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Ferguson v. Wayne County Airport Authority

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

May 8, 2018

Michael Ferguson, Plaintiff,
v.
Wayne County Airport Authority, Defendant.

          Anthony P. Patti U.S. Magistrate Judge

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [14]

          ARTHUR J. TARNOW SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         43 year old Plaintiff Michael Ferguson, formerly an airport maintenance worker employed by Defendant Wayne County Airport Authority (“WCAA”), was injured in a car accident in late September 2011. After being on leave for approximately 17 months, Ferguson sought to return to work in February 2013. WCAA determined that he wasn't qualified for the position and terminated him on May 1, 2013. Ferguson filed this disability and gender discrimination lawsuit on April 19, 2016. WCAA filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [14] on September 5, 2017.

         For the reasons discussed below, WCAA's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Genuine issues of material fact exist as to Ferguson's claim for disability discrimination - specifically, whether Ferguson is otherwise qualified to be an airport maintenance worker, with or without reasonable accommodations. However, there is insufficient evidence for a reasonable factfinder to conclude that Ferguson was a victim of gender discrimination.

         Factual Background

         Given that Defendant moves for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, the facts and evidence are presented, and all reasonable inferences are drawn, in favor of Plaintiff. See Ondricko v. MGM Grand Detroit, LLC, 689 F.3d 642, 648 (6th Cir. 2012).

         Plaintiff began working at the Wayne County Airport Authority (“WCAA”) as an airport maintenance worker in October 2005. Plaintiff's responsibilities included collecting garbage; airfield restoration, maintenance, and construction work; driving trucks; barricade installation, and cutting grass. Plaintiff was part of a seven-person crew that was assigned tasks by a specific foreman. The foremen generally permitted their crewmembers to pick job assignments based on seniority.

         As an airport maintenance worker, Plaintiff was a member of a collective bargaining unit, AFSCME Local 101.[1] His employment was subject to the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”).

         Plaintiff was severely injured in a car accident in late September 2011. On October 11, 2011, when Plaintiff requested a leave of absence, he believed that he would be able to return to work on November 15, 2011. This turned out not to be the case, however, and his healthcare provider certified a leave of absence through December 6, 2011. Plaintiff's leave was ultimately extended through approximately February 2013. Pursuant to the CBA, Plaintiff's job was protected for 18 months.

         Plaintiff first filed for Social Security Disability Benefits in October 2012.[2]Shortly thereafter, in December 2012 or January 2013, Plaintiff wanted to return to work.

         On February 26, 2013, Plaintiff treated with Dr. Gary Chodoroff. Dr. Chodoroff opined that Plaintiff could work as an airport maintenance worker with restrictions, eight hours per day, 40 hours per week, starting on March 18, 2013. Dr. Chodoroff restricted Plaintiff from lifting more than 10 pounds and from bending to, or lifting from, below knee height. (Pl.'s Ex. 3, Pg. ID 369). Dr. Chodoroff also said that Plaintiff should be able to change positions as needed and that he should work an afternoon shift so that he could attend physical therapy appointments in the morning. Plaintiff conveyed this information to WCAA Human Resources Director Rosalind Wallace via email. (Pl.'s Ex. 12).

         After hearing from Plaintiff, Wallace reached out to her superiors, then-Deputy Director of Landside Services Joseph McCabe, then-Deputy Director of Maintenance Bob Zwarka, and then-Director of Maintenance Angela Frakes. Wallace asked them to review Plaintiff's doctor's certification and determine whether Plaintiff's restrictions could be accommodated. Wallace didn't think that WCAA could “allow [Plaintiff] to return to work with these restrictions, ” but said that “[w]e should try to accommodate him if we can.” Id.

         McCabe did “not think that Field Maintenance can accommodate this” because “[m]ost, if not all of our jobs, involve some form of lifting, stooping, bending, climbing, etc.” Id. Zwarka shared these concerns and said that if Plaintiff “can't bend his knees or climb this prevents him from being able to drive large equipment.” Id.

         Brad Manley, the president of AFSCME Local 953, wrote to Wallace on March 4, 2013. He asked Wallace to “indicate what restrictions prevent [Plaintiff] from performing the basic essential job duties within his classification.” (Pl.'s Ex. 13). Manley emphasized that the Union sought fair treatment and accommodations for Plaintiff given that WCAA had previously allowed employees “with the same or similar restrictions to return to work with restrictions not related to a work injury with accommodations.” Id. Wallace “did not respond in writing to Mr. Manley.” (Def.'s Ex. X at 53:9).

         Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC on March 25, 2013. (Pl.'s Ex. 15). Shortly thereafter, he filed a written request for a Social Security Disability Benefits hearing. (Pl.'s Ex. 21).

         On April 30, 2013, Manley told Wallace via email that Plaintiff was “able to take a Medical Demotion.” (Pl.'s Ex. 14). He also indicated that there were “two positions open [Store Keeper or Service Worker] that would meet ADA Standards” and asked Wallace to explain why Plaintiff had not been considered for these jobs. Id.

         Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment via letter the following day. (Pl.'s Ex. 4). Plaintiff updated his EEOC claim to reflect the termination on June 6, 2013.

         On October 1, 2014, the EEOC found that there was reasonable cause to believe that Plaintiff's rights had been violated. (Pl.'s Ex. 16). Approximately one week later, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) concluded that Plaintiff was disabled from September 26, 2011 through March 31, 2014. (Pl.'s Ex. 21).

         Legal Standard

         On a Rule 56 motion for summary judgment, the Court must determine whether “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). Defendant bears the burden of establishing that there are no genuine issues of material fact, which may be accomplished by demonstrating that Plaintiff lacks evidence to support an essential element of his case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A genuine issue for trial exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         Analysis

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendant discriminated against him on the basis of his disability - in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (“PWDCRA”) - and his ...


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