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Ford v. United Airlines, Inc.

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

June 27, 2018

THERESSA F. FORD, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED AIRLINES, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          NANCY F. ATLAS SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court in this disability discrimination and retaliation dispute is Defendant United Airlines, Inc.'s Motion to Dismiss in Part (the “Motion”) [Doc. # 7]. Pro se Plaintiff Theressa F. Ford[1] filed a response, to which Defendant timely replied.[2] The Motion is now ripe for decision. Having considered the parties' briefing, the applicable legal authorities, and all pertinent matters of record, the Court concludes that the Motion should be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff has been employed by Defendant since 2009.[3] In 2013, Defendant became aware that Plaintiff suffers from Lupus and has provided on-going, but unspecified, work accommodations as a result. On June 13, 2014, Plaintiff was in a serious car accident in which she injured her spine. According to Plaintiff, as a result of the accident, she “had difficulty using her right arm and right leg, ” “had difficulty walking without a limp, ” “could not stand for more than 5-10 minutes, ” and “could not lift even a pot on the stove to cook or bend to do household chores like laundry or make the bed.”[4] At the time of the June 2014 accident, Plaintiff was working for Defendant as a “ramp employee.”

         Following the accident, Plaintiff took leave from her employment with Defendant. The Complaint does not specify the exact nature of the leave, or whether she or Defendant initiated the leave. In May 2015, Plaintiff's doctor cleared her to return to work, but Defendant refused to reinstate her. At some point thereafter, Plaintiff was required to submit to a four-hour functional capabilities exam (FCE) with a doctor chosen by Defendant. According to Plaintiff, she was required to lift 99 pounds during the FCE even though Defendant only requires new “ramp employee” hires to be able to lift 50 pounds.

         On August 14, 2015, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) for disability discrimination on the grounds that Defendant was making it more difficult for her to return to work because she was disabled. On August 17, 2015, Defendant's agent called Plaintiff and informed her that although she was able to lift between 60 and 70 pounds during her exam, she had failed the FCE because she was unable to lift 99 pounds. According to Plaintiff, she also was told that she would be required to remain on leave until Defendant's doctor cleared her to return to work. Plaintiff informed the caller that she recently had filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.

         On August 19, 2015, Plaintiff received a call from one of Defendant's human resources representatives. Plaintiff alleges the representative told her that she could return to work without any additional medical testing, and that she would receive back pay to May 2015, when her own doctor had cleared her to return to work. Defendant allowed Plaintiff to, and Plaintiff did in fact, return to work on September 13, 2015.

         Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on March 24, 2018. In her Complaint, Plaintiff asserts various claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the “ADA”). By the Motion, Defendant seeks dismissal, at least in part, of each of Plaintiff's claims on the grounds that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is viewed with disfavor and is rarely granted. Turner v. Pleasant, 663 F.3d 770, 775 (5th Cir. 2011) (citing Harrington v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 563 F.3d 141, 147 (5th Cir. 2009)). The complaint must be liberally construed in favor of the plaintiff, and all facts pleaded in the complaint must be taken as true. Harrington, 563 F.3d at 147. The complaint must, however, contain sufficient factual allegations, as opposed to legal conclusions, to state a claim for relief that is “plausible on its face.” See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Patrick v. Wal-Mart, Inc., 681 F.3d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 2012). When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should presume they are true, even if doubtful, and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Additionally, regardless of how well-pleaded the factual allegations may be, they must demonstrate that the plaintiff is entitled to relief under a valid legal theory. See Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989); McCormick v. Stalder, 105 F.3d 1059, 1061 (5th Cir. 1997).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff asserts three distinct claims under the ADA in her Complaint: disability discrimination, failure to accommodate a disability, and unlawful retaliation. Defendant has moved to dismiss all of Plaintiff's claims, at least partially, on the grounds that they are inadequately pleaded. The Court addresses the sufficiency of Plaintiff's allegations with respect to each of her three claims in turn.

         A. Disability Discrimination

         Plaintiff's first claim against Defendant in her Complaint is for discrimination under the ADA. Plaintiff alleges that she was discriminated against on the basis of her disability when Defendant unreasonably delayed her return to work by refusing to reinstate her after her doctor cleared her for active duty. According to Plaintiff, Defendant imposed this delay by making it more difficult for her to obtain clearance from Defendant's doctors by requiring her to travel unusually long distances to see them and by mandating she meet a physical requirement more difficult than that required for ramp employees, namely, lifting up to 99 pounds. Defendant responds that Plaintiff's allegations fail to support a reasonable inference that she was subject to an adverse employment action, a necessary element of her disability discrimination claim. Defendant's response in this regard is not persuasive.

         To state a prima facie case of disability discrimination, a plaintiff must allege that: (1) she has a disability, or was regarded as disabled; (2) she was qualified for the job; and (3) she was subject to an adverse employment decision on account of her disability. Cannon v. Jacobs Field Servs. N. Am., Inc., 813 F.3d 586, 590 (5th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). Under the ADA, as in the Title VII context, adverse employment decisions include “only ultimate employment decisions such as hiring, granting leave, discharging, promoting, or ...


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