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Matthews v. Brennan

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

May 11, 2017

MEGAN J. BRENNAN, Postmaster General, et al., Defendants.


          Lee H. Rosenthal, Chief United States District Judge

         Janice Matthews sued the United States Postal Service, alleging that it discriminated against her on the basis of disability and retaliated against her for filing civil-rights complaints. The Postal Service has moved for summary judgment on some claims and asked the court to stay the remaining claims until a class action pending in another forum is resolved. Ms. Matthews responded, and the Postal Service replied. (Docket Entries No. 98, 103, 109). Based on the motions, the summary judgment record, and the applicable law, the Postal Service's motion for partial summary judgment and to stay the remaining claims, (Docket Entry No. 98), is granted. The reasons for these rulings are set out in detail below.

         I. Background

         Ms. Matthews has worked for the Postal Service since 1982. (Docket Entry No. 98-3 at 6[1]). She characterizes herself as a “Protector[] of Civil Rights” who has filed “more than 200” complaints with the Post Office Equal Employment Opportunity Office and “more than 300” grievances under the letter carrier's union dispute-resolution process. (Docket Entry No. 103 at 16, 24).

         In 1998 and again in 2004, Ms. Matthews injured her back and hand while working. She was also diagnosed with work-related depression. (Id. at 1). After partially recovering from these maladies, Ms. Matthews worked in a limited-duty capacity on a four-hour shift dictated by her medical requirements. (Docket Entry No. 103-1 at 7). In 2006, she began working at the Postal Service's James Griffith Station in northwest Houston. In 2007, as part of the Postal Service's “National Reassessment Process, ” Postal Service Area Manager Jose Ayala reassigned all limited-duty letter carriers at the James Griffith Station, including Ms. Matthews, to the Houston General Post Office. (Docket Entry No. 98-8 at 4-5).

         On April 18, 2007, the Postal Service notified Ms. Matthews that, effective April 21, 2007, she was among those assigned to the General Post Office. (Docket Entry No. 98-8 at 6). On April 30, the Postal Service presented her with an official modified job offer for her new General Post Office assignment. The offer was for an eight-hour shift rather than the four-hour shift permitted by her medical restrictions. (Id. at 1). Sheila Thomas, the Acting Manager for Customer Services at the General Post Office, told Ms. Matthews that there was no other job available. Ms. Thomas sent Ms. Matthews home for the day without putting her in a pay status for that day. (Docket Entry No. 98-6 at 5). Ms. Thomas testified that she did not have authority to reassign Ms. Matthews to the James Griffith Station. (Id.).

         On May 3, 2007, Ms. Thomas sent Postal Service employee Bob Sutkoff, who was the Injury Compensation Specialist for Ms. Matthews's case, a corrected modified job offer for Ms. Matthews. This offer correctly reflected her four-hour shift restriction. Mr. Sutkoff called Ms. Matthews and told her about the corrected offer, but Ms. Matthews demanded written confirmation that the offer tracked her medical limits. The Postal Service mailed her a copy of the offer, which she received on June 15, 2007.

         On May 10, 2007-after Ms. Matthews's conversation with Mr. Sutkoff but before she received a written copy of the modified job offer-her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Rahn Bailey, sent the Postal Service a medical evaluation note stating that Ms. “Matthews is unable to return to gainful work due to general medical condition and/or psychological well-being.” (Docket Entry No. 98-3 at 1). When Ms. Matthews received the modified job offer on June 15, 2007, she checked the box to indicate that she accepted the offer, but, in a note, stated that she did so “under protest and distress” because she could not report for work at all without her doctor giving her a medical release. (Docket Entry No. 98-8 at 2).

         Between May 2007 and November 2011, Ms. Matthews provided a series of doctor's notes stating that she was unable to work. (Docket Entries No. 98-3 at 3, 98-5 at 1-2). The November 2011 note stated that the doctor could not determine when Ms. Matthews would be able to return to work, that in no event could her return be sooner than May 31, 2012, and that she would be reevaluated regularly in the interim. (Docket Entry No. 98-5 at 1).

         In December 2011, Mr. Sutkoff initiated “administrative separation” proceedings under the Postal Service's Employee and Labor Relations Manual. (Id. at 13). Under the Manual's guidelines, the Postal Service may administratively separate employees who have been unable to work for more than a year and are not likely to return to work in the near future. (Docket Entry No. 98-8 at 22). The Postal Service's headquarters approved the separation. Houston District Labor Relations Manager Rodney Thomas decided that Ms. Matthews should be administratively separated because she had been unable to work for more than four years and was not released to return to work in the near future, making separation proper under Postal Service rules. He notified Ms. Matthews of the separation decision in a letter dated January 26, 2012. (Docket Entry No. 98-4 at 20).

         In September 2007, Ms. Matthews filed the first of the two formal complaints that are the basis of the current lawsuit. (Docket Entry No. 98-5 at 2). This complaint claimed disability discrimination and retaliation for protected activity based on: (1) the April 2007 cancellation of Ms. Matthews's modified assignment at the James Griffith Station; (2) the April 2007 refusal to allow Ms. Matthews to “get on the clock” for the day and to give her a job offer that met her medical restrictions; (3) the May 30 job offer, which Ms. Matthews characterizes as “bogus” because it did not include certain job details; and (4) the June 2007 cancellation of a meeting between Ms. Matthews and her Equal Employment Opportunity Office representative. The Post Office Equal Employment Opportunity Office accepted the first three claims for investigation and rejected the fourth. (Id. at 6).

         In another case, an administrative law judge at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in May 2008, certified a class of “all permanent rehabilitation employees and limited duty employees” of the Postal Service who were “subjected to the [National Reassessment Plan], ” allegedly in violation of the Rehabilitation Act. Because Ms. Matthews's disability-discrimination claim was subsumed in the class action, the EEOC held those claims in abeyance and addressed only her retaliation claims. The administrative law judge rejected those claims and the EEOC Office of Federal Operations affirmed that decision. (Id. at 38).

         Ms. Matthews filed a second complaint in 2012. That complaint charged that the decision to administratively separate her and many of the actions related to that decision were discriminatory and retaliatory. (Docket Entry No. 98-1 at 17). The Postal Service accepted the complaint for investigation. (Id. at 16). The EEOC administrative law judge's investigation found no evidence of discrimination and rejected the claim. The Office of Federal Operations affirmed that decision. (Docket Entry No. 98-5 at 34).

         Ms. Matthews filed two separate suits based on the administrative complaints. The lawsuits were consolidated into this action. After discovery, the Postal Service filed this motion for partial summary judgment and to stay the remaining claims.

         II. The Legal Standards

         A. The Summary Judgment Standard

         “Summary judgment is required when ‘the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Trent v. Wade, 776 F.3d 368, 376 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). “A genuine dispute of material fact exists when the ‘evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'” Nola Spice Designs, LLC v. Haydel Enters., Inc., 783 F.3d 527, 536 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). “The moving party ‘bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.'” Id. (quoting EEOC v. LHC Grp., Inc., 773 F.3d 688, 694 (5th Cir. 2014)); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

         “Where the non-movant bears the burden of proof at trial, the movant may merely point to the absence of evidence and thereby shift to the non-movant the burden of demonstrating by competent summary judgment proof that there is an issue of material fact warranting trial.” Id. (quotation marks omitted); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. Although the party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, it does not need to negate the elements of the nonmovant's case. Boudreaux v. Swift Transp. Co., 402 F.3d 536, 540 (5th Cir. 2005). “A fact is ‘material' if its resolution in favor of one party might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing law.” Sossamon v. Lone Star State of Texas, 560 F.3d 316, 326 (5th Cir. 2009) (quotation omitted). “If the moving party fails to meet [its] initial burden, the motion [for summary judgment] must be denied, regardless of the nonmovant's response.” United States v. $92, 203.00 in U.S. Currency, 537 F.3d 504, 507 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc) (per curiam)).

         “Once the moving party [meets its initial burden], the nonmoving party must ‘go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Nola Spice, 783 F.3d at 536 (quoting LHC Grp., 773 F.3d at 694). The nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate how that evidence supports that party's claim. Baranowski v. Hart, 486 F.3d 112, 119 (5th Cir. 2007). “This burden will not be satisfied by ‘some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, by conclusory allegations, by unsubstantiated assertions, or by only a scintilla of evidence.'” Boudreaux, 402 F.3d at 540 (quoting Little, 37 F.3d at 1075). In deciding a summary-judgment motion, the court draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Connors v. Graves, 538 F.3d 373, 376 (5th Cir. 2008); see also Nola Spice, 783 F.3d at 536.

         Although federal courts “construe pro se filings liberally, we still require pro se parties to fundamentally ‘abide by the rules that govern the federal courts.'” E.E.O.C. v. Simbaki, Ltd., 767 F.3d 475, 484 (5th Cir. 2014), as revised (Sept. 18, 2014) (quoting Frazier v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 541 F. App'x. 419, 421 (5th Cir. 2013). Even if evidence exists in the summary judgment record, if the plaintiff (whether pro se or not) does not explicitly reference the evidence in her brief in opposition to summary judgment, “that evidence is not properly before the district court.” Outley v. Luke & Assocs., Inc., 840 F.3d 212, 217 (5th Cir. 2016) (quoting Malacara v. Garber, 353 F.3d 393, 405 (5th Cir. 2003)).

         B. Disability Discrimination and Retaliation Under the Rehabilitation Act

         A federal employee's remedy for employment-related disability discrimination or retaliation is a suit under the Rehabilitation Act, rather than the Americans With Disability Act or Title VII. Washburn v. Harvey, 504 F.3d 505, 508 (5th Cir. 2007) (the ADA does not apply to the federal government and Title VII does not prohibit disability discrimination).[2] That difference is minor, because disability-discrimination and retaliation claims under the Rehabilitation Act are evaluated using the same standards as claims under the Americans With Disabilities Act. See Frame v. City of Arlington, 657 F.3d 215, 223 (5th Cir. 2011); Hainze v. Richards, 207 F.3d 795, 799 (5th Cir. 2000). Disability-discrimination and retaliation claims under the ADA are analyzed using a modified version of the same framework used to evaluate employment-discrimination claims under Title VII. McInnis v. Alamo Cmty. Coll. Dist., 207 F.3d 276, 279 (5th Cir. 2000).

         When a plaintiff uses indirect or circumstantial evidence to prove discrimination or retaliation, the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), as modified in Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90 (2003), and Rachid v. Jack in the Box, Inc., 376 F.3d 305 (5th Cir. 2004), applies. See also E.E.O.C. v. Chevron Phillips Chem. Co., 570 F.3d 606, 615 (5th Cir. 2009). Under the modified McDonnell Douglas approach, the plaintiff has the initial burden of making a prima facie showing of discrimination or retaliation. Abarca v. Metro. Transit Auth., 404 F.3d 938, 941 (5th Cir. 2005); Rachid, 376 F.3d at 312. The elements of a prima facie showing of discrimination are that the plaintiff: (1) is disabled, has a record of having a disability, or is regarded as disabled, (2) is qualified for her job, (3) was subjected to an adverse employment action on account of her disability or the perception of her disability, and (4) was replaced by or treated less favorably than similarly situated nondisabled employees. Chevron, 570 F.3d at 615 (citing McInnis, 570 F.3d at 615). A similarly situated employee-a comparator-is one who is in all respects similar to the plaintiff, save for the comparator's nonmembership in the plaintiff's protected class. The comparator must have “nearly identical” characteristics to the plaintiff, including job title and duties, supervisors, and comparable work histories of rule violations or discipline. Lee v. Kansas City S. ...

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