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Welch v. Level 3 Communications, LLC

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

May 26, 2017

Christan Welch, Plaintiff,
v.
Level 3 Communications, LLC, Defendant.

          Magistrate Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [33]

          Arthur J. Tarnow Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Christan Welch worked under various managers at Defendant Level 3 Communications, LLC from 2000 to 2014. After suffering a grand mal seizure and being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in February 2013, she began working from home full time. Christopher Vickers became Plaintiff's new manager in November 2013. Between that time and the time of Plaintiff's termination in April 2014, there were a series of problems with several of Plaintiff's customers. Vickers discussed these issues with Plaintiff, but ultimately decided to terminate her employment.

         Plaintiff filed this lawsuit in September 2015, alleging disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (“PWDCRA”). Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [33] upon the conclusion of the discovery process. The motion was timely briefed and the Court heard oral arguments on April 5, 2017.

         Summary judgment for Defendants is appropriate because the evidence shows that at the time of Plaintiff's termination, Plaintiff was no longer qualified to perform the essential functions of her position. Therefore, she cannot establish a prima facie case of discrimination.

         Factual Background

         The Court considers all the facts and evidence with all reasonable inferences in favor of Plaintiff. See Ondricko v. MGM Grand Detroit, LLC, 689 F.3d 642, 648 (6th Cir. 2012).

         Level 3 Communications, LLC provides communication services to enterprise, government, and carrier customers. Christan Welch began working at Level 3's predecessor, Focal Communications, in December 2000. Focal, and Broadwing Communications, its successor, were acquired by Level 3 in or around 2007. The nature of Plaintiff's work remained the same throughout each acquisition. Plaintiff's responsibilities as a Customer Care Manager (“CCM”) included “[b]eing the primary point of contact for Level 3 customers[, ] [r]esolving post-sales non-technical customer inquiries[, and] [c]oordinating the resolution of technical issues using interdepartmental resources.”

         Although Plaintiff was assigned to Defendant's Southfield office, Plaintiff worked from home three days per week between 2005 and 2012. Plaintiff worked from home nine out of every 10 days after returning from maternity leave in early 2012. Being at home did not impede Plaintiff's ability to be productive and do work. She set up an office space in her home with a laptop, printer, and headset, which she used to communicate with customers. Plaintiff's four-year-old son went to day care and her mother-in-law and older son cared for Plaintiff's two-year-old twins.

         Plaintiff “was in the office every other week routinely” until she suffered a grand mal seizure in February 2013. At that time, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Plaintiff's doctor instructed Plaintiff to limit her driving as much as possible. When Plaintiff began driving again, in December 2013, she was only able to drive very short distances - to drop her children off at school, for instance, or to go grocery shopping. Plaintiff's disability did not prevent her from working, and she could have arranged transportation to get to work. It was simply more convenient for her to work from home.

         Christopher Vickers became a Senior Manager of Customer Service after taking over from Plaintiff's previous manager, Nick Monroe, in November 2013. He oversaw a team of Level 3 customer care managers, including Plaintiff. Shortly after beginning his new role, Vickers called Plaintiff to introduce himself, learn a bit about her, and inquire as to why she worked from home. Plaintiff told Vickers about her MS, her seizures, and her driving restrictions. Vickers directed Plaintiff to file this information with HR. This was the only conversation Plaintiff had with Vickers about her medical condition.

         Plaintiff thereafter entered into a formal telecommunications agreement with Level 3. Plaintiff did not go to the Southfield office at all between November 2013 and April 1, 2014, the date of her termination. Plaintiff and Vickers never actually met in person, although they spoke frequently on the phone, and via email and Instant Messenger.

         It appears that Plaintiff's alleged problematic behavior with customers began in November 2013. Several clients - including Clear Rate, Grid 4 Communications, T1, and Easton - made a variety of complaints to different individuals at Level 3 about Plaintiff's performance. Clear Rate, for instance, wanted Plaintiff to communicate on a more consistent, established schedule. In December 2013, Tim Wood, the Director of Sales and Support, advised Plaintiff to improve her communication with T1 and that T1 needed “hand holding.” He also stated that “an email tracker isn't cutting it for them. We need more specific updates.” Plaintiff failed to respond in a timely manner to messages from employees at Easton and Clear Rate. Finally, Grid 4 asked that Plaintiff be removed from its account.

         In March 2014, Plaintiff and Vickers discussed Plaintiff's subpar performance. Vickers told Plaintiff that she needed to improve her communication and escalation management. Plaintiff recognized that she was at risk of being placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”) if Vickers did not see immediate improvement. A PIP was not guaranteed, however. According to Maryanne Kanaskie, the Human Resources Manager at Level 3, the company had no progressive disciplinary process, but instead, “manage[d] each situation for the circumstances.” Disciplinary action could consist of “a written warning that's issued for something, ” or “[i]t could be a performance plan or . . . it could be termination of employment.”

         Vickers stated that not only were Defendant's customers upset with Plaintiff, members of Defendant's sales team were as well. Defendant believed that Plaintiff prioritized her children over her work assignments. Vickers and Wood both testified that when they called Plaintiff at different times, a child answered the phone and then abruptly hung up. Wood did not remember how many times this occurred, but he recalled “this not being a unique story.”

         In Plaintiff's view, Vickers did not actively support her. She found him unresponsive and hard to get in touch with. He often referred her questions to someone else within her group, which was unhelpful because she needed a response from someone at a higher level. Plaintiff also felt that Vickers “never made an effort to have a conversation with me on my disability in my work environment. He put forth no effort to understand me . . . all he did was make it worse . . . he built a case to get rid of me.” Although Vickers never said anything directly to Plaintiff about her disability, Plaintiff was uncomfortable with Vickers' tone and attitude. Plaintiff did not feel like “a valuable employee on [Vickers'] team.” She said that he treated her “as an outcast with a disability.”

         Plaintiff has no evidence or any reason to believe that this was because of her disability. Plaintiff spoke with Human Resources several times between November 2013 and March 2014 and never complained of Vickers' alleged discrimination against her.

         Vickers and Kanaskie called Plaintiff on April 1, 2014 to inform her that she was being terminated. Vickers testified that he had to call Plaintiff twice in order to reach her because the first time he called, a child picked up the phone and then hung up.

         Analysis

         Plaintiff brings discrimination actions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12203, et seq., and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (“PWDCRA”), M.C.L. § 37.1602. Because Plaintiff offers only circumstantial evidence in support of her claims, the Court will apply the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework. See E.E.O.C. v. Ford Motor Co., 782 F.3d 753, 767 (6th Cir. 2015) (en banc). If Plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to Defendant to articulate non-retaliatory reasons for the challenged actions, after which the burden shifts back to Plaintiff to show that those reasons are a pretext for retaliation. See Id. (citing St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506, 515 (1993)).

         I. Prima Facie Case ...


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