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Harris v. Steel Warehouse

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

August 19, 2019




         Plaintiff Timothy Harris claims that his former employer Steel Warehouse discriminated against him due to his disability and retaliated against him for filing a worker's compensation claim to boot. Harris worked for Steel Warehouse as an electrician for about five years before he suffered a workplace injury that left him without full use of his left hand and arm. For about a year and a half after the injury, Harris's medical restrictions were in flux. Harris says that to the extent he was not allowed to return to work, Steel Warehouse's actions amounted to discrimination. He also says the company illegally retaliated against him under state law for filing a worker's compensation claim. Steel Warehouse contends nothing of the sort occurred and has moved for summary judgment on Harris's claims.

         There's also a procedural wrinkle here. Harris has filed a Motion to Certify a question to the Indiana Supreme Court. He says that his state law claim presents a novel and important question of Indiana state law and that before I rule on it, I should ask that Indiana's highest court step in and guide my answer. But because I don't think the question raised by Harris satisfies the stringent requirements of certifying a question to the Indiana Supreme Court, I will deny that motion. As for the underlying claims, the undisputed facts here show that Steel Warehouse did not discharge Harris in retaliation for him filing a worker's compensation claim. Likewise, the company satisfied its legal obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and consequently, the undisputed facts show it is entitled to summary judgment on that claim too. Thus, I will grant Steel Warehouse's motion and this case will be resolved without a trial.


         Steel Warehouse is in the business of steel processing. Harris began work at Steel Warehouse as an electrician in August 2011. As an electrician, Harris was part of a maintenance team which worked to service and repair the heavy machinery used in Steel Warehouse's facilities. There is apparently no written job description of an electrician at Steel Warehouse, but the parties agree that when he began, Harris was able to perform the functions of the job just fine. Harris worked at Steel Warehouse for more than four years without much issue, and there is no indication that Steel Warehouse was planning to terminate Harris's employment for performance reasons.

         In November 2015, Harris had shoulder surgery and went on temporary medical leave from November 19, 2015 to January 4, 2016. After that period of recovery, Harris returned to work as an electrician. The parties dispute the nature of the work Harris performed from January to April 2016. Harris says that in the months following his shoulder surgery, he wasn't at 100% and couldn't do his job quite the same. Specifically, he had medical restrictions of no lifting, pushing or pulling and no overhead work. [DE 41-6.] He says that as a result of these restrictions, Steel Warehouse gave him a medical accommodation for several months, that he was only given “light work” and that, without giving specifics, when there were jobs or tasks he couldn't do, another electrician on shift did them. [DE 40 at 16.]

         Steel Warehouse says Harris mischaracterizes how the company handled Harris's medical restrictions. It says that the medical restrictions Harris had after his surgery were mostly inconsequential and didn't impact his ability to perform the essential functions of his job. Thus, no accommodation of “light work only” was required. And the employee responsible for assigning Mr. Harris work denied giving him light duty work, and that Harris did his normal job, just without any heavy lifting. [DE 41-2, Jeffrey Dep. at 20.]

         On April 19, 2016, Harris was severely injured on the job. His left arm was crushed, but the exact cause of this injury is unclear: Steel Warehouse says it was because of the “deliberate unsafe acts” of Harris and a coworker for which Harris was eventually written up for, but Harris says it was an accident and he was only written up after he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But the basic takeaway is that Harris was using a steel cutting machine and got his arm caught in it. Harris was rushed to the hospital and underwent multiple surgeries on his arm. He underwent additional surgery on the arm in June 2016. These injuries unquestionably kept Harris from being able to work for several months and even resulted in some permanent injuries.

         On July 20, 2016, after several months of recovery, Harris's doctor gave him written medical restrictions. He was restricted to no lifting or weight-bearing on his left arm and limited to an 8-hour workday. [DE 41-1, Harris Dep. at 133.] He was cleared to return to work, with restrictions, on August 8, 2016 and sought reinstatement from Steel Warehouse. But the company did not allow Harris to return to work because, according to its side of the story, Harris could not adequately work as an electrician due to his medical restrictions. Steel Warehouse's decision was based on Harris's inability to fully use his left hand, which it contends is necessary in order to perform the essential functions of an electrician. It says that this impairment was thus altogether different from Harris's limitations when he was recovering from shoulder surgery in early 2016. Harris quibbles with this characterization, noting that his doctor did not restrict him from using his left hand entirely, but he doesn't deny some limitations. Harris testified that he could grasp with his left hand, but that because he could not feel all his fingers fully, he had issues with his fine motor skills. [Id. at 158-159.]

         Harris's employer-provided health insurance terminated on July 21, 2016, in accordance with his union contract which allowed for three months of insurance while an employee was on leave. [See DE 37-6 at 73.] On August 3, Harris and his attorneys informed Steel Warehouse that he was intending to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) because the company would not let him return to work. [DE 41-29.] A week later, on August 10, Steel Warehouse issued a “Violation of Company Rules” to Harris for deliberate unsafe acts in using the shear which led to his workplace injury the previous April. [DE 41-31.] And while in his briefing, Harris mentions these events together, noting their temporal connection, he does not argue or directly imply there was any connection between them, i.e. that he was written up for the injury as a result of notifying Steel Warehouse he was going to file a complaint with the EEOC.

         Over the next several months, Harris continued to recover from his injuries and continued seeing his medical team for rehabilitation. Throughout the process, he received revised medical restrictions from his doctors. Specifically, they were revised on September 28, November 8, December 5, and April 24, 2017. While the exact restrictions Harris had varied, at each step, Harris's doctors restricted his use of his left hand in some capacity each time. And at each juncture when Harris requested to return to work, Steel Warehouse denied it for the same reason: it said he couldn't do the job without full use of both hands and there was no light duty position available that he could temporarily work in.

         On June 12, 2017, Harris received revised medical restrictions and was given only a five-pound lifting restriction. Importantly, Harris had no grasping restriction whatsoever on his left hand. Steel Warehouse reinstated Harris and he began to work again for the company as an electrician, and he continued to do so for several months.

         Harris's employment with Steel Warehouse hit another speed bump on September 11, 2017, when his medical restrictions were revised again. This time he was restricted to no vertical ladders, no climbing in and out of buckets and to an 8-hour work day. Even though there was no grasping restriction, this caused Steel Warehouse to reevaluate Harris's ability to work. It told Harris that because he could no longer climb out of an elevated lift bucket, he could no longer work overtime on the weekends when he would be the only electrician on duty. Climbing out of an elevated bucket was required to repair cranes, a frequent part of his job. Harris was the only electrician on duty and when the need came up, the company would have to bring in a second electrician to do that part of the job. But the company nonetheless allowed him to continue to work during the week (when other electricians were on duty). In January of 2018, after this lawsuit was filed, Harris resigned from Steel Warehouse and took a job elsewhere.


         Summary judgment is appropriate when “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and [the moving party is] entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of showing no genuine issues of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). When making that call, I must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Ozlowski v. Henderson, 237 F.3d 837, 839 (7th Cir. 2001). Harris is the nonmoving party. So to avoid summary judgment, he must marshal enough evidence-that is, more than a scintilla- to convince me that there are disputed issues of material fact that require a jury to resolve. Basden v. Prof'l Transp., Inc., 714 F.3d 1034, 1037 (7th Cir. 2013) (“To survive a motion for summary judgment, she must present the court with evidence that, if believed by a trier of fact, would establish each of the elements of her claim.”). A genuine issue of material fact is not demonstrated by the mere existence of “some alleged factual dispute between the parties, ” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986), or by “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Rather, a genuine issue of material ...

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