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Swann v. Washtenaw County

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

November 21, 2016

TAMMY SWANN, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Tammy Swann filed this failure to accommodate action under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PWDCRA) following the termination of her employment with defendant Washtenaw County's Community Support and Treatment Services (CSTS) program. Plaintiff contends that defendant terminated her employment rather than accommodate her reasonable request to restructure a nonessential function of her position. The matter is presently before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment. The court heard oral argument on this motion on October 12, 2016. For the reasons stated below, defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

         I. Background

         In 2004, plaintiff began her employment with Washtenaw County as a vocational specialist in the County's CSTS program. CSTS serves consumers with physical, mental, and developmental disabilities or illnesses, providing care and assistance to increase consumer's independence, community engagement, and personal fulfillment. CSTS has vocational sites where consumers receive instruction in motor, social, and living skills, personal hygiene, and grooming. CSTS also partners with community organizations and companies to provide employment or volunteer opportunities for consumers. Consumers participating in these activities are placed in People Access Community Employment/Experience (PACE) groups.

         Vocational specialists provide direct support and care for CSTS consumers. A written job description lists duties of the position, including;

. Assist consumers with basic tasks like showering, using the bathroom, walking, and eating;
. Provide physical assistance to consumers who have trouble walking;
. Provide physical assistance to consumers following unpredictable events like accidents, injuries, or outbursts.

(Doc. 19-2 at 1-3). Consumer safety is a significant concern. Consumers may become upset, angry, or engage in aggressive or harmful behavior. Vocational specialists are responsible for intervening, treating injuries, and helping the consumer transition back to productive behavior. This responsibility may include lifting a consumer from the ground after an injury or outburst.

         Lifting is a significant job function. The written job description for vocational specialists states “[d]uties may require employee to exert 50 or more pounds of force occasionally, 20 to 50 pounds of force frequently, or 10 to 20 pounds of force constantly.” (Doc 19-2 at 2). Further, CSTS management, plaintiff, and a fellow vocational specialist, Scott Shemwell, all testified that vocational specialists must lift to fulfill their job duties. There are multiple staffing options for vocational specialists; working at a vocational center or with a PACE group, and serving consumer groups individually or with a partner. The lifting requirement applies to all of these options.

         At all times relevant to this case, plaintiff reported directly to her supervisor, Lydia Sattler. Sattler reported to Krista Diephuis, the program administrator. Diephuis reported to Trish Cortes, the executive director for the County's developmental disabilities program. For the last seven years of her employment, plaintiff and Michelle Allen, a fellow vocational specialist, worked with a PACE group. At an unspecified time between 2010 and 2012, plaintiff developed pain in her neck and back that limited her ability to lift. This pain resulted from an injury sustained decades earlier in a motorcycle accident. Allen was aware of plaintiff's condition and assisted by performing the duties which required plaintiff to lift.

         In June 2013, CSTS altered its consumer groups, resulting in changes to the vocational specialist assignments. The PACE group that plaintiff and Allen worked with was reduced in size and Allen was assigned to serve the group independently. Plaintiff was assigned to a floater position, where she could be assigned to work alone or with a partner in a different consumer group on any given day.

         Around this time, plaintiff's neck pain intensified, prompting her to take a leave of absence from June 20, 2013 until September 20, 2014. Plaintiff's pain did not improve during her leave. During this period, plaintiff conversed with Sattler and Michelle Murray, the County's human resources generalist, confirming that plaintiff's neck pain prohibited her from working. Plaintiff also provided medical documents to the County stating that she was unable to perform essential job functions. Early documents stated that plaintiff was unable to perform work of any kind, however, in August 2014, plaintiff provided documents stating that she was unable to perform essential job functions, but could return to work with a 20 pound lifting restriction.

         On August 25, 2014, upon reviewing the FMLA Return to Work form that plaintiff submitted in August 2014, (Doc. 19-2 at 134), Murray emailed Cortes, Human Resources director Diane Heidt, and Sattler to ask for their input to determine plaintiff's employment status. (Doc. 19-2 at 3-5). Diephuis and Sattler reviewed plaintiff's lifting restriction, the essential duties of a vocational specialist, and plaintiff's proposed accommodation; partnering plaintiff with another vocational specialist and requiring that partner to perform all lifting. Diephuis and Sattler concluded that plaintiff's lifting restriction prohibited her from performing her essential job duties and would be detrimental to consumers. Diephuis then emailed Murray, Cortes, Heidt, and Sattler stating that, upon review, the County would not be able to hold the vocational specialist position for plaintiff. On ...

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