United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division
Kenneth W. Walters, Plaintiff,
Thomas & Betts Corporation, Defendant.
ORDER AND OPINION
MARGARET B. SEYMOUR, Senior District Judge.
Plaintiff Kenneth W. Walters ("Plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), 42 U.S.C. § 12102 et seq. (2012); the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (2012); the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. (2012); and the common law of South Carolina, alleging age and disability discrimination and retaliation against Defendant Thomas & Betts Corporation ("Defendant"). Plaintiff was employed by Defendant at its Lancaster, South Carolina facility for approximately six years until his termination in March 2012. ECF No. 1-1 at 7, ¶ 6.
This matter is before the Court on motion of Defendant for summary judgment, filed on February 28, 2014. ECF No. 17. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition on March 31, 2014 (ECF No. 21), to which Defendant filed a reply on April 7, 2014 (ECF No. 22). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) (2012) and Local Civil Rule 73.02, D.S.C., the matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Shiva V. Hodges for a Report and Recommendation. The Magistrate Judge filed a Report and Recommendation on July 17, 2014, recommending that Defendant's motion be granted. ECF No. 25. Plaintiff filed objections to the Report and Recommendation on August 29, 2014. ECF No. 32. Defendant replied to Plaintiff's objections on September 15, 2014. ECF No. 33.
The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight. The responsibility for making a final determination remains with this court. Matthews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270 (1976). The district court is obligated to conduct a de novo review of every portion of the Magistrate Judge's report to which objections have been made. The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation made by the Magistrate Judge or may recommit the matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) (2012).
The Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation thoroughly discussed the facts of this case. ECF No. 25. Briefly, Defendant employed Plaintiff at its Lancaster, South Carolina, facility where he worked as a welder. ECF No. 1-1 at 7, ¶ 6. Sometime in 2009 or 2010, Plaintiff was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. ECF No. 17-2 at 19. The treatment prescribed by Plaintiff's doctors required him to take a large number of pills daily and to travel to his doctor's office once a week to receive treatments. ECF No. 17-2 at 30. This treatment regimen required Plaintiff constantly to drink water, which caused him to make frequent trips to the restroom throughout the workday. ECF No. 17-2 at 32. On September 22, 2010, Plaintiff requested and was granted FMLA leave for treatment of his condition. On February 28, 2012 he submitted a renewed FMLA request which specifically indicated his need to be absent regularly for the next year. ECF No. 17-2 at 23. This second request, too, was granted. ECF. No. 17-2 at 23. Plaintiff submitted numerous doctor's excuses for missed work as part of his FMLA leave. See generally ECF No. 17-3 at 22-43 (various doctor's excuses). None of these was included in Plaintiff's attendance record kept by Defendant. See ECF No. 17-3 at 20-21 (Plaintiff's attendance records). Plaintiff alleges that he was harassed by his immediate supervisor, Joe Tucholski, because of his condition, and that he reported this harassment to both the plant superintendent, Preston Dennis, and to a human resources manager, Carla Hunter. ECF No. 17-2 at 33-35.
Company records reveal non-Hepatitis C-related issues with Plaintiff's performance at work during this period. These issues included one verbal and two written warnings about his attendance, a verbal warning for violating the company's phone policy, and a written reprimand following a verbal altercation with a co-worker. See ECF No. 25 at 3-4. Plaintiff's supervisors rated him as needing improvement on annual performance reviews for 2010 and 2011 and noted problems with Plaintiff's work performance, attendance, and attitude. ECF No. 25 at 4. Defendant brought in an outside weld technician to train and work with Plaintiff. Plaintiff was, for a period of time, decertified as a seam welder and moved to a different position. ECF No. 25 at 4.
Tucholski, Dennis, and John Ryan, the plant's human resources manager, terminated Plaintiff's employment effective March 27, 2012. ECF No. 17-3 at 47. In the termination notice, Defendant noted that, despite warnings, Plaintiff "has not stayed at his work station, has had poor quality work, and has been confrontational in his response to managers and employees when requested [sic] for him to go back to work." ECF No. 17-3 at 47. The notice indicates that managers met with Plaintiff twice in March to address their concerns, but he "show[ed] no improvement" and became "more argumentative with management." ECF No. 17-3 at 47. The termination notice states that Plaintiff was fired for "failure to follow directions and poor workmanship." ECF No. 17-3 at 47.
Summary judgment is appropriate only "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show 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). A fact is material if proof of its existence or nonexistence would affect the disposition of the case under applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242 (1986). There must be "sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party." Id. at 249-50. Courts must "view the facts in the light most favorable to, and drawing all reasonable inference in favor of the nonmoving party." Moore v. Mkasey, 305 F.Appx. 111, 114 (4th Cir. 2008) (citing Garfolo v. Donald B. Heslep Assocs., Inc., 405 F.3d 194, 198 (4th Cir. 2005)). "[H]owever, such inferences must fall within the range of reasonable probability and not be so tenuous as to amount to speculation or conjecture.'" Id. (citing Thompson Everett, Inc. v. Nat'l Cable Adver., L.P., 57 F.3d 1317, 1323 (4th Cir. 1995).
Plaintiff objected to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation as to the dismissal of Plaintiff's ADAAA discrimination claim, Plaintiff's ADAAA retaliation claim, and Plaintiff's FMLA retaliation claims. The court addresses each objection below.
A. Plaintiff's First Objection: ADAAA Claims for Failure to Accommodate and Wrongful Discharge
The Magistrate Judge concluded that the facts of this case do not support claims under the ADAAA for failure to accommodate or for wrongful discharge. ECF No. 25 at 6-9. Plaintiff objects to this conclusion, arguing that the analysis "misreads Walters' case." ECF No. 32 at 1. Plaintiff argues that he was "disciplined and finally terminated because his supervisors chaffed [sic] at allowing him the exercise of his reasonable accommodations." ECF No. 32 at 2. Plaintiff does not argue, therefore, that Defendant failed to make reasonable accommodations. Rather, Plaintiff asserts that in firing him for making use of those accommodations, the company wrongfully discharged him because of his disability. Because Plaintiff specifically cites the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that "Plaintiff has not shown that Defendant refused ...