”). After considering the parties' submissions and oral arguments, the Court grants the Postmaster General's summary judgment motion and denies Johns' summary judgment motion.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The record before the Court reveals the following facts. Where the parties submitted evidence from which a jury could reach different conclusions, the Court views the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff Johns.

         A. Johns' Employment with the Postal Service

         Tonia Johns worked for the United States Postal Service from approximately December 2012 to February 27, 2014. In February 2014, Johns worked as a Postmaster Relief (“PMR”) at the Amador City Post Office. The Amador City Post Office is a small office that, since 2012, has been open only four hours a day on weekdays. Johns worked alone at Amador City from approximately 12:25 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Her duties there included receiving and sorting mail and distributing mail to Post Office boxes and to customers. Johns also picked up extra hours working at the Sutter Creek Post Office when mail volume there was high. She generally worked for 10 to 15 hours per week at Sutter Creek, where she distributed mail to Post Office boxes, a task referred to as “boxing mail.”

         B. Johns' Initial Termination and FMLA leave

         Johns broke her neck in a car accident on February 28, 2014. Her doctors placed her completely off work from February 28, 2014, to September 8, 2014, because of her broken neck.

         On March 6, 2014, the computer system of the Postal Service's centralized FMLA center made an automated determination that Johns was ineligible for FMLA leave. Though Postal Service employees did not realize it at the time, this determination was incorrect. A glitch in the computer system caused the incorrect determination based on a break in service that Johns had when she switched from one Postal job to another in approximately October 2013. The computer's determination generated a March 6, 2014 letter to Johns telling her that she was not eligible for FMLA leave. It also caused the Postal Service's leave management system (the “eRMS” system) to indicate to Postmaster Debra Baker that Johns' FMLA leave had been disapproved.

         On March 25, 2014, Johns mailed in an FMLA application and her husband informed Postmaster

         Baker that Johns had submitted the application. Postmaster Baker, who had learned from the eRMS system that Johns' FMLA leave had been disapproved, conferred with Labor Relations Specialist Sukhdeep Singh about whether she could terminate Johns' employment. He agreed that removal was appropriate. On March 26, 2014, believing that Johns' absence was not FMLA protected, Postmaster Baker sent Johns a notice of termination for being unavailable to work. The next day, after receiving the termination notice, Johns filed an EEO complaint alleging discrimination for wrongful termination. (Plaintiffs Undisputed Fact 15). The day after that, the Postal Service FMLA center sent Johns a letter stating that she was eligible for FMLA leave and inviting her to submit medical documentation to seek approval of such a leave. The FMLA center's records show that it sent that letter based on a call from Johns informing them of her correct Postal Service start date, leading the center to correct the computer error based on Johns' break in service. (King Decl. Ex. A).

         After filing her EEO complaint, Johns had two conversations with Postal Service EEO Specialist Trent Andrews in which he offered money to settle her claims. (Plaintiffs Undisputed Fact 16). On both calls, Johns refused the offers of monetary resolution and asked the Postal Service to reinstate her to her job. (Plaintiffs Undisputed Fact 17). Trent Andrews did not offer to reinstate Johns and told her that her job “was not on the table.” (Plaintiffs Undisputed Fact 18). On approximately May 12, 2014, Johns informed Andrews that she would be retaining an attorney. (Plaintiffs Undisputed Fact 19).[1]

         After becoming aware that Johns had been FMLA eligible at the time of her termination, Postal Service management rescinded her termination on May 16, 2014. Though the FMLA center had received Johns' FMLA medical documentation certification in April 2014, it had been unable to process it because of Johns' termination. After her reinstatement, the FMLA center processed the certification and sent Johns a May 27, 2014 letter approving her for 12 weeks of FMLA leave from February 28, 2014, to May 23, 2014.

         C. The Interactive Process and Reasonable Accommodation

         On June 3, 2014, Noah Rodriguez sent Johns a letter inviting her to meet with the Postal Service's District Reasonable Accommodation Committee (“DRAC”). That letter invited Johns to call Rodriguez at the DRAC phone number with any questions regarding the reasonable accommodation process. Accompanying the letter was a brochure explaining that process. The next day, Johns filled out and returned a form confirming her interest in the DRAC process. Two weeks later, she filled out and returned an Initial Interactive Process Questionnaire. In that June 2014 questionnaire, Johns stated that she was currently unable to work because of a broken neck. Asked what she needed to enable her to perform the full duties her job, she indicated that she needed an extension of her medical leave so that she could heal. Johns also submitted a work status report to the Postal Service in which her doctor placed her off work from June 4, 2014 through July 13, 2014. Johns remained on unpaid leave during this time.

         In early July 2014, Rodriguez sent Johns a letter inviting her to participate in a phone meeting with DRAC on July 22, 2014. A week after that letter, Rodriguez sent another letter requesting that Johns submit medical documentation in advance of the July 22 meeting. On July 22, Johns met with DRAC by phone. She stated that she had medical appointments scheduled in late July and early August and that she would provide Postal Nurse Mary Alice Gower with updated medical information after those appointments. Rodriguez sent Johns a July 22, 2014 letter reflecting all of this and instructing her to contact Human Resources at the DRAC phone number with any questions. Johns subsequently submitted work status reports to the Postal Service in which her doctor placed her off work from July 28, 2014 through September 8, 2014. Johns remained on unpaid leave during this time.

         Approximately six weeks after the July DRAC meeting, on September 5, 2014, Rodriguez sent Johns a letter inviting her to participate in another DRAC meeting on September 23, 2014, and asking her to call the DRAC number to confirm. On September 9, 2014, Johns broke her ankle, resulting in her doctor putting her completely off work through mid-October 2014, and restricting her activities (including allowing her to lift/carry/push/pull no more than 0 pounds) from that date through late November 2014. Johns remained on unpaid leave throughout that time.

         About a week before the September 23 scheduled DRAC meeting, Rodriguez sent Johns a letter referencing a phone message Johns left at the DRAC number indicating that she was not ready for the DRAC process at that time because of surgery. That letter told Johns to call the DRAC number if she would like to schedule a DRAC meeting in the future. Five days later, Rodriguez sent Johns another letter noting that, per her recent medical documentation, her return to work date appeared uncertain. In light of this uncertainty, the letter informed Johns, the DRAC was administratively closing her file. The letter went on to instruct her to call the DRAC number to schedule an appointment if she wanted to meet with DRAC to discuss reasonable accommodation upon her return to duty.

         Administratively closing a DRAC file means that DRAC does not pursue the matter for a while pending receipt of further information from the employee indicating that there may be a reasonable accommodation that would allow that employee to perform the essential functions of her job. The employee is free at any time to call the DRAC number and schedule an appointment with DRAC if she believes that conditions have changed such that a new or different reasonable accommodation is now possible. When an employee does so, DRAC meets with her (by phone or in person) to determine whether a new or different reasonable accommodation would allow her to perform the essential functions of her job. Administrative closure simply acknowledges that the file is dormant for some time.

         Johns called the DRAC number on October 21, 2014, and spoke to the DRAC secretary, telling her that Johns did not want DRAC to close her file. The DRAC secretary instructed Johns to continue updating Nurse Gower with Johns' medical information. That same day, Johns called Nurse Gower, who was on DRAC, to update her on Johns' medical condition. In Johns' October and/or November 2014 conversations with Nurse Gower, Johns talked to Nurse Gower about the possibility of boxing mail at the Sutter Creek office.[2] (Johns Supp. Decl. ¶ 6). At that time, Johns was in a walking boot because she had broken her ankle. Johns told Nurse Gower that she might need a small stool to rest her foot on while standing and a medical knee walker to move around. Nurse Gower told Johns that these requests did not seem unreasonable and that she would pass them on to DRAC. (Johns Supp. Decl. ¶ 6). Nurse Gower also told Johns that, as the OHNA (Occupational Health Nurse Administrator), she was not responsible for job assignments. (Minkler Decl. Ex. H (Gower Notes), Ex. V (Gower Depo. 73:15-74:7)). In Johns' November 2014 conversation with Nurse Gower, Johns also stated that she was eager to return to work under Sutter Creek Postmaster Mary Fine, whom Johns liked. Nurse Gower emailed Johns' updated medical information to Postmaster Mary Fine and Labor Relations Manager Tawnya King and suggested a referral to DRAC. Postmaster Fine informed DRAC that she had received updated medical information from Johns. Neither DRAC nor anyone else from the Postal Service contacted Johns about her proposed accommodation. During October and November 2014 (and up through January 4, 2015), Johns remained on unpaid leave, and her doctors restricted her activities by prohibiting her from twisting her torso/spine and allowing her to lift/carry/push/pull no more than 0 pounds.

         The evidence in the record before the Court shows that boxing mail involves first moving tubs and trays full of mail that weigh on average from 10 to 25 pounds to the box sections. In the Sutter Creek Post Office, there are six box sections with different numbers of boxes in each section and a variety of box sizes. One of the largest box sections includes 180 boxes. The boxes go from eleven inches off the ground to approximately seventy-one inches from the ground. When boxing mail, the first step is to move a tub or tray to the appropriate box section. Then, one takes mail (letters, manila envelopes, magazines, newspapers, and smaller parcels weighing from one ounce up to 15 to 20 pounds) from the trays and/or tubs and puts it into the Post Office box identified in the address on the piece of mail at whatever level the box resides. This requires constant reaching, stooping, and turning to put mail into the various boxes. Boxing mail also involves moving parcels to the parcel lockers immediately outside of the Post Office and returning parcels that will not fit into the ...


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