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Campos v. Steves & Sons, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, San Antonio Division

October 29, 2019

ABEL M. CAMPOS, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
STEVES & SONS, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          XAVIER RODRIGUEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On this date, the Court considered Defendant Steves & Sons, Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment (docket no. 37), Plaintiff Abel Campos's Response (docket no. 43), and Defendant's Reply (docket no. 45). The Court further considered Defendant's Motion to Strike Plaintiff's Designation of Expert Witnesses (docket no. 38), Plaintiff's Amended Response (docket no. 40), and Defendant's Reply (docket no. 44). Finally, the Court considered Defendant's Motion to Strike Response to Motion (docket no. 46), Plaintiff's Response (docket no. 47), and Defendant's Reply (docket no. 48).

         After careful consideration, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment with respect to all claims (docket no. 37). The Court GRANTS in part Defendant's Motion to Strike Response (docket no. 46) and DISMISSES as moot Defendant's Motion to Strike Designation of Expert Witnesses (docket no. 38).

         BACKGROUND[1]

         This case arises out of Plaintiff Abel Campos's (“Plaintiff”) employment with Defendant Steves & Sons, Inc. (“Defendant”), a San Antonio-based door manufacturer. Docket no. 37-2 at 6. Defendant hired Plaintiff in December 2008, at which time he began working as a welder. Docket no. 43-1 at 4. Plaintiff eventually became a Welder-Mechanic in the Maintenance Department, where he was charged with maintaining and rebuilding glue spreaders. Docket no. 37-3 at 8. This job required long hours and it regularly required lifting objects weighing up to fifty pounds as well as frequent walking, standing for extended periods of time, and stooping. Id. at 9-10; docket no. 37-43 at 3.

         In April 2010, Plaintiff took his first FMLA leave for a non-work-related medical condition, a leave of just over twelve weeks, after which he was fully reinstated. Docket no. 37-3 at 15-17. Plaintiff admits he suffered no form of demotion, adverse employment decision, or retaliation due to that leave, and he further admits he received the proper FMLA written notice and understood Defendant's policy required him to bring a physician's return-to-work note to be reinstated. Id. at 16-17.

         In the summer of 2015, Plaintiff's physician recommended that, due to heart complications, Plaintiff undergo surgery to repair his heart valves. Docket no. 43-5 at 24. Plaintiff informed his immediate supervisor, Salgino Guerra (“Guerra”), who referred Plaintiff to Susan Santana, Defendant's HR Manager (“Santana”). Docket no. 43-1 at 6. At least one month prior to his surgery, Plaintiff provided Defendant with his FMLA certification from Dr. Wendy Carpenter. Docket no. 37-3 at 13. Plaintiff's last day of work was July 20, 2015. Id. at 18.

         On August 5, 2015, Plaintiff underwent heart surgery, during which he experienced numerous complications that left him comatose and in critical condition for several weeks. Docket no. 43-5 at 25. Subsequent complications and diagnoses included end-stage renal disease, respiratory failure, a stroke, and pneumonia. Docket no. 37-3 at 19; no. 37-10 at 2; no. 37-11 at 6. Plaintiff was not discharged from the hospital until September 16, and his discharge paperwork from that day indicates he was not to return to work until cleared by a clinic physician. Docket no. 37-3 at 23; no. 37-11 at 7; see also docket no. 43-5 at 28 (indicating Plaintiff understood the requirement of obtaining a physician's release to return to work).

         Plaintiff underwent another surgery on October 7, 2015 after a previously-placed hemodialysis catheter did not improve Plaintiff's kidney function. Docket no. 37-15 at 2. On October 27, 2015, Plaintiff visited Dr. Taylor Hicks of UHS's Dialysis Clinic, where Dr. Hicks noted that Plaintiff suffered from hypertensive heart disease as well as stage five chronic, or end-stage, renal disease. Docket no. 37-16 at 2. Dr. Hicks noted that Plaintiff had recovered well from his October 7th surgery but that Plaintiff continued to complain of certain symptoms that were “not well controlled.” Docket no. 37-17 at 2. On that same day, UHS's Transplant Coordinator attempted to contact Plaintiff to proceed with a kidney transplant evaluation. Docket no. 37-14 at 2.[2] Also on that day, Plaintiff met with Santana, where he mentioned he would need to attend dialysis appointments but did not indicate he would need any further accommodations. Docket no. 43-2 at 14-18; no. 37-3 at 27.[3]

         Several weeks later, Plaintiff returned to work, where he met with Jim Parker (“Parker”), Defendant's Chief Engineer, who told him to return to work the following Monday. Id.; docket no. 43-5 at 44. Santana and Karen Schram (“Schram”), both with HR, told Parker that Plaintiff still needed an appropriate medical release signed by a physician, though Parker did not discuss that with Plaintiff, as Parker believed that “this was an HR thing, whether he had a medical release….” Docket no. 37-41 at 4.

         As scheduled, the following Monday Plaintiff returned to work, where he recorded a meeting with Parker. Docket no. 43-5 at 44; no. 43-12.[4] In that meeting, Parker informed Plaintiff that Defendant had filled his previous position during Plaintiff's absence because Defendant “literally could not operate” without glue spreaders. Docket no. 43-3 at 5-6; no. 43-12 at 20; no. 37-3 at 8. In the recording, Plaintiff and Parker discuss an alternative job placement for Plaintiff. Id. Parker offered Plaintiff a replacement job in the steel door manufacturing line, a job that came with “equal pay and better status, better conditions, [was] more friendly to him and his conditions, and…[was] a better job for advancement….” Docket no. 37-41 at 4; no. 43-12 at 28-29 (“This here is going to be a lot less strenuous work than lifting and pushing and shoving….”). The steel manufacturing line was part of a growing $7 million investment, and Parker noted he saw this job as a good fit for Plaintiff because of “his mechanical ability, his maturity, and his common sense…” Docket no. 37-41 at 4. The new position would require several physical demands - including sitting and standing for extended periods of time - but these were less strenuous than Plaintiff's previous position. Docket no. 37-43 at 2.

         In this meeting, Parker urged Plaintiff to demonstrate his commitment to the steel manufacturing line. Docket no. 43-12 at 24 (“[Y]ou have to convince me that this is something you really want to do for a [sic] future, and that's what you want to do…to work on the steel line for me to go down that road because it's a lot of training.”). Plaintiff remarked “I'll take the job because I need a job, ” and “If that's where you put me, well, then there's nothing I can say.” Id. at 25. This was not, however, a formal offer of the steel manufacturing position. Docket no. 37-41 at 5. Rather, Parker stated he needed to talk to managers at the new position to ensure it was an available position. Id.; docket no. 43-12 at 29. At that point in the meeting, Plaintiff asserted that he was “a hundred percent released” to work, with no restrictions. Id. at 31-32.

         On November 30, 2015, Plaintiff returned to work, where he met again with Parker. Docket no. 43-14. In that conversation, Parker told Plaintiff that “the green light had been given for him to take [the steel line] job.” Docket no. 37-41 at 5. Plaintiff also recorded this conversation, though the transcript begins midway through the conversation. Docket no. 43-13.[5] Parker recalls “three different times coming back to that this is a really good job for him and I could really use him. Because we needed to build a team. This is a $7 million-dollar investment; we've got to have a team of operators.” Docket no. 37-41 at 6. Parker told Plaintiff that “there was a stool that he could sit on at the computer console because of the - leg situation, which is all I knew about his condition.” Id. at 8. It is clear from both the partial transcript and Parker's recollection that Plaintiff turned down the job and that his employment was thereby terminated. Id. at 6-8 (“[H]e came into that second meeting already determined…that he wasn't going to take the job, that wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to do welding and fabrication….”).

         Later that day, Santana filled out an Unemployment Compensation Management Separation Record, where she wrote that Plaintiff “was terminated because he exhausted his FMLA leave[6] (and was not making monthly payments on ins[urance]. And also for medical reasons.” Docket no. 43-2 at 20.[7]

         On December 16, 2015, Plaintiff first applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits. Docket no. 37-29 at 2. Plaintiff's daughter filled out the initial application, but Plaintiff was present and reviewed the forms before their submission. Docket no. 37-3 at 32-33. The application stated “I became unable to work because of my disabling condition on July 20, 2015. I am still disabled.” Docket no. 37-29 at 2. Plaintiff himself subsequently filled out a Work History Report for the SSA. Docket no. 37-5.[8] In that report, Plaintiff indicated he regularly lifted up to twenty-five pounds and sometimes up to 100 pounds. Id. He further noted that his job required him to perform physical tasks such as climbing, crouching, crawling, and handling big objects. Id. In January 2016, Plaintiff submitted a “Function Report-Adult” to the SSA in which he remarked that:

The severity of my injuries has prevented me from working most recently due to numerous complications since waking up from the coma. I experience total numbness in my arms, hands, feet, back, and feet. Along with tingling and numbness in my neck caused by a plate holding a few of my discs from being crushed. My motor skills have been greatly affected as well. Walking or sitting seems to be a task now. Or just causes major discomfort in my hips and knees.

Docket no. 37-30 at 2. He also noted that “I can no longer weld since waking up from my coma, or stand for long periods of time.” Id. at 6. He indicated he struggles with tasks such as lifting, standing, walking, completing tasks, concentration, and using his hands. Id. at 7.

         Also in January 2016, Dr. Mamta Kumar with University Hospital completed a physical therapy evaluation of Plaintiff and noted in the report that Plaintiff was not working, and that one of his goals was to be able to work. Docket no. 37-19 at 3. Dr. Kumar did note that Plaintiff's rehabilitation potential was “good.” Id. at 6.

         A month later, Plaintiff saw Dr. Samir Patel and Dr. Scott Spendlove at UHS's Vascular Surgery Lab. Docket no. 37-21. In that evaluation, Plaintiff complained of continuing “pins and needles…, feeling mentally slower, and an awkwardness with doing tasks that he used to be able to do, like raking the leaves. Walking up steps is harder….” Id. at 5. The report further notes that Plaintiff “displays weakness and abnormal reflex.” Id. at 6. Though Plaintiff's mood, affect, and judgment were normal, he exhibited “abnormal new learning ability and abnormal recent memory, ” with “frequent word searching and inability to remember words and terms.” Id. The report's plan expresses concern that Plaintiff had an anoxic brain injury caused by his stroke and recommends further neurology consultations, lidocaine infusion, and beginning treatment with gabapentin. Id.

         In March 2016, Plaintiff saw Darren Hackey, a physical therapist with UHS. Docket no. 37-22. In that evaluation, Plaintiff reported that physical therapy had helped with thoracic back pain but that he continued to have “pain, numbness, and tingling in the mid-back.” Id. at 3. Mr. Hackey suggested further MRI imaging to investigate potential spinal issues. Id. The report also notes that Plaintiff “feels that he is unable to return to work, although he would like to.” Id. Plaintiff visited Mr. Hackey again later that year, where he reported he had difficulty walking, climbing stairs, and doing yard and housework. Docket no. 37-28 at 2.

         Also in March, Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the Texas Workforce Commission-Civil Rights Division (“TWC-CRD”). Docket no. 37-31 at 2. In that Charge, Plaintiff claims his termination was the result of disability discrimination and retaliation for requesting a reasonable accommodation. Id. In response, Plaintiff received a Right to File Civil Action notice. Docket no. 1-5 at 10.

         On April 15, 2016, Plaintiff filled out a new patient form at the Orthopedic Spine Clinic in which he noted his pain was a nine out of ten and that his pain prevented him from moving. Docket no. 37-23 at 2. A physician's report from that visit remarked that Plaintiff had difficulty standing for more than an hour and that “physical therapy for one month has not provided any relief.” Id. Plaintiff also reported upper extremity weakness and difficulty with fine motor control. Id. Days later, Plaintiff visited the same physician, who noted that plaintiff “is having a difficult time getting back into the workforce due to weakness and inability to perform his typical duties as a welder.” Docket no. 37-25 at 2. The treating physician expressed that his “symptoms are again concerning for cervical myelopathy and lumbar radiculopathy.” Id. at 4. He did report, however, that Plaintiff's symptoms had stabilized and that Plaintiff would like to continue nonoperative management. Id.

         Several times in July and September of 2016, Plaintiff met with Dr. Pearl Jones of the UT Health Science Center, who, when referring to Plaintiff's pain, noted that “Nothing makes it better…Gabapentin didn't help. Lidocaine helped for a few days….” Docket no. 37-26 at 2. She also noted continuing memory issues. Id. On September 21, Dr. Jones issued a letter in which she noted that Plaintiff suffered from “several active neurologic issues which may prevent his ability to work” and that “[h]is treatment is ongoing.” Docket no. 37-34 at 2. Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit on November 14, 2016 in Texas state court. As presently before the Court, Plaintiff accuses Defendant of disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under the Texas Labor Code and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”)[9], retaliation under the Texas Labor Code and the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and interference under the FMLA. Defendant moves for summary judgment on all claims.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Standard of Review

         The Court shall grant summary judgment if 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. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. To establish that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, the movant must either submit evidence that negates the existence of some material element of the non-moving party's claim or defense, or, if the crucial issue is one for which the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, merely point out that the evidence in the record is insufficient to support an essential element of the non-movant's claim or defense. Lavespere v. Niagara Mach. & Tool Works, Inc., 910 F.2d 167, 178 (5th Cir. 1990). Once the movant carries its initial burden, the burden shifts to the non-movant to show that summary judgment is inappropriate. See Fields v. City of S. Hous., 922 F.2d 1183, 1187 (5th Cir. 1991).

         For a court to conclude that there are no genuine issues of material fact, the court must be satisfied that no reasonable trier of fact could have found for the non-movant, or, in other words, that the evidence favoring the non-movant is insufficient to enable a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-movant. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In making this determination, the court should review all the evidence in the record, giving credence to the evidence favoring the non-movant as well as the “evidence supporting the moving party that is uncontradicted and unimpeached, at least to the extent that evidence comes from disinterested witnesses.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 151 (2000). The court “may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence” in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, id. at 150, and must review all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. First Colony Life Ins. Co. v. Sanford, 555 F.3d 177, 181 (5th Cir. 2009).

         II. Analysis

         A. Disability Discrimination

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendant failed to engage in the interactive process or offer to make a reasonable accommodation for Plaintiff, and that Plaintiff's disability was, at minimum, a motivating factor in Defendant's decision to terminate him. Alternatively, Plaintiff claims that he was regarded as disabled, in that he suffered from a minor physical impairment that did not limit a major life activity but which Defendant nonetheless perceived as substantially limiting. Defendant, in turn, argues that Plaintiff was not a qualified individual, that any ...


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