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Heath v. Brennan

United States District Court, D. Maine

May 14, 2015

STEVEN HEATH, Plaintiff,
v.
MEGAN BRENNAN, Postmaster General, Defendant.

ORDER ON MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

JON D. LEVY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Steven Heath, a former employee of the United States Postal Service, has brought a suit for disability discrimination, alleging that the Postal Service subjected him to a hostile work environment, failed to accommodate his disabilities, and breached a settlement agreement. ECF No. 1. The Postal Service has moved for summary judgment on each of Heath's claims. ECF No. 35. Heath has filed a cross-motion on his claim for failure to accommodate. ECF No. 31.[1] After careful consideration, I grant the Postal Service's motion in part and deny it in part, and deny Heath's cross-motion.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Viewed in the light most favorable to Heath as the non-movant, [2] the summary judgment record reveals the following:

A. Heath's Employment Background

Steven Heath was employed by the Postal Service from 1982 until 2006 as a letter carrier based out of the Postal Service's Auburn office. ECF No. 36 at 1, 19; ECF No. 55 at 1. In 1993, Heath developed tendinitis in both elbows and had to begin wearing arm braces. ECF No. 32 at 2; ECF No. 57 at 1. Heath's tendinitis prevented him from fully performing his duties as a postal carrier, which necessitated modifications to his duties. ECF No. 39-1 at 23.

Heath's attempts to obtain accommodations for his tendinitis were met with some resistance. At one point, Heath's union representative approached a manager about establishing accommodations for Heath and was told, "I'll give him accommodations. I'll kick his ass." ECF No. 34-1 at 29. Heath eventually filed three complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that resulted in three consecutive settlement agreements with the Postal Service - one in March 1999, another in June 1999, and the third in June 2000. ECF No. 41 at 2. Two of these agreements included provisions requiring that Heath's supervisors be educated about his medical restrictions. See ECF No. 41-1 at 2; ECF No. 41-3 at 3.

Heath's need for physical accommodations elicited some negative comments from his co-workers and from management. ECF No. 34-1 at 3. Supervisors criticized Heath's productivity, and this criticism occasionally led to confrontations. See ECF No. 38-3 at 2-3. Co-workers "gave [Heath] a hard time, " see ECF No. 39-1 at 137, and publically spoke about the status of his disability, see ECF No. 58-4 at 2. In one incident in either 2003 or 2005, a co-worker saw Heath wearing wrist braces and commented that Heath must have needed the braces because he had been masturbating. ECF No. 39-1 at 26; ECF No. 38-3 at 4.

Over time, Heath developed mental health issues. In 1998, he was diagnosed by Dr. C.D.M. Clemetson with a major depressive episode, which Dr. Clemetson noted "seems [to have been] brought on and aggravated by the problems he has been having at work, following his arm injury." ECF No. 33-1 at 3. Shortly after this diagnosis, Dr. Clemetson wrote a note to Kathy Dyer, the occupational health nurse administrator for the Northern New England District of the Postal Service, detailing Heath's diagnosis. Id. at 5. The letter further noted, "[f]rom the psychiatric point of view, it is very important that [Heath] not be harassed by his seniors at work." Id.

As part of Heath's resulting workers' compensation claim for emotional disabilities, a dispute arose between Dr. Clemetson and another medical examiner as to whether Heath's mental health issues were attributable to his work environment. See id. at 31. A psychiatrist retained to resolve this dispute, Dr. David Bourne, diagnosed Heath in 2005 with major depressive disorder and an anxiety disorder, and found that the issues were "significantly related to... work-related events." Id. at 33. Bourne also wrote in his report that "[Heath] should avoid stressful confrontations, and the employer should be thoughtful in how it deals with Mr. Heath." Id. at 34.

Dr. Bourne also completed a Department of Labor work capacity evaluation form, which asked him to "please describe the duties or work environment(s) which are suitable for your patient." Id. at 36. Dr. Bourne wrote, "work with a supportive, understanding supervisor at a comfortable pace. Avoid conflicts with co-workers, avoid derogatory remarks and time-sensitive demands." Id. Following Dr. Bourne's diagnosis, Heath's workers' compensation claim for psychological disabilities was approved in March of 2005. ECF No. 32 at 9; ECF No. 57 at 8.

One of Kathy Dyer's duties was to work with employees and management to clarify employees' medical restrictions. ECF No. 34-2 at 5-6. When Heath received an M-1 or CA-17 form from a medical visit related to his workers' compensation claim, Dyer would forward the paperwork to Heath's supervisors. Id. at 8. Dyer also spoke with Michael Foster, the Postmaster at the Auburn office, about Heath's psychological needs. Id. at 10. In 2003, she advised Foster "to be thoughtful in your communication, to be sensitive to his condition." Id.

In June of 2005, Heath had a confrontation with Tom Robinson, one of his supervisors. See ECF No. 77 at 8-11. Robinson approached Heath to remind him not to discuss work while in the break room. Id. at 8-9. Heath responded that Robinson should be avoiding unnecessary confrontations with him, and Robinson did not appear to understand what Heath meant. Id. at 10-11. Robinson's response caused Heath to become concerned that reports, such as that from Dr. Bourne, were not being brought to his supervisors' attention, and he believed that his supervisors didn't know how to handle his psychological issues. Id. at 12. Heath then went to see Michael Foster to tell Foster it did not appear that Robinson "understood what it means to be an understanding supervisor." Id.

B. July 12, 2005 Modified Job Offer

Around this same time, Michael Foster prepared a modified job offer for Heath. ECF No. 37 at 5. Modified job offers are created as a result of discussions between an employee and his supervisors, and alter the duties that would typically be required of an employee if the employee did not have medical restrictions. Id. at 3. Foster spoke with Heath before drafting the modified job offer. Id. at 5. He also incorporated the recommendations of an M-1 practitioner's report from Dr. Frederick van Mourik, which recommended "4 hrs/day, 5 days/wk. Early in, early out" due to Heath's "PTSD/Anxiety disorder, " and a CA-17 duty status report form from Dr. van Mourik that recommended these same limited hours "due to psychological issues." Id. at 4-5.

The modified job offer listed Heath's "modified rehab duties." ECF No. 38-2 at 2. These included physical restrictions such as no lifting over 10 pounds, and also incorporated the modified hours schedule recommended by Dr. van Mourik. Id. Heath also asked Foster to further modify his hours so that he could come in at an earlier hour than other postal carriers in order to avoid confrontations with them. ECF No. 39-1 at 42. This request was adopted. Id. at 42-43. Heath accepted the offer, ECF No. 38-2 at 2, and the modified duties and schedule remained in effect during the remainder of Heath's employment at the Postal Service, ECF No. 37 at 5.

However, after accepting the offer, Heath remained worried that his supervisors would not adequately understand his job restrictions and the need for him to avoid stressful confrontations at work. ECF No. 34-1 at 10-11. Accordingly, he sent a three-page letter to Foster dated July 28, 2005, which listed incidents Heath had had with his co-workers and supervisors over the prior 12 years. See ECF No. 38-3. The letter asked how Heath's previous settlement agreements could be better implemented, and directed Foster's attention to two of Heath's prior medical reports. Id. at 4. Subsequently, Heath, Foster, and Thurston spoke briefly about the letter, see ECF No. 34-1 at 10-11, but no further modifications were made to Heath's job duties.

C. The Events of September 9, 2006

The events central to this case occurred on September 9, 2006.[3] Heath's account of the day, which I credit for the purposes ...


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