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Estate of Allen v. Baltimore County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 20, 2017

ESTATE OF ALFRED ALLEN, JR.
v.
BALTIMORE COUNTY, MARYLAND

          MEMORANDUM

          Catherine C. Blake United States District Judge.

         The plaintiff, the Estate of Alfred Allen, Jr., [1] has sued the defendant, Baltimore County, Maryland, for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and requests damages in the form of back pay. He claims the County forced him to resign from his job despite his ability to perform the essential functions of his position with or without reasonable accommodations. After a trial resulted in a hung jury, the parties now ask the court, pursuant to Rule 52(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, to issue findings of fact and conclusions of law. For the reasons stated below, the court finds that the County violated the ADA and Allen is entitled to back pay.

         Background

         Allen was hired by the Baltimore County Department of Corrections in 2001, (8/4/15 Trial T. at 191, ECF No. 166), a year after he was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, (id. at 193), an inflammatory disease that forms harmful nodules in affected organs if left untreated. (8/5/15 Trial Tr. at 7-8, ECF No. 167). Over the course of nine years with the Department, Allen's sarcoidosis affected his employment only twice. This action arises out of the second incident.[2]

         A sarcoidosis flare-up struck Allen in 2010. (8/4/15 Trial T. at 198). To recover, Allen requested leave in May of that year and light duty status when he returned to work in August. (Id. at 198-99). Allen served as a light duty officer for seven months; the Department does not have an express policy limiting the time an employee may spend on light duty, (8/3/15 Trial T. at 83, ECF No. 165).[3]

         Five months into Allen's light duty service, Department Director James P. O'Neill saw Allen struggling to walk and began a formal inquiry into Allen's fitness for duty. (8/4/15 Trial T. at 13-14). On January 11, 2011, Allen was examined by Dr. Peter Oroszlan, a doctor chosen by the Department, who found Allen “unable to perform the essential duties . . . of a Correctional Officer safely, consistently and reliably . . . . [I]t is unlikely that his overall condition . . . will significant[ly] improve in the near . . . future.” (Pl.'s Ex. 25, ECF No. 195). Dr. Oroszlan is not a rheumatologist and had never treated someone with a sarcoidosis case like Allen's, (8/6/15 Trial T. at 54, ECF No. 168). He did not find Allen unable to perform the duties of his light duty position; indeed, Allen performed light duty service without incident until the Department told him he had to leave his position February 2011. (8/4/15 Trial T. at 204, 208).

         Upon receiving the results from Allen's medical examination, Department administration decided, without further investigation or collaboration with Allen, to send Allen an “options letter.” The letter presented Allen with three options: transfer to a position for which he was qualified, resign, or face termination. (Pl.'s Ex. 26).[4] Notably, an earlier draft of the letter included a fourth option for a general leave of absence. (8/4/15 Trial T. at 154).

         Upset by the letter, Allen and his wife called Deputy Director Deborah Richardson to plead for his job back. (8/5/15 Trial T. at 160-61). Richardson told them she could not withdraw the options letter, (id.), but Allen could apply for two open civilian positions in the Department, one in security and a higher paying one in records, (id. at 147-48). Allen settled on the records clerk position and asked for two weeks to collect himself before starting his new job. (8/4/15 Trial T. at 216-17).

         Two weeks later, Allen was asked to, and did, sign a form titled “Request for Voluntary Demotion.” (Id. at 100-01). Allen testified, however, that he felt he “had no other choice but to sign [the form].” (8/5/15 Trial T. at 100-03). A month later, Allen's personal doctor, Dr. Stephen P. George, a rheumatologist, sent a letter to the Department objecting to Dr. Oroszlan's assessment of Allen's sarcoidosis and insisting, because he responded well to treatment, that Allen should be reinstated to his position. (Pl.'s Ex. 36). The letter came after a March 3, 2011, visit when Dr. George first learned of Allen's employment changes and felt obligated to inform the Department of Allen's “clearly reversible disease.” (8/5/15 Trial T. at 20). According to Dr. George, Allen had shown “remarkable improvement” by the end of January 2011 and recovered full function by early March. (Id. at 18-19, 71-72). Indeed, Allen won a perfect attendance award the same year he received the options letter. (8/4/15 Trial T. at 11, 193).

         A few months later, Allen filed a charge with the EEOC claiming the County violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Pl.'s Ex. 67). The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission granted Allen the right to sue, and Allen filed his complaint in this court in October 2013. In 2014, while this case was proceeding, the Department reinstated Allen to his correctional officer position. (Id. at Ex. 37). After a trial in August 2015 resulted in a hung jury, the plaintiff withdrew his claim for damages other than back pay. The parties agreed to a bench trial on the remaining issues based on the exhibits and testimony the court had already heard, and submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law in 2017. Before the court could reach a decision, however, Allen passed away. Allen's Estate took his place in this lawsuit. (ECF No. 215).

         Analysis

         Allen claims the County violated the ADA by discharging him from his position as a correctional officer because he could perform the essential functions of his job with reasonable accommodations and his reassignment was an involuntary adverse employment action.

         I. Unlawful Discharge under the ADA

         Under the ADA it is illegal for an employer to “discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). The Act requires Allen to prove: (1) he had a disability; (2) he was “qualified” to perform his job; and (3) he suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability.[5] Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 572 (4th Cir. 2015). The County no longer disputes the existence of Allen's disability but does insist Allen was unable to perform his job adequately and that he voluntarily accepted what he now argues was an adverse employment action.

         A. Qualified Individual

         An employee is a “qualified individual” if he is able to perform the essential functions[6]of his position “with or without reasonable accommodation, ” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8), at the time of the alleged adverse employment action. E.E.O.C. v. Stowe-Pharr Mills, Inc., 216 F.3d 373, 377, 379 (4th Cir. 2000). A reasonable accommodation under the Act includes “job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, ” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(9)(B), and “permitting the use of accrued paid leave or providing additional unpaid leave for necessary treatment, ” Wilson v. Dollar General Corp., 717 F.3d 337, 344-45 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o). If the accommodation includes leave, the employee must show, “at the point at which he would have returned from leave, he could have performed the essential functions of his job.” Id. at 346. An accommodation is not reasonable if it would present an undue hardship to the employer. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A).

         The ADA requires an employer to engage in an “interactive process to arrive at a suitable accommodation collaboratively with the employee, ” Summer v. Altarum Institute, Corp., 740 F.3d 325, 331 n.4 (4th Cir. 2014), generally after “an employee communicates to his employer his disability and his desire for an accommodation for that disability, ” Wilson, 717 F.3d at 346-47. When an employer is aware of its employee's disability and need for an accommodation, however, “it may be necessary for the covered entity to initiate an informal, interactive process with the individual with a disability in need of the accommodation.” 1630.2(o)(3). This position respects the ADA's statutory focus on notice. See Taylor v. Phoenixville Sch. Dist., 184 F.3d 296, 313 (3d Cir. 1999) (“What matters under the ADA [is] . . . ...


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