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Stragapede v. City of Evanston

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 31, 2017

Biagio Stragapede, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
City of Evanston, Illinois, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued September 12, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 12 C 08879 - Edmond E. Chang, Judge.

          Before WOOD, Chief Judge, and Easterbrook and Sykes, Circuit Judges.

          Sykes, Circuit Judge.

         Biagio Stragapede worked in water services for the City of Evanston for 14 years. In 2009 he suffered a traumatic brain injury at home. The City placed him on a temporary leave of absence during his recovery and rehabilitation. When he was medically cleared to return to work, Stragapede resumed full-time employment with the City. After just a few weeks, however, the City again placed him on administrative leave and later terminated his employment. Stragapede sued for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., claiming that the City discriminated against him based on his disability.

         After a weeklong trial, the jury found the City liable and awarded $225, 000 in damages. The judge then held an evidentiary hearing on the issue of equitable remedies and concluded that Stragapede was entitled to backpay plus interest from the date he was fired until the time of judgment. The City moved for judgment as a matter of law, a new trial, and remittitur. All three motions were denied, and final judgment was entered for Stragapede.

         The City attacks the judgment in several respects. First, the City challenges the denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that Stragapede was not a qualified person under the ADA because he was unable to perform the essential functions of his job. Alternatively, the City argues that even if Stragapede was qualified, he posed a direct threat to himself and to others, which is a statutory defense to liability. Finally, the City argues that the judge incorrectly calculated the backpay award. We reject these arguments and affirm.

         I. Background

         From 1996 to 2010, Stragapede was employed as a water-services worker for the City of Evanston. The job entailed a variety of tasks, including finding leaks, testing water pressure, and replacing water meters.

         In September 2009 Stragapede suffered a traumatic brain injury at home. The City placed him on a leave of absence while he underwent rehabilitation. Before allowing Stragapede to return to work, the City required an evaluation by its occupational healthcare provider. The healthcare provider referred Stragapede to Dr. Zoran Grujic for a neurological assessment. Dr. Grujic examined Stragapede and advised the City that he was capable of returning to work. The doctor suggested, however, that the City prepare a work trial to test Stragapede's ability to perform the daily functions of his job in the field. From June 2 through June 4, the City gave Stragapede a three-day work trial, which he passed. On June 7 the City reinstated Stragapede to full-time employment.

         In anticipation of Stragapede's return to work, the City made two accommodations for him: He was permitted to be off-task to consult with his supervisors if he had any questions, and he could use a map, pen and paper, and a tape recorder as needed to perform his duties. From June 7 until June 22, Stragapede appeared to do his job without much trouble.

         Beginning on Wednesday, June 23, however, the City noticed some worrisome developments that continued over the following week. On that day Stragapede requested assistance to change out a water meter. The next day a city employee observed Stragapede driving through an intersection while looking down at his lap; the light was green, no pedestrians were present, and his momentary inattention did not result in an accident. On Friday Stragapede spent two hours at a job site installing a meter but was unable to complete the task. The following Monday Stragapede mistakenly went to the wrong location-Green Bay Road rather than Gross Point Road-for a "JULIE locate, " which involves locating and marking obscured water mains and sewer lines. On Wednesday Stragapede had another directional mishap, arriving at Colfax Place instead of Colfax Street for a water turn-on. Finally, on Thursday, July 1, Stragapede tripped on a set of steps and hurt his toes.

         Based on these incidents, on July 2 the City again placed Stragapede on administrative leave and relayed its concerns to Dr. Grujic. He responded with two letters-one in July and one in September. In the July letter, Dr. Grujic concluded that these incidents were related to Stragapede's brain injury In the September letter, Dr. Grujic wrote more pointedly that the incidents identified by the City rendered Stragapede unable to perform the essential functions of his job. On September 24 the City terminated Stragapede's employment.

         Stragapede sued the City alleging that he was fired because of his disability in violation of the ADA. A jury returned a verdict for Stragapede and awarded $225, 000 in damages. The judge then turned to the issue of equitable remedies, concluding that Stragapede was entitled to backpay plus interest from the date he was fired until the time of judgment. The judge did not award front pay. ...


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