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Baxley v. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions LLC

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division

April 26, 2018

Steven W. Baxley, Plaintiff,
v.
Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, LLC and Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, [1]Defendants.

          AMENDED ORDER AND OPINION

         On March 31, 2018, the court accepted the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (ECF No. 49) granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 32). (ECF No. 57.) On its own accord and in consideration of the revised standard for constructive discharge, [2] the court VACATES IN PART its March 31, 2018 Order (ECF No. 57) as to Plaintiff's claim for constructive discharge, and substitutes this Order.

         I.RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff has been an employee at the Savannah River Site (SRS) since 1989. (ECF No. 32-2 at 8 (28:4-8.) Plaintiff worked as a Production Operator, and as a requirement for his job, he was required to obtain and maintain all qualifications. (Id. at 17 (64:3-14); see also ECF No. 32-3 at 21.) In 2009, Plaintiff was placed on work restriction at the request of his doctor because he has sleep apnea. (ECF No. 32-2 at 10 (34:20-22).) As a result of this restriction, Plaintiff was limited to working only day shifts. (Id. at 35:4-14.) Plaintiff applied for a Grade 18 Production Operator position at the Savannah River National Laboratory (“SRNL”), and in October 2012, he started this position. (Id. at 14 (51:19-22).)

         As a Production Operator at SRNL, Plaintiff was required to undergo training specific to that facility and obtain all required qualifications. (Id. at 17 (64:3-17).) Part of this training was learning the operations of three different watchstations (776-A Watchstation, Facility Operator Watchstation, Control Area Watchstation). (Id. at 12-13 (44:12-46:2); see also ECF No. 32-3 at 21.)

         Plaintiff qualified for the 776-A Watchstation and moved to training for the Facility Operator Watchstation. (ECF No. 32-3 at 17 (62:1-6).) As part of his Facility Operator Watchstation training, Plaintiff had to take part in a “walkthrough” with his manager, Kenny Franklin. (ECF No. 32-2 at 15 (53:5-19).) In an August 2013 walkthrough, Franklin tested Plaintiff's knowledge of the facility's operations by asking him questions related to various operations and procedures in each of the areas of the facility. (ECF No. 32-3 at 13 (46:10-22).) In order to be qualified as a Production Operator and to work in the Facility Operator Watchstation, Plaintiff had to pass Franklin's oral examination. (See Id. at 5 (15:9-16:21).) If he could not qualify, he would have to be reassigned to another position. (Id. at 8 (27:18-28:4).) Plaintiff did not provide Franklin with satisfactory responses to some of the questions on the walkthrough, therefore, Plaintiff did not qualify for the Facility Operator's Watchstation. (Id. at 5 (16:3-21).) However, Franklin did not fail Plaintiff, instead he suspended the test to allow Plaintiff the chance to learn the operations and procedures of the Facility Operator Watchstation. (Id. at 15 (54:24-55:25).) By doing so, Plaintiff was not immediately reassigned for training with a different group. (Id. at (56:1-14).)

         One of the areas where Plaintiff needed additional training was on ventilation processes, including procedures concerning ventilation hoods in the laboratories. (ECF No. 32-2 at 18 (65:1-66:25); (68:5-11).) The ventilation hoods could not be turned off during the day when the technicians were usually working because the ventilation hoods removed radioactive materials from the air. (Id. at 18 (66:5-67:5).) As a result of the ventilation hoods not being able to be turned off during the day, Franklin stated that Plaintiff would have to move to shift work on nights and weekends in order to train on the ventilation hoods. (Id.; ECF No. 32-3 at 5-6 (16:24-17:15).) Shift work on nights and weekends would allow Plaintiff to actually work with the equipment and simulate. (Id. at 6 (19:16-20:2).) At this point Plaintiff told Franklin that he was on a work restriction and that he could not perform shift work at night. (ECF No. 32-2 at 19 (71:9-20).) Franklin then described what the procedure would be if Plaintiff could not qualify for the Facility Operators Watchstation and the accommodations process that could be undertaken to help Plaintiff qualify.[3] (Id. at (71:9-72:10).) Franklin also suggested that Plaintiff needed to go to his doctor in order to be released from his work restriction. (Id. at 20 (74:12-25); ECF No. 32-3 at 7 (22:12-22).)

         In August 2013, Plaintiff met with Donna Fowler in Human Resources to discuss the reason Plaintiff was being asked by Franklin to be relieved of his work restriction. (ECF No. 32-2 at 22 (83:6-20).) On August 26, 2013, Plaintiff e-mailed Fowler stating that he would be willing to work after 5pm if necessary, and Fowler relayed to Plaintiff that a meeting was being planned to discuss how to handle Plaintiff's work restriction. (ECF No. 32-5 at 2 ¶ 7; ECF No. 32-2 at 70.) On September 12, 2013, a “Path Forward” meeting was held with representatives from Human Resources and Plaintiff's managers to discuss options for accommodating Plaintiff's work restriction. (ECF No. 32-5 at ¶ 8.) It was the group's decision that they needed more information from Plaintiff's treating physician before it could move forward with any accommodations. (Id. at 2-3 ¶ 9.)

         On September 19, 2013, Franklin and Cindy Lyons met with Plaintiff and informed him that the reasonable accommodations process had begun and that if he felt that his restrictions were no longer permanent, then he should be reevaluated by his doctor. (ECF No. 32-2 at 24 (90:22-91:22), 69.) Plaintiff was instructed that, if his doctor lifted his restrictions, by October 14, 2013 he was to give a letter to Dr. Johnson, the onsite SRNL physician, stating that his doctor had lifted his restrictions. (Id. at 69.) Plaintiff testified that he understood where to take the letter from his doctor. (Id. at 25 (93:21-22).) On September 24, 2013, Plaintiff met with his treating physician and requested that his work restriction be lifted for two months (id. at 24 (92:3-6)), which his physician granted (id. at 21 (78:13-23), 56). Plaintiff turned the letter in to Defendant in early October 2013. (See Id. at 56).

         After the September 19, 2013 meeting, Plaintiff had another meeting with Willie Bell from the EEOC, Ned Baynham from Human Resources, Fowler, Franklin, and Lyons. (Id. at 25-26 (95:25-98:25).) Plaintiff testified that, during this meeting, he was informed that there were no more jobs available for him. (Id. at 26 (99:13-100:9).)

         In October 2013, Plaintiff contacted Pat Smith in Human Resources to discuss his eligibility to retire. (Id. at 29 (110:23-111:9).) Plaintiff testified that he told Smith that “there wasn't another job available and that [he] would be medically discontinued [because of this fact]” (id. (111:2-6)), and Plaintiff testified that Smith told him that “it would be better for [him] to take earlier retirement than to be medically discontinued and that's when [he] decided to take retirement” (id. (111:6-9)). On October 9, 2013, Plaintiff notified Fowler that he was retiring effective October 31, 2013. (Id. at 29-30 (112:25-113:2)); (see also ECF No. 38 at 166 (e-mail to Fowler).)

         II. RELEVANT PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On March 21, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, and Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, LLC under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. (ECF No. 1.) On March 27, 2017, SRNS, LLC filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 32), and on April 19, 2017, Plaintiff responded (ECF No. 37).[4] On April 26, 2017, SRNS, LLC replied. (ECF No. 39.) On January 19, 2018, Magistrate Judge Thomas E. Rogers, III filed the Report (ECF No. 49.) On February 2, 2018, Plaintiff filed an Objection to the Report (ECF No. 50), and on February 16, 2018, SRNS, LLC replied (ECF No. 51).

         III. JURISDICTION

         The court has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims via 28 U.S.C. § 1331, as they arise under laws of the United States. Plaintiff brings his claims pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq.

         IV. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Magistrate Judge's Report is made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(e) for the District of South Carolina. The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this court, which has no presumptive weight. The responsibility to make a final determination remains with this court. See Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). The court is charged with making a de novo determination of those portions of the Report to which specific objections are made. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(2)-(3). “The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence, or return the matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions.” Id. at 72(b)(3).

         Summary judgment should be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if proof of its existence or nonexistence would affect the disposition of the case under the applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). A genuine question of material fact exists where, after reviewing ...


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