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Mullen v. New Balance Athletics Inc

United States District Court, D. Maine

February 27, 2019

JESSICA MULLEN, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW BALANCE ATHLETICS, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER ON MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Nancy Torresen United States District Judge.

         In this employment action, Plaintiff Jessica Mullen alleges that Defendant New Balance Athletics, Inc. (“New Balance”) discriminated against her because of her disability and retaliated against her for requesting reasonable accommodations for that disability in violation of the Maine Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Compl. (ECF No. 1). Before me are the Defendant's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 34), and the Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment on the Defendant's affirmative defense of failure to mitigate damages. (ECF No. 40.) For the reasons that follow, both motions are DENIED.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         In 2004, Mullen underwent a tubal ligation—a medical sterilization procedure. CSMF ¶ 26, 98. At the time, Mullen did not want to have more children, but she had not ruled out having another child at some point in the future. CSMF ¶ 99. The doctor who performed the tubal ligation informed Mullen that she could potentially have the procedure reversed and become pregnant. CSMF ¶ 100.

         Years later, Mullen began to experience episodes of extreme pain caused by ovarian cysts. CSMF ¶¶ 75-76. In June of 2013, Mullen had her right ovary and fallopian tube surgically removed (a procedure referred to as a right salpingo-oophoretomy) in an effort to treat her cysts. CSMF ¶ 75. The cysts returned, and Mullen's pain became incapacitating. CSMF ¶¶ 78-83. Eventually, on April 1, 2015, Mullen opted to undergo a total hysterectomy and left salpingo-oophorectomy (the removal of her uterus and her left ovary and fallopian tube) to eliminate the cysts. CSMF ¶¶ 88-89. Before her surgery, Mullen's surgeon advised her that the procedure was permanent, Ex. 7 at 1 (ECF No. 31-6), and that it would render her incapable of conceiving or bearing children. Ex. G at 82:10-22 (ECF No. 39-7); see CSMF ¶ 96. The doctor also explained that the procedure would impact Mullen's endocrine system, because ovaries are responsible for generating estrogen and other hormones. CSMF ¶ 91. The doctor told Mullen that after her remaining ovary was removed she “w[ould] be in menopause” and would experience symptoms including hot flashes, becoming emotionally overwhelmed, and crying. CSMF ¶ 91, 93; Ex. 7 at 1. Mullen began to experience the symptoms her surgeon had described not long thereafter. CSMF ¶ 94.

         Less than two months after her surgery, Mullen's doctor cleared her to work without any restrictions and, on May 18, 2015, Mullen applied for a position as a stitcher with New Balance. CSMF ¶¶ 14, 22. She was hired. See CSMF ¶ 37.[2]

         New Balance manufactures athletic footwear at three facilities in Maine, located in Skowhegan, Norridgewock, and Norway. CSMF ¶ 1. New Balance requires new employees like Mullen to undergo a training program at its Norridgewock facility. CSMF ¶¶ 34, 36. Mullen began her training on June 23, 2015, under the instruction of trainer Julie Prentiss. CSMF ¶¶ 37-38. At some point during the beginning of Mullen's training period, Mullen mentioned to Prentiss that she had recently had a hysterectomy. CSMF ¶ 40.

         Mullen had difficulty mastering one of the stitching machines. CSMF ¶ 50. On the morning of July 10, 2015, Mullen was working with that machine when she had an abrupt exchange with Prentiss. See CSMF ¶¶ 53, 103-104. The parties dispute the exact nature of the exchange, but it is undisputed that Mullen became very upset and began to cry.[3] CSMF ¶ 54.

         Prentiss contacted Norridgewock human resources manager Frances Fisher and brought Mullen to one of the facility's cafeterias to wait. CSMF ¶ 55. Prentiss explained to Fisher what had happened, informing Fisher that Mullen had an “outburst.” CSMF ¶¶ 56, 109. Fisher talked with Mullen briefly, and then, because Mullen had been hired to work at New Balance's Skowhegan facility, Fisher called in Skowhegan human resources manager Rachel Merry. CSMF ¶¶ 57, 59. When Merry arrived, Fisher and Prentiss filled her in about what had happened with Mullen, and Prentiss told the human resources mangers that Mullen had undergone a hysterectomy three months prior that affected her emotions. CSMF ¶¶ 61, 128.

         Merry and Fisher then spoke with Mullen about her purported outburst. CSMF ¶ 125. The parties' witnesses have offered conflicting testimony about that conversation. However, the following points are not in dispute:

• Mullen told Merry and Fisher that she had undergone a hysterectomy, that she was having hot flashes, and that she was working with her doctor on medications because her emotions were “all over the place.” CSMF ¶¶ 126, 129; see CSMF ¶ 63.
• Merry told Mullen that “maybe this isn't the right time for you at New Balance because what you explained about the working environment and instructions from your trainer should not have set you off as it did.” CSMF ¶ 133.
• Mullen asked Merry: “What does this mean? Am I being let go?” CSMF ¶ 135.
• Merry responded that “that is a decision that I want us to reach together.” CSMF ¶ 136. She added that “seeing you sitting here in the condition you are in, I still feel that this is not the right time for you here at New Balance.” CSMF ¶ 138.
• Mullen cried at times during the exchange. CSMF ¶ 62.
• The conversation ended with Mullen filling out and signing a resignation form. CSMF ¶ 64. On the form, Mullen indicated that the reason for her resignation was “emotional reasons.” CSMF ¶ 156.
Mullen has testified to the following additional facts, all of which the Defendant denies:
• Mullen told Merry and Fisher that her doctor told her that her hysterectomy would cause her to go into early menopause over the next years. CSMF ¶ 126.
• After informing Merry and Fisher about her hysterectomy and its impact on her mood, Mullen told Merry and Fisher that all she had to do was “just wipe my face and go back to work.” CSMF ...

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