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Masters v. Class Appraisal, Inc.

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

September 23, 2019

JENNIFER D. MASTERS, Plaintiff,
v.
CLASS APPRAISAL, INC., Defendant.

          Elizabeth A. Stafford Magistrate Judge

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

          LAURIE J. MICHELSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         When Jennifer Masters first started working for Class Appraisal as a reviewer of residential-property appraisals, she went into the office. But in time, Masters’ multiple sclerosis made it difficult for her to work on-site. Under Masters’ account, she requested and obtained an accommodation to work at home. Under Class Appraisal’s account, the company had launched a work-at-home pilot program wholly unrelated to accommodating an employee’s disability. After four or so employees worked at home for about three months, Class Appraisal decided that no employee would be allowed to work at home any longer. The company believed that reviewing appraisals on a computer at home risked compromising confidential information. Thereafter, Masters repeatedly asked for a work-at-home accommodation and supported her request with a note from her physician. Yet Class Appraisal never obliged. As Masters did not return to the office, she was terminated.

         Masters then sued. Her complaint asserts violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act. Class Appraisal believes that Masters lacks the evidence to persuade any reasonable jury to find for her. So Class Appraisal asks this Court to grant it summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted as to Masters’ retaliation claims but denied as to Masters’ discrimination claims.

         I.

         A.

         Some general information about the parties provides a backdrop for the particulars of this case.

         Class Appraisal was, apparently, a byproduct of the home-loan industry’s recent overhaul. The Home Valuation Code of Conduct and, later, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, reduced the amount of direct contact between lenders and appraisers. See Lei Ding and Leonard Nakamura, The Impact of the Home Valuation Code of Conduct on Appraisal and Mortgage Outcomes at 1–2 & n.7 (July 2015), https://bit.ly/2mdXPxz. To be more specific, by at least 2011, appraisals were required to go through a middle man: appraisal management companies. See id.; (ECF No. 14, PageID.178–179.) (These companies had existed well before the economic downturn, but their role in the lending industry changed after. See Ding, supra at 2.) Under the new laws, lenders and appraisers had to work through an intermediary so that the lender would not know who was appraising a home and the appraiser would not know for which lender it was conducting the appraisal. (ECF No. 14, PageID.178–179.) The aim was to eliminate conflicts of interest that led to overvaluation of homes. See Ding, supra at 2; (ECF No. 14, PageID.178–179). Class Appraisal was an appraisal management company operating as a middle man between appraisers and lenders. (ECF No. 14, PageID.177.)

         Jennifer Masters holds a real-estate appraisal license and a college degree. (ECF No. 17, PageID.368–369.) In 2010, Masters was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis or a similar neurologic condition. (ECF No. 14, PageID.310; ECF No. 17, PageID.392, 424, 467.) Her symptoms include pain and numbness. (ECF No. 17, PageID.424.) Walking and balancing can also be difficult. (ECF No. 17, PageID.424, 442.) So too bladder and bowel control. (ECF No. 14, PageID.310; ECF No. 17, PageID.424.) And her multiple sclerosis keeps her from driving long distances. (ECF No. 17, PageID.374, 392, 435.)

         B.

         With that backdrop, the Court turns to the facts that led to this case (viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Masters).

         Masters began working at Class Appraisal in February 2012. (ECF No. 14, PageID.119.) Her job was a quality-control reviewer; she reviewed residential appraisals using an online program called “Mercury.” (ECF No. 14, PageID.135; ECF No. 17, PageID.384–385, 393.) When Masters started with Class Appraisal, she worked on-site, which was about a forty-minute commute from her home. (ECF No. 14, PageID.392.)

         In October 2012, Masters began working from home. The parties disagree as to why.

         Class Appraisal says that the company was growing quickly, that it lacked space for workers in its office, and that a lot of work was piling up. (ECF No. 14, PageID.197–199.) So Class Appraisal’s then-CEO, Mark Backonen, launched a “pilot” work-at-home program to solve the space problem and reduce the backlog. (ECF No. 14, PageID.198, 216.) According to Backonen, Masters “was one of a group of people that were interested in this beta program to see if we could perform the quality control program from a remote site through a [virtual private network].” (ECF No. 14, PageID.198; see also ECF No. 14, PageID.216–217.) Ultimately, somewhere between three and five Class Appraisal employees started working from home in October 2012. (ECF No. 14, PageID.304; ECF No. 14, PageID.288–289; ECF No. 14, PageID.300.) The pilot program was neither formalized nor documented. (ECF No. 14, PageID.215, 289).

         Masters says she started working at home in October 2012 for a different reason. In fact, at the time, Masters was not even aware that a pilot program existed. (See ECF No. 17, PageID.421.) Masters recalls that she began working at home as an accommodation for her multiple sclerosis. (See ECF No. 17, PageID.473.) In particular, Masters says that in October 2012, she provided her team manager, Arkady Gralnik, a note from her neurologist stating that she needed to work at home. (ECF No. 17, PageID.422.) Masters was under the impression that Gralnik had then obtained approval for her to work at home from Backonen. Although Backonen says that the notion that Masters was granted work-at-home as an accommodation for a disability is “absolutely incorrect” and “not true” (ECF No. 14, PageID.199), Masters’ account has corroboration. On October 22, 2012, Masters’ neurologist wrote a note that stated, “We recommend Jennifer work at home. Her inability to ambulate steadily, her fatigue and her pain make it unrealistic to work in an office setting.” (ECF No. 17, PageID.442.)

         But whether because of a disability accommodation or the pilot program (or both), Masters started working at home beginning in October 2012. And things apparently were fine for a time. From Masters’ perspective, she was “more productive” at home. (See ECF No. 17, PageID.473.) And while there is some indication that Masters may have been off task or inefficient at times (ECF No. 17, PageID.446, 448), the record reflects only two such incidents, and Masters has explained away one (see ECF No. 14, PageID.144).

         In early January 2013, Masters received a call from Gralnik telling her that she needed to return to the office if she wanted to keep working for Class Appraisal. (ECF No. 17, PageID.423.) Gralnik did not tell Masters the reason-other than to say that no Class Appraisal employees were allowed to work at home any longer. (Id.) So Masters called Bill Stoops, Class Appraisal’s operations manager at the time.

         Masters and Stoops spoke on the phone on January 22, 2013. (See ECF No. 17, PageID.319, 421, 475.) During that call, Stoops apparently asked Masters to provide medical support for her need to work at home. (See ECF No. 14, PageID.138; ECF No. 17, PageID.319, 421, 475.) And while it is not clear if it was during the January 22 call or a later one, Stoops testified, “We discussed . . . that she had trouble walking and I said, well, we can make sure she had close parking and that her desk would be close to the door. . . . She mentioned something about going to the rest room often, so . . . I said we can make sure we can put you close to the facilities as well.” (ECF No. 14, PageID.253.) According to Stoops, Masters stated that it would be too hard for her to come into the office. (Id.)

         Two more things relevant to this case happened on January 22, 2013. For one, Class Appraisal terminated Masters’ remote computer access. (See ECF No. 17, PageID.421.) For another, Masters’ doctor faxed a note to Class Appraisal. It read, “Jennifer Masters is under our neurological care. We feel it is medically necessary for her to work from home due to her neurologic symptoms.” (ECF No. 17, PageID.467.)

         Over the next two days, Masters and Stoops engaged in a lengthy email conversation regarding her work-at-home status.

         On January 23, Stoops confirmed that Class Appraisal had received the doctor’s note; Stoops added, “We have consulted our HR team regarding your request to work from home. All positions within Class Appraisals not current[ly] being conducted at [our Troy office] have been eliminated. . . . The company has been and is willing to make reasonable accommodations for you to work within our office . . . . The management of the [work from home] program has created hardship for the company and no longer [is] a viable option.” (ECF No. 17, PageID.474.) Masters tried to clarify that she was not part of a work-at-home program: “As I told you on the phone yesterday[, ] I was never part of a ‘work from home program’. . . . I was given permission to work at home by the CEO, Mark Ba[c]konen and QC Manager at the time, Arkady [Gralnik, ] because of a health condition and recommendation by my neurologist.” (ECF No. 17, PageID.473.) Masters sought a “face-to-face meeting.” (Id.)

         The email conversation continued into the next day, January 24, 2013. Masters informed Stoops that she was still not able to log in from home, welcomed a face-to-face meeting, and questioned whether Class Appraisal was genuinely willing to make reasonable accommodations for her to work on-site. (ECF No. 17, PageID.472–473.) Masters explained, “The reasonable accommodation for my health condition has been for me to work from home since October 19th of last year from upper management. It had nothing to do with an at-home-work program.” (Id.) Stoops responded by largely quoting his email from the prior day. (ECF No. 17, PageID.472.) Masters replied by again stating that she had been working at home as an accommodation and that she wanted to meet with upper management. (ECF No. 17, PageID.471.) Masters included a hyperlink to a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity ...


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