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Valenti v. Sleepmed, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 10, 2017

PAULINE VALENTI, Plaintiff,
v.
SLEEPMED, INC., Defendant.

          RULING RE: DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DOC. NO. 24) AND MOTION FOR SANCTIONS PURSUANT TO RULE 11 (DOC. NO. 29)

          JANET C. HALL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff, Pauline Valenti ("Valenti"), brought this action against defendant, SleepMed, Inc. ("SleepMed"). Compl. (Doc. No. 1). Valenti alleges that SleepMed failed to accommodate her disability, discriminated against her, and retaliated against her by terminating her employment in violation of the American with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 ("ADA"). Id. at 5-9; see 42 U.S.C. §12101 et seq. Valenti also alleged that that SleepMed interfered with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") of 1993, but in her Memorandum of Law in Support of Plaintiffs Objection to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, she withdraws Counts Four and Five related to the FMLA, which the court so orders. Mem. of Law in Support of Pl.'s Objection to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s MFSJ Obj.") (Doc. No. 39-3) at 1. SleepMed answered Valenti's Complaint, denied the allegations, and presented various affirmative defenses. Answer (Doc. No. 9).

         Currently pending before the court are SleepMed's Motion for Summary Judgment and Motion for Sanction pursuant to Rule 11. See Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("MFSJ") (Doc. No. 24); Def.'s Mot. for Sanctions Pursuant to R. 11 ("Mot. for Sanctions") (Doc. No. 29). Valenti objected to both Motions. See Pl.'s Obj. to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J.; Pl.'s Obj. to Def.'s R. 11 Mot. for Sanctions ("Pl.'s Sanctions Obj.") (Doc. No. 34). SleepMed timely replied. See Def.'s Br. in Reply to Pl.'s Obj. to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s MFSJ Reply") (Doc No. 47); Def.'s Reply to Pl.'s Mem. of Law in Support of Pl.'s Obj. to Def.'s R. 11 Mot. for Sanctions ("Def.'s Sanctions Reply") (Doc. No. 38).

         After careful review of the submissions of the parties, and for the reasons that follow, the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 24) is DENIED, and the Motion for Sanctions Pursuant to Rule 11 (Doc. No. 29) is DENIED.

         II. FACTS [1]

         Valenti suffers from difficulties with her knees which stem from an injury she sustained in March of 2007. See Local Rule 56(a)1 Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ("L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt.") (Doc. No. 24-7) at ¶¶ 1-2. Four years later, in March of 2011, she completed an application for employment as a polysomnographer with SleepMed, in which she acknowledged that she would be able to perform, without any accommodation, the duties, tasks, and functions of the position for which she was applying. See L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 6. She was offered the position of Sleep Technologist II ("Sleep Tech") in April 2011, with a start date of April 26, 2011. See Id. at ¶ 7. On April 9, 2011, she signed a job description for Sleep Tech indicating that she had read, understood, and agreed to comply with the Sleep Tech job description. See Id. at ¶ 8. This form included a physical requirements section that stated that the Sleep Tech "[m]ust be able to lift/move up to 50 pounds and be able to walk, push, pull, grasp, bend, stoop, squat and reach as necessary." See Pl.'s Local Rule 56(a)(2) Statement ("Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt.") (Doc. No. 39-1) at ¶ 15; LR. 56(a)1 Stmt. at ¶15. One of the "essential duties" described in the Sleep Tech job description which Valenti signed was the duty to "[g]reet patient[s] upon arrival and escort him/her to sleep room." See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 12; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 12.

         Valenti primarily worked at the Wallingford Courtyard Marriott sleep lab, but would work at the Farmington lab on occasion. See L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 9. When she was scheduled to work her shift at the Wallingford location, she would be the only SleepMed employee present. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 11. At the Wallingford sleep lab, SleepMed expected the Sleep Tech on duty to greet patients in the hotel lobby and escort the patients up to the sleep lab via an elevator, as well as escort the patients from the sleep lab back to the lobby in the morning. See Id., at ¶ 13; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 13. In 2012, Valenti made a request to her direct clinical supervisor, Ainsley Palmisano ("Palmisano"), that Valenti be excused from escorting patients to and from the hotel lobby, which was the only accommodation she ever requested. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 16; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 16. SleepMed ultimately permitted Valenti to forgo escorting patients from the hotel lobby, though there is a dispute as to whether this was intended to be a temporary accommodation or a permanent one. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 19 (generally denying the facts stated in L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 19, but substantively only disputing the description of the accommodation as temporary); L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 19. She continued not escorting patients to and from the hotel lobby at least until August 2014. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 21; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶21.

         In or around August 2014, SleepMed received complaints about Valenti from patients. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 20; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 20. On August 11, 2014, Lynn Hallinan ("Hallinan"), the Clinical District Operations Manager, contacted Valenti via email requesting a doctor's note describing her limitations. See L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 18, 24. Specifically, she stated that she was under the impression that Valenti had only requested to be relieved from greeting patients in the lobby on a temporary basis, and that greeting patients in the lobby was part of her job, so if Valenti could not do it, Hallinan would need a physician's note describing Valenti's limitations. See id. at ¶ 24. On August 16, 2014, Valenti provided Hallinan and Nancy Foote, SleepMed's Compliance Officer, with a doctor's note from Dr. Russell Chiappetta, Valenti's orthopedic doctor, which stated that Valenti was restricted from "excessive standing or walking." See id, at ¶ 26. SleepMed responded by requesting additional information regarding her limitations from Valenti. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 28; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 28. Valenti responded that she was not required to provide any further information. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 29; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶29.

         On August 27, 2014 Joseph Rose ("Rose"), SleepMed's Vice President of Finance and Administration reached out to Valenti to inform her that, at the hotel-based sleep labs in Connecticut, "it is important for all our overnight sleep techs to meet the sleep patients at the front desk and escort them to and from the front desk." See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 30; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 30. He reiterated that Hallinan believed Valenti's condition was temporary and had been unaware that Valenti was still using the accommodation. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 31; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 31. Rose's email also contained the job description for a Sleep Tech and SleepMed's ADA medical questionnaire ("ADA Form"), and he asked Valenti to provide both to her doctor, who should complete and return the ADA form directly to Diane Rule ("Rule"), SleepMed's Benefit and Payroll Manager, by September 4, 2014. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 32; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 32.

         Starting in or around the beginning to the middle of September 2014, Valenti was out of work on medical leave for issues unrelated to her alleged disability. See L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 34. On September 9, 2014, Rose emailed Valenti again, informing her that SleepMed had not received the completed ADA Form and explained that, if Valenti would like to remain on the work schedule, SleepMed needed the completed ADA Form. See id. at ¶ 33. Rose sent another follow up to Valenti on October 3, 2014, explaining that the ADA Form was necessary to properly assess Valenti's medical conditions and determine what accommodations she might need. See id, at ¶ 36. Valenti responded with her opinion that she had already provided SleepMed with the information they needed, and stated her belief that she was being treated unfairly. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 37; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 37. Meanwhile, on October 1, 2014, Valenti signed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") Charge of Discrimination against SleepMed based on disability discrimination. See L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 35.

         At some time, Valenti gave the ADA Form to her doctor. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 38; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 38. The parties disagree about how much of the form was filled out, and how it was sent to SleepMed, but by November 28, 2014, SleepMed received a version of the ADA Form with pages one, two, and four filled out, and page three with a strike through. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶ 39-45; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 39-45. It was Valenti's position that, because question five on page three of the ADA Form was answered "no" and the ADA Form stated that, if the answer to question five was "no" the remainder of the ADA Form did not need to be completed, her doctor did not need to complete page three of the ADA Form. See L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶ 46. It was also clear that, despite question five being marked no, Valenti's doctor had clearly continued to answer question six on the bottom of page two. See id.

         On December 1, 2014, SleepMed terminated Valenti. See Pl.'s L.R. 56(a)(2) Stmt, at ¶48; L.R. 56(a)1 Stmt, at ¶48.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The party moving for summary judgment "bears the burden of establishing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact." Zalaski v. City of Bridgeport Police Dep't, 613 F.3d 336, 340 (2d Cir. 2010). Once the moving party has satisfied that burden, to defeat the motion "the party opposing summary judgment. . . must set forth 'specific facts' demonstrating that there is 'a genuine issue for trial.'" Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 266 (2d Cir. 2009) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). "For summary judgment purposes, a 'genuine issue' exists where the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could decide in the non-moving party's favor." Cambridge Realty Co., LLC v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co.. 421 F.App'x 52, 53 (2d Cir.2011); see also Roias v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, 660 F.3d 98, 104 (2d Cir. 2011) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, (1986)) (stating that the non-moving party must demonstrate more than a mere "scintilla" of evidence in its favor). "[Unsupported allegations do not create a material issue of fact." Weinstock v. Columbia Univ., 224 F.3d 33, 41 (2d Cir. 2000). The role of the district court in deciding a summary judgment motion "is to determine whether genuine issues of material fact exist for trial, not to make findings of fact." O'Hara v. Nat. Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, 642 F.3d 110, 116 (2d Cir. 2011). In making this determination, the court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all inferences in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is sought. See Garcia v. Hartford Police Dep't, 706 F.3d 120, 127 (2d Cir. 2013).

         Rule 11 provides, in relevant part, that an attorney who presents a pleading to the court certifies that to the best of the person's knowledge, formed after a reasonable inquiry, "the factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if so identified, will likely have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery." Fed.R.Civ.P. 11 (b)(3). If the court determines that Rule 11 (b) has been violated, the court may impose an appropriate sanction on the party that violated the rule. Fed.R.Civ.P. 11(c)(1).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Motion for Summary Judgment

         SleepMed argues that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on each of the counts set forth in Valenti's Complaint. The court will consider each of SleepMed's arguments in turn.

         1. Counts One: Disability Discrimination

         The first count of Valenti's Complaint alleges that SleepMed violated the ADA by discriminating against her on the basis of her disability. See Compl. at 5-6. SleepMed argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on Count One because (1) Valenti was not qualified to perform the essential functions of her job, with or without a reasonable accommodation; (2) Valenti did not suffer an adverse employment action because of her disability; and (3) Valenti cannot prove that SleepMed's reasons for its actions were discriminatory. See Def.'s Br. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. ("Def.'s MFSJ Br.") (Doc. No. 24-1) at 10-16. For the reasons that follow, the court concludes that there are genuine issues of material fact relevant to the resolution of each of the points raised by SleepMed. Thus, SleepMed's Motion for Summary Judgment is denied as to Count One.

         In the context of a motion for summary judgment, federal claims that an employee has been discriminated against due to a disability are analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green framework. 411 U.S. 792, 802, 804 (1973); see McMillan v. City of New York, 711 F.3d 120, 125 (2d Cir. 2013). First, "[a] plaintiff must establish a prima facie case; [then] the employer must offer through the introduction of admissible evidence a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the discharge; and the plaintiff must then produce evidence and carry the burden of persuasion that the proffered reason is a pretext." Sista v. CDC Ixis North America, Inc., 445 F.3d 161, 169 (2d Cir. 2006). A plaintiff can show the prima facie case of discriminatory discharge under the ADA by demonstrating, by a preponderance of the evidence, that: "(1) [her] employer is subject to the ADA; (2) [she] was disable within the meaning of the ADA; (3) [she] was otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of [her] job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and (4) [she] suffered adverse employment action because of [her] disability." McMillan, 711 F.3d at 125 (quoting Sista, 445 F.3d at 169).

         SleepMed does not contest the first two elements of the prima facie case, but does argue that there is no genuine issue of material fact with regard to the third and fourth elements. See Def.'s MFSJ Br. at 10-15. The court considers each of SleepMed's arguments in turn.

         a. Essential Functions

         SleepMed first argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on Valenti's claim of discriminatory discharge because she was unqualified to perform the essential functions of being a Sleep Tech, with or without accommodation, because she could not escort patients nor meet the physical lifting requirements of the position. See jci at 11 - 13. Valenti responds that the essential function of the Sleep Tech position is to "perform comprehensive polysomnographic testing, analysis, and associated intervention." See Pl.'s MFSJ Obj. at 11. This is a function she is qualified for and therefore, she argues, she can perform the essential functions of the role. See Id., at 11 - 12. She also argues that she was still able to greet and escort patients as required in the job description, she just did so from the elevators instead of the hotel lobby. See id, at 12-13. Valenti does not argue that she could greet and escort patients from the lobby. See id, Thus, the question for the court is whether there is a genuine issue of material fact as to the essential functions of a Sleep Tech.

         The term "essential functions" is not clearly defined in the ADA, which only contains guidance that consideration must be "given to the employer's judgment as to what functions of a job are essential, " and the written description of the job provided in advertising and interviewing applicants. See 42 U.S.C. § 12111 (8). The court must give substantial deference to the opinion of the employer with regards to whether a function is essential. McBride v. BIC Consumer Prods. Mfg. Co., Inc., 583 F.3d 92, 98 (2d Cir. 2009). The Second Circuit has also directed courts to review the regulations promulgated by the EEOC to further illuminate what constitutes an "essential function." Id. at 98; see 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(1) (2012) ("The term essential functions means the fundamental job duties of the employment position the individual with a disability holds or desires. The term 'essential functions' does not include the marginal functions of the position.").

         The EEOC regulations explain that a job function may be considered "essential" for any of the following non-exhaustive reasons: (1) "the reason the position exists is to perform that function;" (2) there is a "limited number of employees available among whom the performance of that job function can be distributed; and/or" (3) the job function is so highly specialized "that the incumbent in the position is hired for his or her expertise or ability to perform the particular function." 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(2). The regulations further indicate that the following evidence is relevant to the determination of whether a job function is essential:

(i) The employer's judgment as to which functions are essential;
(ii) Written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing ...

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