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Williams v. Lincoln Financial Group

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

July 23, 2018



          William C. Lee, Judge U.S. District Court

         This matter is before the Court on the motion for summary judgment and memorandum in support filed by Defendant Lincoln Financial Group on January 22, 2018 (DE 27 and 28). Plaintiff Latissha Williams filed a response in opposition on April 26, 2018 (DE 34) and Lincoln fled a reply on May 10 (DE 35).[1] For the reasons set forth below, the motion is GRANTED.


         Latissha Williams filed this lawsuit against Lincoln, her former employer, on February 7, 2018. Complaint (DE 1). Williams claims that Lincoln discriminated against her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., by failing to provide her with an accommodation-in this case working from home or a remote location instead of at the office-due to her environmental allergies. Complaint, p. 2. Williams filed this lawsuit pro se, but eventually was able to obtain counsel, who entered appearances on Williams' behalf on March 15 and April 26 (DE 32, Notice of Appearance by Jon J. Olinger; DE 33, Notice of Appearance by James A. Hanson). Williams asserts that she suffered from environmental allergies, of an unknown etiology, while working in her office at Lincoln. She requested an accommodation to permit her to work from home or another remote location. Williams submitted documents from her physician stating that she suffered from this ailment and needed to work from home or some other location outside of Lincoln's offices. Lincoln considered Williams' request but denied it on the basis that the essential duties of her job had to be performed onsite. Williams ended up leaving her employment, claiming she was forced to resign when Lincoln refused to accommodate her by granting her request to work from home. Complaint, p. 2.

         Williams' tenure at Lincoln began when she “was initially placed with Lincoln by a temporary employment agency in 2010.” Defendant's Memorandum, p. 2 (citing Williams Depo., p. 16).[2] “In October 2013, Lincoln hired Plaintiff as a full-time employee in the Marketing Department in the position of Senior Service Representative. Id. (citing Williams Depo., pp. 16-17, 23-24). Williams' job duties “entered on preparing enrollment kits for employer retirement plans.” Id. (citing Williams Depo., pp. 30-34). These enrollment kits contained various information about specific retirement plans, such as “when a customer's employee was able to enroll in the retirement plan, the percentage for matching contributions made by the employer, the amount the employee could invest in the plan, and contact information for the retirement plan.” Id., p. 3. According to Lincoln, the process for compiling these enrollment kits, and Williams' role in that process as a Senior Service Representative, went like this:

[Williams] received information to include in the enrollment kits from Lincoln Account Managers, who in turn received the information from the Lincoln customers for whom Plaintiff was preparing enrollment kits. . . . Prior to sending the final version of the enrollment kit to customers, Plaintiff would provide the enrollment kit to another Senior Service Representative . . . for proofreading. . . . Similarly, Plaintiff proofread enrollment kits prepared by other [SSRs]. . . . Depending on the circumstances, Plaintiff either sent the enrollment kit to her co-worker via [e-mail] or printed a hard copy of the kit to provide to her co-worker for proofreading. Plaintiff provided a printed copy of the kit to her co-worker for proofreading where there was a significant amount of customization for the kit or when there were specific concerns about ensuring the kit was properly prepared for the customer. . . . Plaintiff was unable to estimate how often she delivered printed copies of enrollment kits to co-workers for proofreading versus sending copies via e-mail. . . . Rather, she made that determination based upon the individual customer's requirements. . . . There was no standard turnaround time in which the enrollment kits were required to be completed for delivery to the customer. . . . The turnaround time was simply dependent upon the customer's needs. . . . However, customers routinely required enrollment kits to be completed on an expedited basis. . . . [Williams] regularly interacted with her supervisor in order to complete her job duties. . . . The amount of interaction with her supervisor varied depending upon the customer and its specific needs. . . . Plaintiff also worked with other [SSRs] to jointly prepare enrollment kits. . . . [SSRs] also filled in for each other as needed, often under circumstances dealing with rush jobs for customers.

Id., pp. 3-6 (citing Williams Depo., pp. 31-51). Lincoln' argues that Williams could not perform her job duties remotely, whether from home or some other location, given that she had to interact with coworkers to complete her tasks. While Williams does not dispute that she interacted with colleagues to prepare enrollment kits, she insists that Lincoln exaggerates the degree of interaction required or that it had to be accomplished in person. Williams writes as follows:

In her deposition, Plaintiff indicates that she worked with twenty (20) or more account managers on a regular basis. . . . Plaintiff states that some account managers worked “in Lincoln, various floors, various buildings.” . . . Plaintiff also states that some account managers “worked from home.” . . . With respect to how Plaintiff interacted with these account managers, Plaintiff answered, “Via e-mail.” . . .
Plaintiff described her job function during the deposition as follows:
I would make sure that information was entered into the system correctly, proofread it for aesthetics, grammar. And then once my portion was done, I would send the pdf over to the vendor so the vendor could print the enrollment kit so the enrollment kits can be delivered on time for the employer's seminars or conferences that they were having for the employees or for the new employees.

         Plaintiff's Response, pp. 6-7 (citing and quoting Williams Depo., pp. 33-34). In other words, “Plaintiff contends that the job consisted of processing information that was rarely reduced to hard copy. . . . Plaintiff's deposition as noted above, reinforces her contention that the job was primarily performed on a computer processing information available to any computer with access to Defendant's system located virtually anywhere. . . . In fact, Plaintiff's deposition points out that some of the account managers with whom Plaintiff interacted ‘worked from home.'” Id., pp. 7-8. Williams argues that she could have performed her job duties from home and Lincoln's refusal to allow her to do so therefore violated the ADA.

         Lincoln argues that it is entitled to summary judgment for two reasons. First, Lincoln contends that Williams' claims are “barred by the applicable limitations period . . . [because] Plaintiff's request to work from home was denied in excess of 300 days prior to the filing of Plaintiff's Charge of Discrimination with the [EEOC].” Defendant's Memorandum in Support, p. 1. Second, Lincoln argues that “the essential functions of Plaintiff's position could not be performed from home. Rather, the job functions required Plaintiff to work from Lincoln's office, just like every other Lincoln employee in the same position. As a result, Plaintiff's accommodation request was not reasonable under the ADA.” Id., pp. 1-2.


         Summary judgment is appropriate when the record shows that there is “no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Disputes concerning material facts are genuine where the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In deciding whether genuine issues of material fact exist, the court construes all facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Id. at 255. However, neither the “mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties, ” id., 477 U.S. at 247, nor the existence of “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986), will defeat a motion for summary judgment. Michas v. Health Cost Controls of Ill., Inc., 209 F.3d 687, 692 (7th Cir. 2000).

         Summary judgment is not a substitute for a trial on the merits nor is it a vehicle for resolving factual disputes. Waldridge v. Am. Hoechst Corp., 24 F.3d 918, 920 (7th Cir. 1994). Therefore, after drawing all reasonable inferences from the facts in favor of the non-movant, if genuine doubts remain and a reasonable fact-finder could find for the party opposing the motion, summary judgment is inappropriate. See Shields Enterprises, Inc. v. First Chicago Corp., 975 F.2d 1290, 1294 (7th Cir. 1992); Wolf v. City of Fitchburg, 870 F.2d 1327, 1330 (7th Cir. 1989). If it is clear that a plaintiff will be unable to satisfy the legal requirements necessary to establish his or her case, summary judgment is not only appropriate, but mandated. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; Ziliak v. AstraZeneca LP, 324 F.3d 518, 520 (7th Cir. 2003). Under Rule 56, the movant has the initial burden of establishing that a trial is not necessary. Sterk v. Redbox Automated Retail, LLC, 770 F.3d 618, 627 (7th Cir. 2014). “That burden may be discharged by showing . . . that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The nonmovant “must go beyond the pleadings (e.g., produce affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, or admissions on file) to demonstrate that there is evidence upon which a jury could properly proceed to find a verdict in [its] favor.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “The existence of a mere scintilla of evidence, however, is insufficient to fulfill this requirement.” Wheeler v. Lawson, 539 F.3d 629, 634 (7th Cir. 2008). “[S]peculation and conjecture” also cannot defeat a motion for summary judgment. Cooney v. Casady, 735 F.3d 514, 519 (7th Cir. 2013). In addition, not all factual disputes will preclude the entry of summary judgment, only those that “could affect the outcome of the suit under governing law.” Outlaw v. Newkirk, 259 F.3d 833, 837 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted).


         I. Limitations period.

         Williams filed her Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC on February 29, 2016. Complaint, p. 4 (copy of EEOC charge). Lincoln notes that “300 days before that date is May 5, 2015. Thus, any failure to accommodate claim that accrued before May 5, 2015, is untimely.” Defendant's Memorandum, p. 12.[3] Lincoln contends that Williams' claims are barred from the get-go because her “request that she be permitted to work from home as an accommodation was denied by Lincoln on March 17, 2015, or more than 300 days before she filed her EEOC charge, making her claim untimely.” Defendant's Memorandum, p. 10 (citations omitted). Williams contends her claim was timely because even after her request was denied, she continued to pursue the matter until she resigned (or was constructively discharged) on June 18. Plaintiff's Response, pp. 8-9. In other words, Williams argues that the interactive process was ongoing even after March 17, 2015, but Lincoln continued to deny her requested accommodation, which she contends extends the filing deadline to 300 days from the date she was constructively discharged. Lincoln retorts by arguing that “[t]he Seventh Circuit has stated that, for purposes of the 300-day limitations period, the employer's discriminatory act occurs ‘when the defendant has taken the action that injures the plaintiff and when the plaintiff knows she has been injured.'” Defendant's Reply (DE 35), p. 11 (quoting Sharp v. United Airlines, Inc., 236 F.3d 368, 372 (7th Cir. 2001) (italics in original)). Lincoln insists that the company “informed Plaintiff of its decision to deny her request to work from home in March 2015. Lincoln took no further alleged discriminatory action after this date. Although Plaintiff reiterated her request to work from home one day before her resignation-on June 17, 2015-she did not wait for a response from Lincoln before resigning on June 18, 2015.” Id., p. 11. Lincoln insists that Williams cannot claim that an ongoing interactive process (or more specifically, a breakdown in that process as a result of Lincoln's alleged intransigence) constituted a continuing violation that served to extend the deadline for filing a charge, and also that she “cannot use her ‘constructive discharge' claim to make her charge timely.” Id. Lincoln insists that even “assuming her alleged constructive discharge makes her charge timely, Plaintiff has set forth absolutely no evidence to support such a claim. Her mere assertion that she was constructively discharged is not enough to survive summary judgment.” Id., p. 12 (citations omitted).

         Lincoln cites numerous cases that support its position that Williams' EEOC charge was untimely, including Dooley v. Abbott Labs., 2009 WL 1033600, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 17, 2009) (plaintiff's failure to accommodate claims were time-barred because plaintiff could “pinpoint the exact date” the employer refused her accommodation request); Fox v. Lear Corp., 327 F.Supp.2d 946, 952 (S.D. Ind. July 28, 2004) (statute of limitations begins to run when employer rejects employee's request); and Mendez v. City of Chicago, 2004 WL 29805982004, *4 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 22, 2004) (employer's denial of employee's repeat request for previously deniedaccommodations does not constitute a new discriminatory act or make the previous denial part of a continuing violation). Id., pp. 10-11 (italics added). Williams argues that the date of her alleged constructive discharge is the ...

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