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Brown v. Mabus

United States District Court, D. Maine

October 14, 2016

RAY MABUS, Secretary of the Navy, Defendant.


          Nancy Torresen United States Chief District Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy's (the “Navy” or the “Defendant”) motion for partial summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 as to discrimination claims by former employee Vernon William Brown in violation of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 791 et seq. (ECF No. 41). For the reasons stated below, the motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.


         At the motion to dismiss stage, I interpreted Brown's Complaint as alleging that the Navy: (1) subjected him to a hostile work environment; (2) discriminated against him on the basis of his disability; (3) retaliated against him for seeking Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) protection; (4) failed to accommodate his disability; and (5) constructively discharged him. Order on Mot. to Dismiss 2, 10 n.8 (ECF No. 12). The Navy has now moved for summary judgment on Brown's disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and constructive discharge claims. Def.'s Mot. for Partial Summ. J. 29 (ECF No. 41). Brown has responded by clarifying that he is no longer pursuing his disability discrimination claim-specifically, his claim that the Navy prohibited him from operating certain vehicles because of his disability. Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Partial Summ. J. 1 (“Pl.'s Opp'n”) (ECF No. 47). The Navy did not move for summary judgment on Brown's hostile work environment claim, and neither party addressed the retaliation claim in their summary judgment briefing. Thus, I must now evaluate whether the Navy is entitled to summary judgment on Brown's failure to accommodate and constructive discharge claims. Because this motion is resolved on the threshold issues of timeliness and administrative exhaustion, a cursory recitation of the facts will suffice.

         Vernon William Brown was hired by the Navy around 1980 through a program for “handicapped employees.” Parties' Joint Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶ 12 (“JSF”) (ECF No. 55). He suffered from lead poisoning as a child, which caused developmental and cognitive difficulties. JSF ¶ 10. Over his thirty-five year career with the Navy, Brown worked as a pipefitter, motor vehicle operator, and other miscellaneous positions. See JSF ¶¶ 12-13. Brown worked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine (the “Shipyard”), where the Navy overhauls, repairs, and modernizes submarines. JSF ¶ 1. The Shipyard also serves as an operations hub for multiple naval commands. JSF ¶ 1.

         The present motion first concerns Brown's contention that the Navy failed to reasonably accommodate his disability. Well into Brown's tenure as a motor vehicle operator, the Navy began to enforce a particular licensing requirement. See JSF ¶¶ 30-34. That requirement meant that Brown could no longer operate certain heavier vehicles that he had long driven at the Shipyard. Brown faults the Navy for not helping him obtain licensing, or alternatively, misinterpreting its own regulations. JSF ¶¶ 17-26, 53-54.

         This motion also concerns Brown's claim that he was constructively discharged due to intolerable working conditions. For example, the record includes evidence that colleagues verbally tormented Brown on a daily basis, including by calling him a “lead eater, ” encouraging him to sniff the edges of lead-laden windows, and sending pictures of his teeth to a local radio station offering free dental work for the listener with “the worst smile.” Richardson Dep. 84:4-25, 86:12-14, 90:18-24 (ECF No. 38-4). The record also reveals that Brown put in for early retirement in the midst of his administrative complaints to the Navy's EEO office about the hostile work environment and harassment at the Shipyard. JSF ¶¶ 55, 57, 67, 76-77, 79-80.


         Summary judgment is only appropriate if the moving party “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 dispute is genuine if ‘the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in favor of the non-moving party.' ” Johnson v. Univ. of P.R., 714 F.3d 48, 52 (1st Cir. 2013) (quoting Thompson v. Coca-Cola Co., 522 F.3d 168, 175 (1st Cir. 2008)). “A fact is material if it has potential to determine the outcome of the litigation.” Id.

         On a motion for summary judgment, the Court construes the record in the light most favorable to the non-movant and resolves all reasonable inferences in the non-movant's favor. Burns v. Johnson, 829 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 2016). “Thus, ‘to survive summary judgment a plaintiff is not required to rely only on uncontradicted evidence.' ” Sensing v. Outback Steakhouse of Fla., LLC, 575 F.3d 145, 153 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting Calero-Cerezo v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 355 F.3d 6, 19 (1st Cir. 2004)). Instead, “[w]here the record contains inconsistencies ‘that favor in some lights the defendants and in others the plaintiff, ' as long as the ‘plaintiff's evidence is both cognizable and sufficiently strong to support a verdict in her favor, the factfinder must be allowed to determine which version of the facts is most compelling.' ” Id. (quoting Calero-Cerezo, 355 F.3d at 19).


         “The Rehabilitation Act forbids discrimination on the basis of disability against otherwise qualified individuals working for an executive agency or a program receiving federal funds.” Vázquez-Rivera v. Figueroa, 759 F.3d 44, 47 (1st Cir. 2014). The Act incorporates the procedural provisions found in sections 717 and 706(f)-(k) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”). Id. Under those provisions, an employee seeking to file a discrimination action against the head of an agency must first file an administrative complaint. Id.

         An administrative complaint is both a prerequisite for entry into federal court and a scope-setting device for the civil action that follows. The civil complaint is “ ‘limited to the charge filed with the [EEO] and the investigation which can reasonably be expected to grow out of that charge.' ” Fantini v. Salem State College, 557 F.3d 22, 27 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting Powers v. Grinnell Corp., 915 F.2d 34, 37 (1st Cir. 1990)). In evaluating the relationship between the administrative complaint and the civil complaint, district courts may “look beyond the four corners of the underlying administrative charge to consider collateral and alternative bases or acts that would have been uncovered in a reasonable investigation.” Thornton v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 587 F.3d 27, 32 (1st Cir. 2009).

         Once the appropriate administrative body has had the opportunity to investigate the administrative charge, it sends a notice of final action to the employee, who may then proceed to federal court. Vázquez-Rivera, 759 F.3d at 47 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c)). The employee must file his or her civil action within ninety days of receipt of the notice of final action on the administrative complaint. Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c)); Rivera-Díaz v. Humana Ins. ...

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