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Ford v. Marion County Sheriff's Office

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

November 15, 2019

Brigid A. Ford, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Marion County Sheriff's Office, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued September 5, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. l:15-cv-1989-WTL-DML - William T. Lawrence, Judge.

          Before Sykes, Hamilton, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.

          Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiff Brigid Ford worked as a deputy in the Marion County Sheriff's Office until her hand was seriously injured in a car accident while on duty. After assigning Ford to light duty for about a year, the Sheriff's Office told Ford that she must either transfer to a permanent position with a cut in pay or be terminated. After some back and forth, Ford accepted a civilian job as a jail visitation clerk. In the following years, Ford alleges, she suffered disability- based harassment by co-workers, refusals to accommodate her scheduling needs, and several discriminatory promotion denials. Ford sued the Sheriff's Office for discriminatory employment practices in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.

         The district court granted summary judgment on most of Ford's claims. Two claims were tried to a jury, which rendered a verdict for the defense. Ford has appealed and raised a host of issues. We affirm. The district court correctly granted summary judgment on numerous claims and committed no reversible error in the trial.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Ford had worked at the Sheriff's Office for almost a dozen years when, in April 2012, another driver ran a red light and crashed into her patrol vehicle. Since 2008, Ford had worked as a sworn deputy sheriff in the warrants unit, locating and arresting people with outstanding warrants. The crash severely injured Ford's dominant right hand. Despite extensive treatment, she has not recovered full use of her hand. She suffers ongoing and sometimes debilitating pain in her lower arm.

         In the wake of the accident, the Sheriff's Office placed Ford on various light duty tasks for about a year while she pursued treatment. It became clear that Ford physically could not resume her work as a deputy sheriff, in the warrants unit or otherwise.

         A. Demotion to Visitation Clerk

         In June 2013, Angela Grider, the Sheriff's Office's director of human resources, and Eva Talley-Sanders, the chief deputy, held a meeting with Ford that she calls the "three choices" meeting. Ford's claims based on the ensuing events were resolved on summary judgment, so we recount the facts in the light most favorable to her. See Brown v. Milwaukee Board of School Directors, 855 F.3d 818, 820 (7th Cir. 2017). Grider and Talley-Sanders told Ford that she could either (a) accept a civilian clerk position in the Main Control office with a cut in pay, (b) resign, or (c) be fired.

         The day after the meeting, Ford sent Grider an email requesting accommodation under the ADA. Ford said that she wanted to work and believed she could do so with reasonable accommodations for her complex regional pain syndrome. She asked for the "ADA form" for her doctor to fill out. Over the following weeks, Ford and Grider emailed back and forth concerning Ford's request for accommodation and whether the clerk position would suit her needs and abilities.

         In a July 12 letter, Ford described accommodations that she believed might enable her to perform the main control clerk job. She requested a hands-free telephone, voice-activated software for her computer, an ergonomic work station, the ability to take breaks when needed to alleviate her pain, and training for her supervisors. Two months later, Grider responded in a letter granting each of these requests except the voice-activated software.

         The final exchanges concerning Ford's ultimate placement occurred in late September. Ford sent an email to Grider on September 20, 2013 asking if the Main Control clerk was the only open civilian position. Grider responded that it was the "only position where we are able to meet the limitations of your request." Ford persisted, asking if Grider could provide her with a list of open civilian positions. Grider did not respond to this request. Three days later, Ford emailed again to accept the position as a Main Control clerk. Only then did Grider respond. She described Ford's pending requests about other possible assignments as "now a moot issue." Ford then shadowed other workers in various clerk roles, including "basement control/' "book-out," and jail visitation. She ultimately accepted a position in the Visitation Office starting on October 3, 2013.

         B. Conflict with Co-Workers in the Visitation Office

         Ford alleges that in her work in the Visitation Office, she suffered almost three years of disability harassment. She clashed repeatedly with her co-workers, first Carol Ladd and Eva Watts, who worked in the Visitation Office from October 2013 to December 2014, and later with Vashni Hendricks, who worked there from January 2015 to July 2016. Ford contends that these conflicted relationships and the Sheriff's Office's failure to address them created a hostile work environment based on her disability.

         Before turning to the facts of the alleged disability harassment, we note the split procedural posture of this claim. On summary judgment, the district court found that no reasonable jury could impose liability on the Sheriff's Office based on the evidence of harassment by Hendricks from January 2015 to July 2016, primarily because Ford did not alert supervisors that the friction stemmed from Hendricks's hostility to her disability. The court denied summary judgment, however, based on the evidence of the earlier harassment by Ladd and Watts. The jury ruled for the Sheriff's Office. Section II of this opinion addresses the propriety of dividing Ford's hostile work environment claim. For now, we summarize both the facts that were before the jury and Ford's account of Hendricks's conduct.

         Ford and Ladd had disputes from the start. On October 3, 2013, Ford's first day in the Visitation Office, Ford went to Grider and "broke down in tears" describing Ladd's alleged bullying, unhelpfulness, and insensitivity to Ford's disability. At trial, Grider testified that she discounted this allegation because Ladd did not "even know about [Ford's] disability at that moment." Ladd testified and denied that she had made any disparaging remarks to Ford on that date. Over the next four months, Ford did not make any written complaints, but she testified at trial that Ladd was harassing her constantly during that time. Ford testified that Ladd mocked Ford's workstation accommodations, adjusted Ford's chair into uncomfortable positions, and disrupted work with loud speak-erphone conversations.

         At the start of February 2014, Ford sent the first of many written complaints to one of her supervisors, Lieutenant James Walterman, regarding Ladd's behavior. Watts began working with Ford and Ladd in the Visitation Office soon after that, and Ford testified that Watts began harassing her as well. Ford relied on a tally of her emails and memos to Walterman as proof of the disability harassment and the failure of the Sheriff's Office to address it. Lieutenant Walterman acknowledged at trial that he received three memos from Ford reporting, among other things, that Ford used more pain medicine because of Ladd's animosity, that Ford overheard Ladd disparaging her disability, and that Ladd pushed Ford physically with her chair. Ford offered as evidence a total of fifteen memos and emails to Lieutenant Walterman during this time with similar allegations.

         The Sheriff's Office argued at trial that these memos reported only ordinary disputes about how to do the work of a visitation clerk rather than complaints of disability harassment. Walterman testified that he believed Ford took issue with how Ladd did her work. Two other co-workers-not otherwise involved in the suit-testified that Ford, Ladd, and Watts argued a lot about how to do the work correctly. Walterman also testified that he believed any bumps between coworkers in the cramped Visitation Office were inadvertent.

         Ford's memos themselves lent some support to the Sheriff's Office defense. Ford complained that Ladd was too permissive with inmates' visitors, that she made personal calls at work, that she criticized Ford's leaving callers on hold, and that she did not say good morning. Ford complained that Watts left early and took work documents home, and that she told Ladd to ignore Ford.

         The Sheriff's Office ultimately decided to transfer Ladd and Watts out of the Visitation Office effective December 27, 2014 and January 3, 2015, respectively. At trial, Ford said that Ladd and Watts's departure "remedied" their conflict.

         The jury concluded in a special verdict that Ford was "subjected to negative comments and behavior by Ladd and Watts," and that "this conduct by Ladd and Watts was unwelcome." But the jury then found that Ford had failed to prove that the unwelcome conduct "occurred because of the Plaintiff's disability," thus ruling for the Sheriff's Office on Ford's claim of a hostile work environment. Neither party objected to the use of the special verdict form.

         After Ladd and Watts left the Visitation Office, Vashni Hendricks began working there with Ford. Ford alleges that Hendricks immediately began harassing her because of her disability. As noted, the district court granted summary judgment on this portion of her claim, primarily on the ground that Ford did not alert supervisors that friction with Hendricks had anything to do with Ford's disability. Ford sent two complaints to Lieutenant Walterman, on January 20 and February 13, 2015, shortly after Hendricks arrived. Neither memo mentioned Ford's disability or asserted that Hendricks subjected her to disability harassment. Then, sometime in March 2015, Lieutenant Walterman was replaced by Lieutenant Teri Nesbirt.

         Ford cites a few later incidents that also have no apparent link to her disability. On June 19, 2015, Ford wrote an email describing disagreements with Hendricks on visitation policies and asserting that Hendricks's hand lotion made her sick. That same day, Ford told her sergeant, Marvin Johnson, that Hendricks had made a comment "about getting a gun and blowing [Ford]'s brains out." The Sheriff's Office investigated this claim. Hendricks's written response explained that she was describing a mass shooting in the news, not talking about Ford. After reviewing this incident, along with the ongoing animosity between Ford and Hendricks, the Sheriff's Office issued written discipline to both employees.[1] Months later, in February 2016, Hendricks stated that "it's a good thing I don't have a gun," but Ford does not describe much else about this comment.

         Ford's disability surfaced during a January 2016 disagreement about whether visitors to the Marion County Jail may use passports as a form of identification. Ford thought not; Sergeant Johnson disagreed. Our accounts of the confrontation come from Ford's complaint to Lieutenant Tia Shanklin, [2]Hendricks's memo to Major Tanesha Crear, and the trial testimony of Crear. Crediting Ford's account, as we must, Ford refused to let a visitor use a passport as identification, but Johnson overruled her. After the visitor had left, Ford began expressing her disagreement to Johnson. At this point Hendricks arrived and berated Ford for "yelling" at her supervisor in front of visitors. In none of the accounts did Hendricks mention Ford's disability. But Ford's disability became an issue when Major Crear intervened in the dispute, saying to Ford that "anyone who was supposedly in as much pain as [Ford] was claiming to be in would not have the energy to be up in front of the Supervisor's desk, waving [her] arms around." Crear reproached Ford for her behavior.

         Ford has offered evidence of two instances of alleged harassment where Hendricks mentioned Ford's disability. Both apparently stemmed from Hendricks's resentment that she had to work shifts in both the Visitation Office and the Main Control Office; Ford's disability excused her from the Main Control shifts. First, Ford testified that, in September 2015, Hendricks told her that she should have to prove she was disabled to avoid Main Control duty. Shanklin witnessed this event but told Ford that Hendricks was "just kidding" or "just joking." Second, on June 22, 2016, Hendricks told Ford that she needed to go to Main Control to see just how hard it was. Hendricks also joked that she "caught" carpal tunnel syndrome from working over there. Ford described the latter incident in a complaint to Lieutenant Shanklin. The next month, the Sheriff's Office transferred Hendricks out of the Visitation Office as a result of the ongoing conflict between Ford and Hendricks.

         C. Change to a Rotating Schedule

         The second claim at trial arose from the Sheriff's Office's refusal to adjust Ford's schedule as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. On January 3, 2015-the same day that Hendricks replaced Ladd and Watts-the Sheriff's Office switched Ford from a fixed to a rotating schedule. Ford requested later that month to be returned to a fixed schedule, saying that the rotating schedule exacerbated her complex regional pain syndrome. Ford attached a physician's note from her doctor to that effect. Grider replied in an email two weeks later denying Ford's request because "it [was] not a reasonable accommodation."

         The district court denied the Sheriff's Office's motion for summary judgment on this claim, finding that the Office had not shown an undue hardship as a matter of law under 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A). Ford's arguments on appeal do not dwell on the details of the schedule issue, and we need not do so either. Suffice it to say that the evidence about the positive and negative effects of the schedule change was in conflict, and the jury found for the defense on the ground that Ford had failed to prove that she needed the accommodation of the fixed schedule. The jury did not reach the undue hardship question.

         D. Ford's Applications for Promotions

         A final set of claims arose from Ford's four unsuccessful applications to be transferred or promoted within the Sheriff's Office between March 2016 and February 2017. Ford argues that all these rejections were illegally based on her disability and/or amounted to retaliation for her earlier protected activity under the ADA. The district judge granted summary judgment for the Sheriff's Office on the failure-to-promote claims, finding that Ford had simply not supported these claims with evidence that would support a reasonable inference of unlawful motive. In August 2017, Ford secured a transfer to the sex-and violent-offender registry unit, where she continued to work for the Sheriff's Office at the time of trial.

         II. The District Court's Use of Partial ...

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