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Stokes v. Kelly

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

July 25, 2017

JACQUELINE D. STOKES, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN F. KELLY, Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SIDNEY A. FITZWATER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Jacqueline D. Stokes (“Stokes”), an employee of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, alleges that she was denied a reasonable accommodation for her vision-based disability and retaliated against for filing EEOC complaints, in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. (“Rehabilitation Act”). Stokes moves for summary judgment on her reasonable accommodation claim, and defendant John F. Kelly, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), moves for summary judgment dismissing all of Stokes's claims. For the reasons explained, the court denies Stokes's motion, grants DHS's motion, and dismisses this action by judgment filed today.

         I

         Stokes has worked for DHS as an operations support specialist, primarily responsible for arranging employee travel, for 18 years.[1] She is blind in her right eye and has reduced vision in her left eye. From at least 2007 onward, she requested, and received, accommodations for her disability, including extra lamps for her desk, special light bulbs, a handheld magnifier, a magnifying device for her computer screen, and magnifying software for use with her computer.

         In late 2012 or early 2013, Stokes filed an EEO complaint alleging that she was denied the accommodation of working in an office with natural light. The parties settled this complaint, and DHS assigned Stokes to a workstation with natural light. In March 2014 Stokes filed another EEO complaint, alleging that she had been directed to use a non-accessible computer, that her disability was improperly disclosed to other people, and that her supervisor, Jeffrey Sampson (“Sampson”), retaliated against her by creating a hostile work environment. The March 2014 complaint was the original basis for Stokes's instant lawsuit in this court, but she also cites later events as factual bases for her claims.

         On April 7, 2014 Stokes emailed her first-line supervisor, Sampson, and her second-line supervisor, Conchetta Mason (“Mason”), requesting that, when visual aids were to be used in meetings, she be given a large font printed copy or large font display as an accommodation for her disability. Mason responded the same day, with copy to Sampson, stating that such materials would be provided in advance so that Stokes could review them at her desk or print out a copy that suited her needs. Stokes contends, however, that DHS failed to grant this accommodation for subsequent meetings, including a September 17, 2014 meeting about work assignments; an August 4-6, 2015 appropriations law class; an August 12, 2015 administration team meeting; and an August 18, 2015 customer service training.

         Before initiating the March 2014 EEO action, Stokes received the highest possible job performance rating of “Achieved Excellence” for the rating period of October 1, 2012 to September 30, 2013. For the next rating period-October 1, 2013 to September 30, 2014-Stokes received a lower but still favorable rating of “Exceeded Expectations.” For the next rating period, however-October 1, 2014 to September 30, 2015-Stokes received a rating of “Unacceptable.” During this period she received four written counseling letters that cited failure to follow supervisor instructions, disrespect, unprofessional behavior, mistakes in reviewing travel vouchers, and lack of attention to detail in her work. Mason performed one counseling, and the others were done by John Bourdon (“Bourdon”), another supervisor. Stokes asked for, but did not receive, supporting documentation for some of the errors cited in the counseling letters.

         Stokes filed the instant lawsuit in this court in April 2015. On July 30, 2015 she filed another EEO complaint, alleging retaliation based on the letters of counseling. In May 2016 Stokes filed a supplemental complaint in this court that alleged retaliation based on the letters of counseling and the “Unacceptable” performance rating, and failures to reasonably accommodate her by providing meeting materials in advance.

         Stokes now moves for partial summary judgment on her reasonable accommodation claim, and DHS moves for summary judgment dismissing all of Stokes's claims.

         II

         Each movant's summary judgment burden depends on whether she or it is moving for relief on a claim or defense for which she or it will have the burden of proof at trial. To be entitled to summary judgment on a claim or defense for which the movant will have the burden of proof, the moving party “must establish ‘beyond peradventure all of the essential elements of the claim or defense.'” Bank One, Tex., N.A. v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 878 F.Supp. 943, 962 (N.D. Tex. 1995) (Fitzwater, J.) (quoting Fontenot v. Upjohn Co., 780 F.2d 1190, 1194 (5th Cir. 1986)). This means that the moving party must demonstrate that there are no genuine and material fact disputes and that the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. See Martin v. Alamo Cmty. Coll. Dist., 353 F.3d 409, 412 (5th Cir. 2003). “The court has noted that the ‘beyond peradventure' standard is ‘heavy.'” Carolina Cas. Ins. Co. v. Sowell, 603 F.Supp.2d 914, 923-24 (N.D. Tex. 2009) (Fitzwater, C.J.) (quoting Cont'l Cas. Co. v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 2007 WL 2403656, at *10 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 23, 2007) (Fitzwater, J.)).

         When the summary judgment movant will not have the burden of proof at trial on a specific claim or defense, then the moving party need only point the court to the absence of evidence of any essential element of the opposing party's claim or defense. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party does so, the nonmovant must go beyond her or its pleadings and designate specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Id. at 324; Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc) (per curiam). An issue is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the party with the burden of proof. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The nonmovant's failure to produce proof as to any essential element renders all other facts immaterial. TruGreen Landcare, L.L.C. v. Scott, 512 F.Supp.2d 613, 623 (N.D. Tex. 2007) (Fitzwater, J.). Summary judgment is mandatory where the nonmoving party fails to meet this burden. Little, 37 F.3d at 1076.

         III

         The court first turns to the cross-motions for summary judgment on ...


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