Monday, October 25, 2010

Federal Court Dismisses ADA and FMLA Claims Against Wal-Mart

On August 26, 2010, in the case of Stoppi v. Wal-Mart Transportation, LLC, No.: 3:09-cv-916 (M.D. Pa. 2010), District Judge James M. Munley dismissed plaintiff's claims of employment discrimination and harassment against Wal-Mart Transportation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but allowed plaintiff's claims of retaliation under the ADA and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to proceed.

Plaintiff, Kimberly Stoppi, was hired by Wal-Mart Transportation, LLC in 2006 as a Driver Coordinator/Router position. Stoppi had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her early thirties, but did not reveal her diagnosis to Wal-Mart at the time she was hired.

Prior to November of 2007, Stoppi spoke with her supervisor and asked to be seated away from a window while she adjusted her medication, because taking her medication weakened Stoppi's eyesight and made her hands unsteady. Stoppi testified that her supervisor refused this request and insisted that she perform one-hundred percent or take a leave of absence. Other supervisors repeated this instruction and Stoppi instead stopped taking her medication, and suffered as a result.

Wal-Mart granted Stoppi a leave of absence related to her medical condition in November 2007 until December 2007. When Stoppi returned to work in December of 2007, there was a vacancy in a management position in the facility. A Human Resources Manager for Wal-Mart told Stoppi of the position and asked her if she wanted to interview for the job. While Stoppi was allegedly enthusiastic about applying for the position, Wal-Mart chose not to grant Stoppi an interview. Stoppi contended that she was well-qualified for the position, had nearly five years of transportation experience, had trained new employees and was already in a management position. Stoppi also argued that the employees who did receive interviews lacked the experience in transportation that she had - one had worked for a bingo hall prior to working for Wal-Mart and another had worked in a dentist's office. Wal-Mart contended that Stoppi lacked recent supervisory or management experience, and that it exercised business judgment in choosing to interview other employees with more relevant experience. Ultimately, Wal-Mart did not fill the management position.

After her return to work in December of 2007, Stoppi also claimed that she had been subject to a hostile work environment because of her disability. Specifically, Stoppi referenced five incidents: (1) on December 27, 2007, a driver commented in the breakroom in front of Stoppi that workers can get a "mental leave" at Wal-Mart; (2) on January 13, 2008, another driver saw Stoppi crumple a piece of paper and asked if she was having a "bipolar moment"; (3) Stoppi had heard other workers talking about taking medications, "looney bins" and "going postal" around the workplace; (4) In November of 2008, a driver asked Stoppi if she had forgotten to "take her pill," and in December, the same driver told Stoppi "I see you took your prozac"; and (5) in March of 2008, Stoppi's coworker gave her a coffee mug with the character "Dopey" on it. Stoppi did not report all of these incidents to management or complain about inappropriate comments, as she felt that Wal-Mart would not remedy the situation. Stoppi did complain to one of her managers about the "Dopey" mug, who laughed when Stoppi complained. Stoppi also contended that Wal-Mart's Human Resources Department "leaked" the information concerning her illness to her supervisors.

Stoppi filed claims against Wal-Mart for (1) discrimination under the ADA, (2) harassment under the ADA, and (3) retaliation under the ADA and FMLA. Under her first claim, Stoppi alleged that Wal-Mart discriminated against her because of her disability when it refused to grant her an interview for a position for which she was clearly qualified. Under her second claim, Stoppi alleged that the various comments and actions by the drivers and coworkers set forth above created a hostile work environment that was detrimental to her. Finally, Stoppi claimed that Wal-Mart's failure to grant her an interview and promote her to the vacant management position constituted retaliation for her earlier requests for accommodation and her subsequent medical leave.

The Court granted Wal-Mart's motion for summary judgment on Stoppi's first two claims, and dismissed them. With respect to Stoppi's ADA discrimination claim, the Court held that Stoppi had failed to establish an adverse employment action necessary for a discrimination claim, because it was undisputed that Wal-Mart did not promote anyone. Relying upon a prior decision by the Third Circuit, which held that a plaintiff who did not receive a non-existent employment position could not establish a case of Title VII retaliation, the District Court held that since Wal-Mart had ultimately decided not to fill the vacant management position at all, any failure to grant Stoppi and interview cannot constitute an adverse employment action, as a matter of law.

With respect to Stoppi's claim for harassment under the ADA, the District Court held that while Stoppi may have considered the comments by the Wal-Mart employees to be "hostile," the conduct was not objectively severe enough for a jury to find the existence of a hostile environment. The incidents that Stoppi complained of amounted to an infrequent few over a two-year period, and Stoppi did not point to any evidence that this conduct unreasonably interfered with her job performance.

The District Court, however, permitted Stoppi's retaliation claims under the ADA and FMLA to proceed, holding that Stoppi's argument that the stated reasons for refusing to interview her for the vacant management position were mere pretext, could be accepted by a reasonable jury. Wal-Mart's claim was that Stoppi was denied an interview because she allegedly lacked recent supervisory experience, but Stoppi introduced evidence that those who actually were interviewed had less supervisory experience than she did. As such, the Court held that a jury could find that the stated reason for Wal-Mart's employment decision - Stoppi's lack of experience - was not the real reason. Thus, the Court permitted Stoppi's retaliation claim to proceed.