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Bouchard v. General Electric Co.

United States District Court, D. Maine

November 17, 2015

RONALD BOUCHARD, Plaintiff,
v.
GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY, Defendant.

ORDER ON DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

NANCY TORRESEN UNITED STATES CHIEF DISTRICT JUDGE.

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant General Electric’s (“GE” or the “Defendant”) motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 as to discrimination claims by its former employee Ronald Bouchard in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. and the Maine Human Rights Act (the “MHRA”), 5 M.R.S. § 4551 et seq. (ECF No. 31). For the reasons stated below, the motion is DENIED.

BACKGROUND

At the summary judgment stage, I am obligated to view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and make all reasonable inferences in that party’s favor. Johnson v. Univ. of P.R., 714 F.3d 48, 52 (1st Cir. 2013). Accordingly, the following recitation is largely the “Plaintiff’s version” of the facts. I have arrived at these facts through the parties’ consolidated statement of material facts, “credited to the extent that they are either admitted or supported by record citations in accordance with Local Rule 56, with disputes resolved in favor of the plaintiff as the nonmovant.”[1] LaFlamme v. Rumford Hosp., No. 2:13-cv-460-JDL, 2015 WL 4139478, at *3 (D. Me. July 9, 2015).

Mr. Bouchard’s Position at GE

GE runs a steam and gas turbine component manufacturing facility in Bangor, Maine. Consolidated Statements of Material Facts ¶ 1 (“SMF”) (ECF No. 35). Mr. Bouchard worked as a tool designer in GE’s Bangor facility. SMF ¶ 3. Mr. Bouchard’s job duties included designing fixtures used to hold production parts for machines and processes, making gauges to verify those processes, and repairing and modifying tools and machinery. SMF ¶ 4. In the course of this work, Mr. Bouchard routinely operated machinery, including heavy machinery, such as an overhead crane used to load heavy parts into machines. SMF ¶ 7. Mr. Bouchard’s position required clear thinking, precision, and analytical skill, as well as some amount of attention and focus. SMF ¶ 5; Bouchard Dep. 44:15-23 (ECF No. 37-1).

GE Policies

At GE, requests for leaves of absence and reasonable accommodations are handled by the Human Resources Department and the “CARE Management Team.” SMF ¶ 8. The GE Bangor CARE Management Team consists of a physician-Dr. Howard Jones; a registered nurse-Ms. Cindy Whalen, RN; and a CARE Manager from GE Health Services-Ms. Kathy Skoney. SMF ¶ 39; Smith Dep. 147:8-12 (ECF No. 39-1); Bouchard Dep. Ex. 7 (ECF No. 37-2). The record does not clearly define the exact functions of the HR Department versus the CARE Management Team. It is at least clear, however, that the CARE Management Team maintains employee medical records and is involved when an employee wants to return to work after a period of medical leave.[2] Smith Dep. 147:2-7; 148:2-5.

As a general matter, if a GE employee needs to take a leave of absence due to a non-work related disability, GE will hold that employee’s position for a period of twelve months. SMF ¶ 12. If an employee goes on leave due to a work-related injury, GE will hold the employee’s position for eighteen months. SMF ¶ 94 (explaining the distinction between leaves of absence for “workers’ compensation reasons” versus “non-workers’ compensation reasons.”).

Mr. Bouchard’s Medical Issues and Leave

Mr. Bouchard began a medical leave of absence from GE in August of 2011 due to kidney and lower back pain. SMF ¶ 21. Mr. Bouchard ultimately had two-thirds of his kidney surgically removed. SMF ¶ 22. He also suffered from disc and nerve problems in the areas around his kidney. SMF ¶ 22. Between August of 2011 and September of 2012, Mr. Bouchard was prescribed a variety of medications for his pain, including atenolol, hydrochlorothiazide, Vicodin, oxycodone, Avinza, morphine, and medical marijuana. SMF ¶¶ 31, 32. Mr. Bouchard used some combination of narcotic pain medication and marijuana on a daily basis between August 2011 and January 2015. SMF ¶ 34.

Statements on Medication from CARE Management Team and GE Personnel

During his leave of absence, Mr. Bouchard had conversations with members of the CARE Management Team about his condition and the medications he was taking. Specifically, Mr. Bouchard testified that he spoke with Nurse Whalen about returning to work, but she told him that he “couldn’t come back taking medication.” Bouchard Dep. 88:18-22. Mr. Bouchard also testified that he spoke with Dr. Jones about his attempts to get medical clearance to return to work. But, in Mr. Bouchard’s words, Dr. Jones told him “that he didn’t think that I should worry about getting a note because I was taking medication and I wasn’t going to be allowed to return to work taking the medication I’m taking.” Bouchard Dep. 114:15-18.

As he approached the end of his twelve-month leave period, Mr. Bouchard spoke to Keith Brangwynne, an Ombudsman at GE, about his concern that “time was running out” on his leave. Bouchard Dep. 160:2-3. Mr. Bouchard testified that Mr. Brangwynne told him: “[W]ow, that’s heavy medication you’re taking. Yeah, we probably don’t want you working.” Bouchard Dep. 160:6-8.

On August 3, 2012, Jill Smith from GE’s HR Department emailed Dr. Jones from the CARE Management Team regarding the situation with Mr. Bouchard. Ex. 14 to 30(b)(6) Deps. (ECF No. 37-6). Ms. Smith asked Dr. Jones to contact Mr. Bouchard, writing: “I believe he is still taking significant pain medications, which we were not able to accommodate previously.”[3] Ex. 14 to 30(b)(6) Deps. She also wrote that Mr. Bouchard “asked how long it would take to get the pain meds/levels out of his system (so that he might be able to attempt to return to work). Again, I asked him if he thought it was realistic/reasonable to consider returning to work, and I don’t think he really thinks it is, but is trying to avoid his employment ending.”[4] Ex. 14 to 30(b)(6) Deps.

On August 13, 2012, the day he was terminated from GE, Mr. Bouchard spoke to his former manager, Maurice “Moe” Fournier, who was then GE’s Manager of Quality Assurance. Bouchard Dep. 153:13-17; May 18, 2015 Fournier Decl. ¶ 1 (ECF No. 37-7). Mr. Bouchard explained to Mr. Fournier that he had asked for accommodations, but was told he could not return to work because of his medications. Bouchard Dep. 153:19-23. Mr. Bouchard testified that “Moe specifically told me that we don’t want people on the floor taking medication.” Bouchard Dep. 153:23-24.

The record includes evidence of the medications Mr. Bouchard was taking and the general requirements of his tool designer position. The record lacks evidence, however-from an expert or otherwise-on whether Mr. Bouchard’s medications were incompatible with performing the tool designer job.[5]

Medical Clearance & Application of GE’s “Break in Service” Policy

In June of 2012, GE Human Resources Manager Megan Danyi reached out to Mr. Bouchard by telephone and letter to remind him of his upcoming twelve-month “break in service” date. SMF ¶ 49. The letter stated, in part:

Our records indicate that as of August 13, 2012, you will have been out of work for 12 consecutive calendar months as a result of an illness or injury. Your employment status and service credits have been continued since your last day of work on August 12, 2011. This letter is to advise you that, under GE policy, this service continuation will cease and your employment status will terminate on August 13, 2012.
[…]
If you believe you will be able to return to work, either prior to or shortly after the break in service date, either with or without the need for reasonable accommodations, please contact your Care Coordinator or me as soon as possible so we can discuss the Company’s ability to provide any necessary reasonable accommodations. Please contact us within the next 10 days to discuss this issue.

SMF ¶ 50.

Following receipt of this letter, Mr. Bouchard contacted Ms. Danyi to request an extension of his leave period. SMF ¶ 52. Ms. Danyi told Mr. Bouchard that GE could extend his leave for a short period of time, if he provided medical certification clearing him to return to work on a specific date. SMF ¶ 52. Put differently, GE was not willing to consider any extension of leave, for any length of time, beyond the twelve-month mark without a medically-backed date-certain for return.[6]

After receiving this letter, Mr. Bouchard met with Ms. Danyi and others to discuss his options. SMF ¶ 53. The parties dispute whether Mr. Bouchard indicated at this June 2012 meeting that he was not yet ready to return to work.[7] SMF ¶ 54. The parties do, however, agree that Mr. Bouchard did not at this time have medical clearance from a doctor to return to work, with or without accommodations. SMF ¶ 54.

The parties also agree that Mr. Bouchard never obtained medical certification stating that he could return to work with or without reasonable accommodations. SMF ¶ 57. But the parties disagree as to whether Mr. Bouchard was working on getting that certification, if he was, how close he might have been to obtaining it, and further, whether Dr. Jones discouraged him from getting medical certification in the first place. SMF ¶¶ 58; 89, 105. Mr. Bouchard testified as follows on these points:

Q: You mentioned at the end of your time on leave in August of 2012 after having been out of work for a year from GE, you had bleeding around your kidney; right?
A: Correct.
Q: Were you in a position to return to work ...

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