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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Optimal Solutions & Technologies, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 19, 2019



          Date Paula Xinis United States District Judge.

         This disability discrimination case concerns the termination of Michael Tyson from his employment at Defendant Optimal Solutions & Technologies, Inc. (OST). Pending before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 41), Defendant's motion to seal certain exhibits (ECF No. 40), Plaintiff Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) motion to strike the declaration of Samia Sikander (ECF No. 43) and Plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 42). The motions are fully briefed and no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. For the following reasons, the Court grants OST's motion to seal and denies the EEOC's motion to strike Samia Sikander as moot.[1] As for the summary judgment motions, the Court grants in part and denies in part the EEOC's partial motion and denies OST's motion.

         I. Background

         The following facts are undisputed. OST is a technology, engineering, and services contractor that serves governmental agencies and the private sector. ECF No. 41 at 8. OST is headquartered in McLean, Virginia, but has several other offices, including one in Hyattsville, Maryland. Id. At the Hyattsville location, OST serviced several contracts with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (“FEMA”). Id. at 9. An infrastructure group in the office helped service those contracts and included a help desk, systems engineers, SharePoint administrators, and other employees. Id.; ECF No. 42-3 at 4.

         SharePoint is a database that allows insurance adjusters working for FEMA to review documents in claims files. ECF No. 42-5 at 6. SharePoint administrators at OST managed two SharePoint servers for FEMA and were responsible for backing up the SharePoint servers and providing users access to sites within SharePoint. ECF No. 4-24 at 14. Mike Adibpour managed this infrastructure group, which fell under a larger business unit managed by Robert Wilkison. ECF No. 41-25 at 5-6; ECF No. 42-3 at 4. Adibpour directly supervised William Wang, a senior SharePoint administrator, Eric Zarnosky, a systems engineer, Samia Sikander, who worked the help desk, and Tyson. ECF No. 42-3 at 4-5; ECF No. 42-5 at 5; ECF No. 41-18 at 2-3.

         Tyson applied to OST on June 3, 2016, having spent years working in the IT field and with SharePoint. ECF No. 41-4 at 7; ECF No. 42-2 at 17-21. Days later, OST hired Tyson for the position of senior SharePoint Administrator. ECF No. 41-6 at 2; ECF No. 42-2 at 6. Adibpour was Tyson's direct supervisor. ECF No. 42-3 at 4.

         Tyson, like all new OST employees, was subject to a six month probationary period. ECF No. 41-5 at 16. The probationary period is designed to “see if the employee is a good fit with the company…[and] the role” and whether he is “able to perform the job duties.” ECF No. 41-26 at 16-7. Once an employee completes the probationary period, he is subject to a written progressive discipline policy to address employment related shortcomings. The policy provides for graduated responses to employment related issues, to include a verbal and written warning prior to termination. ECF No. 42-6 at 18; ECF No. 41-5 at 35-37.

         Tyson came to his new position at OST having struggled for six years with eye problems that included double vision, an inability to adduct his right eye (inability to turn his right eye outward), ptosis (drooping eyelid), and exophthalmos (protruding eye). ECF No. 42-4 at 3-5, 9. Just before Tyson started his new job, he had been diagnosed with a meningioma or a benign tumor located in the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. Id. at 9, 13, 15. Tyson's treating neurosurgeon, Dr. Howard Eisenberg, arrived at this diagnosis after reviewing the results of Tyson's MR scan and concluded that the tumor, which pressed on Tyson's optic nerve, most likely was causing the above-described symptoms. Id. at 6-7, 15; see also ECF No. 40-3. Dr. Eisenberg noted that the problem was “progressive” and referred Tyson to Dr. Robert Malyapa to begin proton beam radiation therapy, a novel and advanced treatment designed to shrink certain tumors. ECF No. 42-4 at 16. Treatment was set to begin around October 2016. ECF No. 42-2 at 14-15.

         Shortly after Tyson began at OST, he shared with Adibpour that he had a brain tumor. ECF No. 41-13 at 2; ECF No. 41-15 at 5. According to Tyson, the two men discussed their respective health conditions. ECF No. 41-23 at 35-36. Tyson also told Adibpour that he would receive treatment on his own time so he would not need to miss work, and that the targeted radiation would not have any side effects. Id.; ECF No. 41-15 at 5. Although Adibpour denies that this conversation ever took place, ECF No. 41-24 at 27-28, Tyson's coworker, Eric Zarnosky testified that he learned about Tyson's brain tumor from Adibpour and that on many occasions Adibpour expressed to Zarnosky concern about whether Tyson could do his job in light of his health condition. ECF No. 42-5 at 18, 20, 22; see also ECF No. 42-7 ¶¶ 16, 18 (OST coworker Timothy Connor's sworn declaration as to having learned of Tyson's brain tumor from Adibpour and of his concern that Tyson would not be able to perform his job adequately).

         During the time Tyson worked at OST, he and Wang were at odds. ECF No. 41-18 ¶ 11; ECF No. 41-24 at 20-21. Although Wang had worked at OST far longer than Tyson, Wang had become widely known for his abrasive and combative demeanor. See ECF No. 42-5 at 13-14 (Zarnosky describing incident in which Adibpour stated Wang needed to be fired); id. at 15 (“[e]verybody in that office had an issue with [Wang] at some point. [Wang] had some type of confrontation with almost every person he interacted with);[2] id. at 31; ECF No. 41-27 at 4 (OST employee Stephanie Ankrah describing that Wang behaved disrespectfully and yelled at her, which she reported to Adibpour); id. at 9 (Ankrah describing Wang having lunged at another female employee); ECF No. 42-7 ¶ 9 (Connor describing Wang as “often combative and challenged people over obscure technical matters”). Others, including Zarnosky, also expressed concern that Wang could not perform the necessary job requirements. ECF No. 42-5 at 14, 16- 17; ECF No. 42-7 ¶ 8. Adibpour, prior to learning of Tyson's brain tumor, had even discussed with Zarnosky his intent to fire Wang once Tyson familiarized himself with the FEMA SharePoint system. ECF No. 42-5 at 13, 15, 18, 31; ECF No. 41-22 at 4.

         On September 14, 2016, Tyson, Wang and Zarnosky engaged in a heated email exchange, culminating with Tyson emailing his two coworkers to “stop this nonsense and just LOG ON TO THE SERVER!!”. ECF No. 42-6 at 26-29. This exchange took place on the FEMA email system, and thus was accessible to OST's client. Id.

         On September 27, 2016, Adibpour issued Wang and Zarnosky verbal warnings for the email exchange. ECF No. 47-9 at 2-3. Tyson, in contrast, was terminated. ECF No. 41-13. ECF No. 41-21 at 8-10. Mary Homer, OST's head of Human Capital Management, explained that Wang received only a warning because he was no longer a probationary employee, whereas Tyson, with only three months at OST, was fired because he was still on probation. ECF No. 41-21 at 8, 14. However, Homer also acknowledged that all OST personnel are at-will employees, subject to termination at any time. Id. at 19-20.

         Tyson filed a formal charge of disability discrimination with the EEOC, and the agency elected to pursue the claim against OST. ECF No. 41-13. In the Complaint filed before this Court, the EEOC alleges that OST discriminated against Tyson when it fired him on account of an actual and perceived disability, in violation of Section 102(a) of Title I of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). ECF No. 1 ¶ 22.

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the Court, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, finds no genuine disputed issue of material fact, entitling the movant to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Emmett v. Johnson, 532 F.3d 291, 297 (4th Cir. 2008). “A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of [his] pleadings,' but rather must ‘set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). “A mere scintilla of proof . . . will not suffice to prevent summary judgment.” Peters v. Jenney, 327 F.3d 307, 314 (4th Cir. 2003). Importantly, “a court should not grant summary judgment ‘unless the entire record shows a right to judgment with such clarity as to leave no room for controversy and establishes affirmatively that the adverse party cannot prevail under any circumstances.'” Campbell v. Hewitt, Coleman & Assocs., Inc., 21 F.3d 52, 55 (4th Cir. 1994) (quoting Phoenix Sav. & Loan, Inc. v. Aetna Casualty & Sur. Co., 381 F.2d 245, 249 (4th Cir. 1967)). Where the party bearing the burden of proving a claim or defense “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial, ” summary judgment against that party is likewise warranted. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

         “Where, as here, cross motions for summary judgment are filed, a court must ‘evaluate each party's motion on its own merits, taking care [in each instance] to draw all reasonable inferences against the party whose motion is under consideration.'” Snyder ex rel. Snyder v. Montgomery Cty. Pub. Sch., No. DKC 2008-1757, 2009 WL 3246579, at *5 (D. Md. Sept. 29, 2009) (quoting Mingus Constructors, Inc. v. United States, 812 F.2d 1387, 1391 (Fed. Cir. 1987)).

         III. Analysis

         The parties cross move for summary judgment on whether Tyson is protected under the ADA. The parties also vigorously dispute whether OST fired Tyson because of his brain tumor or because of poor job performance. The Court first discusses the pertinent statutory and regulatory framework, and then turns to the parties' cross motions.

         A. The ...

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