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Cadoret v. Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 9, 2018

JAMES M. CADORET, Plaintiff,


          Janet Bond Arterton, U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiff, James M. Cadoret, alleges against his employer, Defendant Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation ("Sikorsky"), discrimination in violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 1212 et seq. (Count One), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (the "Rehab Act"), 29 U.S.C. § 794 (Count Two), based upon Defendant's failure to accommodate his disability by providing an interpreter which would allow him equal access to the privileges and benefits of his employment. Defendant now moves [Doc. # 48] for summary judgment.[1] Oral argument was held on November 21, 2017. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion is denied.

         I. Background

         Defendant manufactures, designs, and services aircraft for military and commercial operators in the United States and internationally. (Def.'s Loc. R. 56(a) 1 Stmt. [Doc. # 48-2] and Pl.'s Loc. R. 56(a)2 Stmt. [Doc. # 56] ¶ 1 (together referred to as "LR 56").) Plaintiff is a deaf individual who has been a Sikorsky employee for over thirty years, working as an Electrical Installer for most of that time (including currently). (LR 56 ¶¶ 6-7, 14.) His work record, including his spotless review and disciplinary record, is generally not in dispute. (Id. ¶¶ 10-17, 19, 21, 23, 57, 58.)

         Plaintiffs primary and preferred language is American Sign Language. (Ex. 1 (Pl.'s Depo.) to Pl.'s Opp'n [Doc. # 56-1] at 31:12-13; Ex. 2 (Shepard-Kegl Report) to id. [Doc. # 56-2] at 81-82 ("In contrast with his non-native mastery of English, Mr. Cadoret is a natively fluent signer of ASL and is perfectly able to achieve communicative access via an ASL interpreter.").) He reads and writes English at a fourth-to-sixth-grade level. (Shepard-Kegl Report at 81-82.) His ability to communicate via lip-reading varies, depending on context. (Pl.'s Depo. at 30:8-31:11.) For instance, union steward Warren makes sure to face Plaintiff and speak more slowly because "[i]f he's deaf and he's not looking at my face, then he won't be able to read my lips." (Ex. 9 (Warren Depo.) to Pl.'s Opp'n [Doc. # 56-9] at 26:4-27:14.) Similarly, Plaintiff is "a reasonably good lipreader one-on-one in well-lit and quiet settings, but cannot rely upon lipreading in the noisy environment he encounters in his workplace when interacting with peers and the people he was supervising." (Shepard-Kegl Report at 81-82.) Dr. Shepard Kegl concludes that Plaintiffs speech may be difficult to understand, especially for individuals not familiar with deaf speech, and may give the impression that he is less mature than he is in reality. (Id.)

         Plaintiff s job includes participation in company-wide "All Hands" meetings, departmental meetings, daily "muster" meetings, meetings with supervisors, and various job and safety trainings. (LR 56 ¶¶ 59-61, 65, 100.) His job duties also include communication with co-workers, which was particularly intensive when he was an active working leader of between two and sixteen other installers from approximately 2007 to 2014. (See LR 56 ¶ 56; Pl.'s Depo. at 163:12-64:11, 174:8-10; 189:18-90:18.) The daily muster meetings last anywhere from 10 minutes to a half an hour or longer. (Pl.'s Depo. at 141:11-13, 163:2-7.) At these meetings, "sometimes there are people who ask questions and, [Plaintiff doesn't] know what the answers or the questions are." (Id. at 141:19-21.) Plaintiff testified that he "wasn't included in [the daily muster] meeting[s] because, again, no interpreter." (Id. at 163:4-5.)

         Because of his communication limitations in English, Plaintiff has repeatedly requested sign language interpreters from his supervisors and managers at Sikorsky, as well as from human resources. (Id. at 252:15-273:21.) While Defendant has recently occasionally provided interpreters for company-wide "All Hands" meetings, and at least one training, Defendant has refused and/or failed to provide interpreters for most departmental meetings, and has never provided interpreters for daily "muster" meetings. (Id. at 209:7-21, 211:5-14:21; see also Ex. 7 (Brant Depo.) to Pl.'s Opp'n. at 28:13-19 (Sikorsky's way of accommodating Plaintiff was through a "standing policy" of providing interpreters for meetings of 50 to 200 people, such as All Hands meetings); id. at 27:19-28:17 (Defendant "believes" interpreters are "not required" for meetings involving less than 50 people).)

         According to Defendant, for "anything that's beyond the job" Plaintiff "has the ability to meet one on-one to give him a good work environment" (id. at 75:18-76:8), and that all meetings can be "done one-on-one" after the fact (id. at 79:12-13). Defendant came up with a list of "suggestions and actions" to address Plaintiffs concerns, none of which involved providing an interpreter. (Ex. 8 (Lawrence Depo.) to Pl.'s Opp'n at 43:25-44:24.) Defendant instead provided other "modifications" (such as text-to-speech software, written materials, or meeting with Mr. Cadoret one-on-one after group meetings had occurred). (See LR 56 ¶¶ 67-73.)[2] Since mid-to-late May 2017-long after this lawsuit was filed-Defendant has finally made interpreting services available to Mr. Cadoret via a Video Remote Interpreting service ("VRI"). (Ex. 10 (Plaintiffs Declaration) to Pl.'s Opp'n [Doc. # 56-10] ¶ 2.) However, Defendant's employees do not always utilize this system, and when they do, they often do so incorrectly, leaving Plaintiff without communication access. (Id.)

         Plaintiff is embarrassed by not being able to communicate in the workplace, and frustrated by Defendant's long delays and general failure to respond to his requests for accommodation. (See Brant Depo. at 31:13-32:23; Warren Depo. at 42:18-20, 53:22-54:8.) Plaintiff testified that he "got angry" and "got very depressed the last few years." (Pl.'s Depo. at 330:8-11.) Defendant's failure to accommodate Mr. Cadoret has caused him to feel limited in the workplace and has deterred him from seeking new responsibilities and opportunities for advancement. (See Id. at 190:12-18; Pl.'s Declaration 3.)

         II. Discussion[3]

         The ADA and the Rehabilitation Act require employers to make "reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual." McBride v. BIC Consumer Mfg. Co. Inc., 583 F.3d 92, 96 (2d Cir. 2009) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A)). "A reasonable accommodation is one that 'enable[s] an individual with a disability who is qualified to perform the essential functions of that position ... [or] to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment."' Noll v. Int'l Business Mach. Corp., 787 F.3d 89, 94 (2d Cir. 2015) (citing 29 C.F.R. § l63O.2(o)(1)(ii), (iii)). Whether an accommodation is reasonable is a "fact-specific" question that often must be resolved by a factfinder. Id. However, if an "employer has already taken (or offered) measures to accommodate the disability, the employer is entitled to summary judgment if, on the undisputed record, the existing accommodation is plainly reasonable." Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

         Defendant argues summary judgment is appropriate on Plaintiffs failure to accommodate claim because: 1) Plaintiff does not need an interpreter to perform the essential functions of his job, 2) Plaintiff failed to properly exhaust his claim that he was denied equal access to benefits and privileges of employment, 3) Plaintiffs request for a full-time ASL interpreter is unreasonable as a matter of law, and 4) in 2017 Defendant made available a Video Remote Interpreting ("VRI") package giving Plaintiff access to on-demand video remote interpreters throughout his shift so there is no basis for hiring an interpreter.[4] These arguments are without merit.

         A. Plaintiff Admits he can Perform the Essential Functions of his Job but Seeks Equal Access to Meetings and Trainings

         Plaintiff is not arguing that he is unable to perform the essential functions of his job, and concedes he can perform them without accommodation. (Pl.'s LR ¶ 82.) Instead, and as discussed in more detail below, Plaintiff seeks access to equal benefits and privileges of his employment with Defendant, and specifically, an interpreter, so that he can participate in workplace functions including meetings and trainings, and to enable him to converse with supervisors and management. (Pl.'s Opp'n at 8.)

         Defendant never argues such claim is not cognizable.[5] Under Title I of the ADA, "[n]o covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." 42 U.S.C. § 12112 (emphasis added). The federal regulations promulgated by the EEOC further state that "[t]he term reasonable accommodation means . . . [m]odifications or adjustments that enable a covered entity's employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its other similarly situated employees without disabilities. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o)(1)(iii).

         Additionally, the Ninth Circuit in U.S. EEOC v. UPS Supply Chain Solutions addressed a similar fact pattern in which a deaf individual alleged he was denied the benefits and privileges of employment, including participation in meetings and job trainings. 620 F.3d 1103, 1105-06 (9th Cir. 2010).[6] The plaintiffs job involved attending both weekly and monthly department meetings, for which he had repeatedly requested an ASL interpreter. Id. at 1106-07. Instead of providing an interpreter, UPS assigned a co-worker to take notes (in English) during the meetings for the plaintiff, but both the plaintiff and the co-worker found this situation to be difficult and ineffective in the interactive context of a meeting. Id. The Ninth Circuit held that "there [was] a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether these modifications, viewed as a whole, would allow a deaf employee, even one who was fluent in written English, to enjoy the benefits and privileges of attending and participating in the departmental meetings, " especially where, as here, the plaintiff has only "limited proficiency in written English." Id. at 1112.

         Defendant does not identify any facts establishing that Plaintiff does not require an ASL interpreter to participate in meetings and trainings. On the other hand, Plaintiff points to facts in the record which support the proposition that he does need an interpreter to participate. For instance, he quotes his ...

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