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Mason v. Donahoe

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

September 5, 2014

RHONDA E. MASON, Plaintiff,
v.
PATRICK R. DONAHOE, Postmaster General, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

PHILIP P. SIMON, Chief District Judge.

Rhonda E. Mason alleges she was discriminated against when her employer, the United States Postal Service, failed to offer her a new job that would accommodate her carpal tunnel injury. She has filed this lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101. The Postmaster General has moved for summary judgment [DE 40], arguing the Mason's claims are both procedurally and substantively flawed. For reasons I'll explain below, I agree and GRANT the Postmaster's motion for summary judgment.

BACKGROUND

Rhonda Mason has been employed by the United States Postal Service since 1989.[1] In 1991 Mason developed carpal tunnel syndrome in her right hand due to her work at the Postal Service. It was a serious injury that Mason needed surgery to repair it. The surgery worked, but Mason still couldn't return to work. Various health problems - she describes them as "aches and pains" - kept Mason out of work for the next six years. At first, Mason received payments from the Department of Labor's Office of Worker's Compensation ("OWCP") because of the carpal tunnel injury. But those payments stopped in January 1992, and so from January 1992 until she returned to work in September 1997, Mason was classified as being on Leave Without Pay ("LWOP") status. This meant she remained a USPS employee, but did not receive a salary.

During this time, Mason claims that she repeatedly contacted the Postal Service asking if she could return to work [DE 44-2 ¶ 3]. She let them know that she was capable of returning, so long as the Postal Service made an accommodation for her carpal tunnel. Id. According to Mason, the Postal Service refused. Id. Mason was offered a job, but she maintains it involved the same type of repetitive motion that led to her injury so she had to turn it down. Id. Eventually Mason found a position that worked for her and was able to return to her Post Office, where she has continued to work without major incident.

The events that led to this lawsuit started in late 2009 when Mason contacted the Postal Service's human resources department, known as the Human Resources Shared Service Center ("HRSSC"), with a question about her retirement account. She probably regrets making the call. The question she asked is immaterial - Mason wanted to know how to redeposit some money she had taken out of the account. What is important is that Mason's question prompted HRSSC to update Mason's retirement account information. The Postal Service has a computer system, known as the RTR, that tracks each employee's service and calculates the employee's retirement computation date. Employee benefits, like pension eligibility are keyed off of this date. Employees qualify for certain benefits based on their years of service, and their years of service are calculated using their retirement computation date. Mason had worked at the FDIC prior to starting with the Postal Service, so her retirement computation date was September 30, 1981. This means, as of January 2010, she would have had nearly thirty years of credited service. Mason claims this would have qualified her for a generous retirement buyout package [DE 44 at 5].

But, as I mentioned, Mason's question to HRSSC prompted the RTR to recompute her service information. In doing so, the RTR took into account, apparently for the first time, Mason's extended absences from work in the 1990s. According to federal regulations, employees are only allowed six months of LWOP in a calendar year before their retirement computation date is effected. Mason had spent a lot of time on LWOP in the 1990s so, when this rule was taken into account, Mason ended up losing a total of one year, eight months, and 20 days of credited service.

The change took effect on January 2, 2010. Ten days later, HRSSC sent Mason the letter responding to her initial question about her retirement account [DE 41-3]. The letter included a Retirement Plan Correction Report notifying Mason that her retirement date had been changed. In addition, HRSSC sent out a Form 50 Notification of Personnel Action on January 12, 2010 [DE 41-7]. The Form 50 is a notice form that is automatically generated any time there is a personnel action affecting an employee's salary, retirement, or benefits. Mason recalls receiving the Form 50 sometime after January [DE 41-19 at 43].

This is where things get fuzzy. According to the Postal Service, Mason contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") office on February 4, 2010 to complain about the change in her retirement date [DE 45-1 ¶ 4]. On February 12, she filled out an official EEO pre-complaint form. She stated that she had been discriminated against when "on January 11, 2010 [she] [r]ecived [a] personnel action changing my retirement date due to excess LWOP in 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997." Id. ¶ 5. The EEO counselor investigated the complaint, and, on May 5, 2010, sent Mason a letter notifying her that the counseling process had concluded. The counselor informed Mason that if she wished to continue to pursue the claim, Mason needed to file a formal complaint with the EEO within 15 days. Id. ¶ 7; DE 45-4. Mason did not file a formal complaint and the claim was closed [DE 45-1 ¶ 9].

Instead, and here we return again to the realm of undisputed facts, Mason began the EEO counseling process all over again. She contacted the EEO on May 27, 2010 to let them know that she was going to be filing another discrimination charge. Her new pre-complaint was filed on June 8, 2010 and was similar to the first [DE 41-12]. In it, Mason alleged that the Post Service had discriminated against her by not crediting her for the time she spent on medical leave in the 1990s. She wrote that she had viewed her online personnel file and discovered that she was not receiving credit for the time she was injured in the 1990s. She also stated that she had received a Form 50 showing that her retirement computation date had changed. She asked that the time be credited back and her retirement date be corrected.

The pre-counseling process concluded on August 23, 2010 and another Notice of Right to File letter was sent to Mason [DE 41-13]. This time, however, she chose to go forward with the formal complaint [DE 41-14]. The EEO dismissed her complaint sometime in October 2010, although the document is incorrectly dated September 13, 2010 [DE 41-15]. Mason appealed, but the appeal was dismissed as untimely on April 21, 2011 [DE 41-18]. So Mason filed this lawsuit in July 2011 [DE 1].

DISCUSSION

Summary judgment is proper if "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute about a material fact exists only "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In making this determination, a court construes "all facts and reasonable inferences from the record in the light most favorable to [ ] the non-moving party." Moser v. Ind. Dep't of Corr ., 406 F.3d 895, 900 (7th Cir. 2005). Employment discrimination cases, while often turning on factual questions, are nonetheless amenable to summary judgment when there is no genuine dispute of material fact or there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate the presence of the alleged motive to discriminate. Cliff v. Board of School Comm'r , 42 F.3d 403, 409 (7th Cir. 1994).

Mason alleges that the Postal Service discriminated against her in two ways. First, they refused to make a reasonable accommodation for her carpal tunnel during the period in the 1990s when Mason was on LWOP status. Second, she was discriminated against in 2010 when HRSSC changed her effective retirement date from September 30, 1981 to June ...


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