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Coefield v. Jersey Central Power & Light Co.

December 10, 2007

JAMES COEFIELD, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JERSEY CENTRAL POWER & LIGHT CO., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: The Honorable Freda L. Wolfson, U.S.D.J.

FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

WOLFSON, District Judge

Presently before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants Jersey Central Power & Light Co.("JCP&L), FirstEnergy Corp., Dennis McGuinness and Robert Brandeberry (collectively, "Defendants").*fn1 Plaintiff James Coefield ("Plaintiff") filed the instant action against Defendants for allegedly denying him overtime work by reason of his race, disability, and in retaliation for having previously filed a lawsuit against JCP&L and Mr. McGuinness for race discrimination.*fn2 In addition, Plaintiff alleges that as a result of Defendants' discriminatory conduct, he suffered emotional distress. The six-count Complaint alleges the following causes of action, all of which arise from New Jersey state statutory and common law: (I) violations of the New Jersey Against Discrimination ("NJLAD") for racial discrimination; (ii) violations of the NJLAD for retaliation; (iii) violations of NJLAD for disability discrimination; (iv) violations of NJLAD against individual defendants for aiding and abetting the alleged acts of discrimination; (v) violations of future contract between JCP&L and Plaintiff, wherein JCP&L promises to enforce its policies, practices and handbooks that there be a hostility free work environment, free from racial and other harassment; and (vi) intentional infliction of emotional distress (collectively, "State Law Claims"). As the State Law Claims were removed to Federal Court based upon Defendants' assertion of federal preemption of all Plaintiff's claims pursuant to the Labor Management Relations Act ("LMRA"), 29 U.S.C. § 185, this Court's initial legal determination turns on this precise issue. The Court holds that based on the undisputed facts in the record, Plaintiff's State Law Claims are not preempted by the LMRA and, thus, summary judgment is DENIED; and the State Law Claims are REMANDED to New Jersey Superior Court for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

For the purposes of this Opinion, the Court will only recount relevant facts. Plaintiff, an African American male, has been employed by JCP&L for over 27 years.*fn3 Compl. at ¶ 7. He has received several promotions throughout his employment, and has been a union member during his entire tenure with JCP&L. Defendants' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ("Defendants' Statement") at ¶ 5; Plaintiff's Statement of Undisputed Facts ("Plaintiff's Statement") at ¶ 5. Plaintiff currently works as a Senior Relay Technician in the Relay Department. Id. Including Plaintiff, there are nine senior relay technicians. Defendants' Statement at ¶ 8. Defendant Mr. Guinness is a Supervisor in JCP&L's Relay Department. Id. at ¶ 6. In this position, McGuinness reports directly to defendant Brandeberry, who is the Manager of Substation Services for JCP&L. Id.

The Relay Department is responsible for installing, checking and repairing electrical relays, and is primarily staffed by relay technicians who carry out these tasks.*fn4 Id. at ¶ 3. Within the Relay Department, relay technicians are divided into three groups: junior relay technicians, relay technicians, and senior relay technicians. Id. at ¶ 9. Senior relay technicians perform similar tasks to their more junior counterparts, but are required to take on more responsibility. Id. at ¶ 13. In particular, senior relay technicians are sent to various locations to test relays; they use "test sets" which are carried from their trucks to the site. Id. at ¶ 14. There is a dispute as to the weight of the test sets, but the parties agree that these sets generally weigh more than thirty pounds. See Id. at ¶ 15; see Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 15. The technicians are also expected to climb in the course of carrying out their duties. Id.

In September 2004, Plaintiff underwent surgery and was absent from work due to a leak that was allowing cerebrospinal fluid to enter his nasal passage. Defendants' Statement at ¶ 17. Plaintiff's doctor informed JCP&L that Plaintiff would need to be out of work for at least six weeks to recover from the surgery and be on restricted duty for six weeks upon returning to work. Id. at ¶ 20; see Medical Status Report Form 709 dated 10/6/04; see also Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 20. On October 18, 2004, Plaintiff's doctor sent a fax to JCPL&L advising that Plaintiff was cleared to work with a restriction that he could not lift more than twenty pounds and could not climb. See Dr. Palmer Fax 10/18/04; see Defendant's Statement at ¶ 21. Plaintiff did not return to work on October 18, 2004; instead Plaintiff's doctor completed a form stating that he would not be returning to work for another month. Defendant's Statement at ¶ 22; see Dr. Palmer Note 10/20/04. Shortly after this, on November 4, 2007, Plaintiff's doctor returned a completed form to JCP&L showing that Plaintiff was cleared to return for light work but could not lift more than twenty pounds for the next one to two months, and again, with the restriction of no climbing. Faxed Form 709 dated 11/3/04; Defendants' Statement at ¶ 23; Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 23.

On November 8, 2004, after Plaintiff had not shown up for work, JCP&L requested confirmation regarding Plaintiff's work status. Pursuant to this request, on November 10, 2004, JCP&L received a fax from Plaintiff with a doctor's note stating that Plaintiff had a swollen optic nerve and would not be returning to work on November 11, 2004. See Fax from Coefield to Cooke 11/10/04; Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 26. Plaintiff's doctor also noted that Plaintiff would be out for work for two more weeks while he investigated Plaintiff's new malady. Id. Again, Plaintiff's doctor filled out a form, effective November 23, 2004, which stated that Plaintiff could return to work on modified duty and that he could not lift more than twenty pounds, had certain physical restrictions, and that his medications would impair his mental physical functions at work. See Form 709 effective 11/23/04; see also Defendants' Statement at ¶ 28. On November 25, 2004, Plaintiff sent JCP&L a form completed by his doctor indicating that Plaintiff could return to work on December 6, 2004, but was restricted to light duty with no lifting over twenty pounds, limitations on the amount of time he could stand/walk, sit and drive, and a notation that his medications will impair his functions at work. He was to be on restricted duty for six months. See Fax from Coefield 11/25/04; see Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 29.

Plaintiff resumed his employment on December 6, 2004. However, the next day, on December 7, 2004, Plaintiff went out on strike with his union. The strike lasted until March of 2005. Defendants' Statement at ¶ 31. Upon his return to work, JCP&L accommodated Plaintiff's restriction by complying with the doctor's note, and did not request Plaintiff to perform any climbing or lifting beyond five to ten pounds.*fn5 Id. at ¶ 32; see Plaintiff Statement at ¶ 32. In April 2005, JCP&L received another form completed by Plaintiff's doctor indicating that Plaintiff would be able to return to full duty with no restrictions on May 31, 2005. See Form 709 dated 4/6/05; Defendants' Statement at ¶ 33. The doctor clarified his recommendation, on June, 14, 2005, by faxing a notation to JCP&L that Plaintiff would continue to require a lifting restriction, as well as the assistance of another worker when lifting thirty to fifty pounds. See June 14, 2005 fax from Dr. Palmer. In addition, in June 2005, Plaintiff gave Mr. Brandeberry and Mr. McGuinness a 709 Form, completed by his physician following an evaluation on 6/1/05, that stated he could return to work with modified activity, working only 6-8 hours, that he could not climb, that he could not lift over thirty pounds maximum with frequent carrying of objects weighing no more than twenty pounds, and that he could only occasionally bend, twist, squat, and etc. See 709 Form dated 6/1/05; Defendants' Statement at ¶ 36; Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 36.

On June 13, 2005, Mr. Brandeberry allegedly informed Plaintiff that the form submitted by his doctor was not clear with respect to his restriction status, since different boxes were checked, and thus, Plaintiff was to be considered on "light duty, restricted duty." Defendants' Statement at ¶ 37; Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 37. As a result of Plaintiff's restricted work status, Mr. Brandeberry informed Plaintiff that he could not work overtime. See Defendants' Statement at ¶ 38. On July 1, 2005, JCP&L received a revised Form 709, on which Plaintiff's doctor checked off the box "full activity," but crossed out the definition of (no limitations) and stated that Plaintiff continued to have a thirty pound lifting restriction unless lifting with a partner. See 709 Form dated June 2, 2005.*fn6 Plaintiff's physician also submitted a letter explicitly stating and explaining those restrictions. See Dr. Palmer's Letter dated 6/30/05. Allegedly due to Plaintiff's restrictions, Defendants continued to deny Plaintiff the opportunity for overtime work despite his requests.

Consequently, on June 16, 2005, Plaintiff filed a grievance against JCP&L for violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (the "CBA") based upon JCP&L denying Plaintiff overtime while he was placed on restriction by his doctor. See Grievance Form dated July 6, 2005. Defendants contend that Plaintiff was denied overtime work due to his lifting restrictions. Specifically, Plaintiff cannot participate in the single person team for overtime because he needs assistance lifting and carrying his test set, which, Defendants maintain, was consistent with their policy of permitting employees to work overtime only in single person teams. Defendants' Statement at ¶ 55. However, JCP&L's implementation and existence of its overtime policy is disputed. See, generally, Plaintiff's Statement at ¶¶ 45-55; Defendant's Statement at ¶¶ 45-55. The Court shall discuss JCP&L's overtime policy more fully later in this Opinion.

After filing several grievances, which are still pending, Plaintiff filed his six-count Complaint in New Jersey Superior Court on December 20, 2005, asserting the State Law Claims. Defendants removed the case to this Court on February 2, 2006, alleging that all of Plaintiff's claims require interpretation of the CBA between Plaintiff's Union and JCP&L and, thus, the claims are preempted by the LMRA, 29 U.S.C. § 185, giving rise to this Court's jurisdiction to adjudicate the instant dispute.

DISCUSSION

I. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where the Court is satisfied that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. (56)(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986). A fact is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable rule of law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. Id. The burden of establishing that no "genuine issue" exists is on the party moving for summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 330. Once the moving party satisfies this initial burden, the non-moving party "must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). To do so, the non-moving party must "go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the 'depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,' designate 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. In other words, the non-moving party must "do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986); see also Ridgewood Bd. of Ed. v. Stokley, 172 F.3d 238, 252 (3d Cir. 1999). A genuine issue of material fact is one that will permit a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In evaluating the evidence, a court must "view the inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the [non-moving] party." Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 276-77 (3d Cir. 2002)(citations omitted).

II. Federal Preemption Under the LMRA

Section 301 of the LMRA has been held to possess preemptive force so "extraordinary" that it "converts an ordinary state common-law complaint into one stating a federal claim." See Metropolitan Life ...


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