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Heather v. Kreilkamp Trucking Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

August 28, 2019

MARK A. HEATHER, Plaintiff,
v.
KREILKAMP TRUCKING INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          J. P. STADTMUELLER U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendant, his former employer, discriminated against him on the basis of his disability, and failed to accommodate that disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). (Docket #1). According to Plaintiff's complaint, he worked for Defendant as a truck driver for fifteen years. He has suffered from osteoarthritis in his knee for much longer than that. In March 2015, Plaintiff suffered an acute injury to that same knee and took thirteen weeks of approved medical leave to recover.

         Plaintiff returned to work using a knee brace. However, it appears that the knee injury significantly slowed his work routine. In February 2016, Defendant changed Plaintiff's job duties to include more manual labor. He requested, and was granted, approval for an additional fifteen minutes to complete those tasks due to his disability. Also at that time, Defendant's third-party customer for whom Plaintiff was working complained about Plaintiff's work speed. Defendant removed Plaintiff from that position and assigned him to an over-the-road (“OTR”) position, which required longer drives outside Wisconsin.

         Plaintiff maintains that Defendant had several positions for local trucking available at the time. He asked for such a position so that he could continue receiving medical treatment for his knee. Defendant refused the request. Plaintiff nevertheless dutifully reported to the OTR job in March 2016, still wearing his knee brace. A manager told Plaintiff he was wearing the brace only for sympathy and that his medical treatments were unnecessary. Plaintiff was further informed that he needed to obtain a release from a doctor stating that he had no physical limitations before he would be allowed to return to work. Shortly thereafter Defendant terminated Plaintiff, citing his lack of speed and efficiency.

         As noted above, Plaintiff brings two claims under the ADA. First, he asserts that Defendant failed to provide him a reasonable accommodation for his disability, namely a local driving position. Second, Plaintiff contends that Defendant discriminated against him on the basis of his disability through the manager's comments and his eventual termination for “speed and efficiency” issues.

         Plaintiff filed this action on November 21, 2018. (Docket #1). Defendant was served in December 2018 and a scheduling conference was held on January 25, 2019. (Docket #11). The Court provided the parties with a schedule for the case which included a dispositive motion deadline of July 5, 2019. (Docket #12). There were no meaningful filings in the case until July 3, 2019, when Defendant filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Docket #16). Five days later, Defendant filed a motion for partial summary judgment. (Docket #17).

         The Court turns first to the motion for judgment on the pleadings. Preliminarily, the Court is baffled by Defendant's delay in presenting such a motion. The motion challenges the sufficiency of Plaintiff's allegations, and Defendant was in possession of his complaint for approximately seven months prior to filing the motion. Why Defendant chose to wait until the deadline for dispositive motions to seek a Rule 12 dismissal is beyond the Court's understanding.

         In any event, the motion is procedurally proper, so the Court will consider its merits. To state a claim for a failure to accommodate under the ADA, a plaintiff must allege that they are (1) a qualified person with a disability, (2) their employer was aware of their disability, and (3) the employer failed to reasonably accommodate their disability. Tarpley v. City Colleges of Chi., 752 Fed.Appx. 336, 349 (7th Cir. 2018). As for discrimination, a plaintiff must establish that (1) they are a person with a disability, (2) they are qualified to perform the essential functions of their job, with or without reasonable accommodation, and (3), they suffered an adverse employment action as a result of their disability. Guzman v. Brown Cty., 884 F.3d 633, 641 (7th Cir. 2018).

         Plaintiff's allegations easily satisfy both claims. He states that he has had osteoarthritis for decades, which was exacerbated by an acute injury in recent years. Despite these issues, he continued to work; before the injury, without a knee brace, and after the injury, with one. Defendant became aware of the disability through Plaintiff's medical leave, his subsequent requests for accommodation, and by simply viewing the knee brace when he wore it. Finally, Defendant refused to accommodate Plaintiff's disability by assigning him to one of the available local driving positions, and then terminated him for reasons stemming directly from the limitations imposed by his disability.

         Defendant desires far more specificity from Plaintiff than what he provides. In particular, Defendant believes that Plaintiff has not adequately pleaded the elements of a “disability” as defined in the ADA. This definition requires that the impairment in question substantially limits a major life activity, 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A), with such activities including walking, lifting, working, and performing manual tasks, id. § (2)(A). Defendant also questions whether Plaintiff's osteoarthritis, a common condition, should qualify as a disability. Defendant further contends that the complaint does not explain how it was on notice of Plaintiff's disability, or that the termination decision was casaully connected to the disability. Finally, Defendant's entire position is colored by its belief that a liberal notice pleading standard is not applicable to the complaint in light of the plausibility requirements stated in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).

         Defendant's demand for greater detail is not required by law. When addressing a motion for judgment on the pleadings, a court must apply the same standard of review as it would with a motion to dismiss. Adams v. City of Indianapolis, 742 F.3d 720, 727-28 (7th Cir. 2014). This standard requires the Court to accept all of Plaintiff's factual allegations as true and make all reasonable inferences in his favor. Id. at 728; Scherr v. Marriott Int'l, Inc., 703 F.3d 1069, 1073 (7th Cir. 2013). And, despite Defendant's contrary view, the federal courts still largely require mere notice pleading. Freeman v. Metro. Water Reclamation Dist. of Greater Chi., 927 F.3d 961, 965-66 (7th Cir. 2019).

         The recent Freeman opinion helps illuminate the standard of review as applied to an ADA case:

The general rule in federal court calls only for notice pleading, see Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007), but some theories of recovery require more detail than others in order to give the required notice. That is why we noted in Tate v. SCR Medical Transportation, 809 F.3d 343, 345 (7th Cir. 2015), that a plaintiff advancing a claim under the ADA must allege that he is disabled but, with or without reasonable accommodation, can still do the job. Normally he also must allege what exactly makes him disabled.
The district court here faulted Freeman for not alleging that his alcoholism substantially limits a major life activity. See Tate, 809 F.3d at 345-46. But we read Freeman's complaint as alleging that the District regarded him as an alcoholic, see 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(C), because of his suspended license for driving under the influence of alcohol, and then it concluded from his suspension that his alcoholism impaired his ability to work at any job that involves safely moving items across a facility. Because that activity includes a broad class of work, a jury could conclude that it is a major life activity. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(i)(1); Miller v. Ill. Dept. of Transp., 643 F.3d 190, 195- 97 (7th Cir. 2011). Freeman also alleged that he could fulfill his duties with a reasonable accommodation (bike, John Deere cart, or occupational permit), but that the District fired him anyway “due to” his ...

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