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Ronald Riley v. John E. Potter

August 25, 2011

RONALD RILEY,
GENEVA RILEY,*FN1 AND
GEORGE H. LEWIS, JR., ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED,
PLAINTIFFS,
v.
JOHN E. POTTER,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wigenton, District Judge.

OPINION

Before the Court is Defendants John E. Potter and United States of America's ("Defendants" or "United States") Motion for Summary Judgment ("Motion") pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). This Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343. Venue is proper in this District pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391. This Motion is decided without oral argument pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 78. For the reasons discussed below, this Court grants Defendants' Motion.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On October 21, 2008, Ronald Riley ("Riley") and George H. Lewis, Jr. ("Lewis") (collectively "Plaintiffs") initiated this class action suit on behalf of themselves and "current and former United States Postal Services ("USPS") employees who were separated from employment and/or assigned to ‗light duty' at the [Dominick V. Daniels Processing and Distribution Center ("DVD")] in late 2007 or early 2008 pursuant to USPS' [sic] National Reassessment Program ("NRP")." (Compl. ¶ 8.) The Complaint alleged a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983, Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., (the "Act") and New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 10:5-1 et seq., ("LAD"). Riley and Lewis also sought individual relief for the intentional infliction of emotional distress.*fn2 Because this action centers on the NRP and Riley and Lewis's employment histories with the USPS, a discussion of that follows.

The NRP

In 2007, the USPS underwent a NRP "to look at all of [the USPS's] light duty assignments and make sure there was appropriate supporting documentation." (Clark Decl. Ex. H, Bongiovanni Aff. ¶ 4.) The purpose of the NPR was to "hav[e] employee[s] update their medicals and get[] them in work that would fit their restrictions." (Clark Decl. Ex. G, Caldwell Aff. ¶ 17.) An injured USPS employee may fall into several different disability classifications. Three such categories are light duty, limited duty, and rehabilitation. (Miller Cert. Ex. 1, Rowan Dep. 25:1-6, 33:7-9.) Each of these categories is explained below.

A light duty employee is "an individual who has been injured off the job or has some other medical condition that prevents them from performing all the duties of their regularly bid position." (Id. at 18:17-21; Rowan Decl. ¶4.) A light duty position must be requested in writing. Additionally, a light duty employee may be sent home upon arrival at work if there was no work. (Miller Cert. Ex. 2, Caldwell Dep. 46:10-14.) Light duty employees are also not guaranteed forty hours of work a week. (Id. at 35:14-15.)

Limited duty, on the other hand, is "when an employee has been injured on the job, has medical documentation, a claim has been accepted by [the Office of Worker's Compensation Program] and is documented[,] and a modified position [] [is] designed for that employee to accommodate the requirements of their disability." (Id. at 47:13-19.) However, unlike a light duty employee, if there is less than forty hours a week available for a limited duty employee, that employee is still paid for forty hours of work. (Id. at 47:20-24.)

A rehabilitation employee is one who has "been injured on the job, and in order to return that person to work, they make that person a modified job offer commensurate with . . . their abilities and limitations." (Miller Cert. Ex. 1, Rowan Dep. 24: 21-25.) If the employee does not accept the modified job offer, then he/she will be denied future benefits. (Id. at 27:1-8.)

Ronald Ray Riley

Plaintiff Riley began working for the USPS on June 30, 1987, as a clerk at the Bloomfield Post Office. (Clark Decl. Ex. A, Riley Dep. 18:18-20, 18:21-23.) In 1990, Riley left the Bloomfield Office and went to work at the main post office in Newark, New Jersey. (Id. at 30:19-21.) Riley worked in Newark from 1990 to 1994. (Id. at 32:21.) In or around April 1994, Riley suffered a nervous breakdown. (Id. at 11:1-2.) Riley alleges that his nervous breakdown was "work related" because he "was being harassed and management . . . [only] encouraged the harassment." (Id. at 36:8-20.) As a result of his nervous breakdown, Riley was unable to work for about three years. (Id. at 38: 9-10.) In 1996, Riley was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. (Id. at 58:7-19.)

When Riley returned to work in 1997, he was sent to the DVD, where he was placed on the direct bar code sorting machine ("DBCS"). (Id. at 42:1-9, 42:15-17.) However, Riley requested that he be taken off the DBCS machine because his "nerves were stressed out." (Id. at 47:11-12, 47:25.) The USPS granted his request. (Id. at 47:16.) Consequently, Riley was placed on the priority belt machine. (Id. at 51:2-4.) However, in 2003 or early 2004 he was moved to the "prep." (Id. at 51:16-17.) Riley alleges that this change in his duties was never referred to as light duty or limited duty and his assignments were never classified as permanent rehabilitation assignments. (Id. at 52:13-14, 56:12-15.)

On December 13, 2007, Riley's doctor sent a letter to the USPS stating that Riley had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. (Riley Dep. Ex. 1 at 15.) The letter also stated that "[d]ue to [the] possible sedating effects of his medications, Mr. Riley should not be required to operate machinery." (Id.)

Subsequently, on December 15, 2007, Riley left the DVD after he was told that there was no work for him and that he had to apply for light duty status. (Clark Decl. Ex. 1, Riley Dep. 52:6-8, 69:1-5, 71:6-8.) Barry Harrison, a supervisor at the DVD, stated that, "[s]ince [] [Riley's] bid job is a machine job, and I found out he couldn't work around machinery, there really was no work for him." (Clark Decl. Ex. I, Harrison Aff. ¶ 5.) Nonetheless, Riley contends that there was work in his unit and he believes that he was terminated as a result of his disability. (Clark Decl. Ex. 1, Riley Dep. 71:12-18.) Additionally, Riley maintains that he was treated differently from similarly situated employees at the DVD. (Id. at 93:23-94:3, 94:21-95:2.) Riley maintains that as a result of his termination, he became depressed, and gained weight. (Id. at 102:10-15.)

On December 21, 2007, Riley requested for an accommodation under the Reasonable Accommodation Act. (Riley Dep. Ex. 1 at 17-18; Clark Decl. Ex. 1, Riley Dep. 70:9-12.) On August 22, 2008, Dr. Parikh instructed that Riley could cull mail. (Riley Dep. Ex. 4.) However, Dr. Francis Meo, the postal physician opined that in addition to culling, Riley could also sweep and case mail. (Id.) On August 28, 2008, the District Reasonable Accommodation Committee ("DRAC") considered Riley's request and offered him a job as a sweeper. (Riley Dep. Ex. 5.) However, the DRAC cautioned that if Riley could not be a sweeper, it had no other available position that would meet his requirements. (Id.) Riley did not accept the sweeper position because according to him, "it makes no difference whether you're culling mail in a case and feeding the machine or sweeping it, you're still on the machine, you're still in that work environment." (Clark Decl. Ex. A, Riley Dep. 80:2-11.) Moreover, Riley testified that he could not work as a sweeper because he had "great sensitivity to loud noises." (Id. at 81:12-18.) However, Riley admits that Dr. Parikh never communicated to the USPS that he was sensitive to noises. (Id. at 83:3-10.) Consequently, on September 25, 2008, the DRAC informed Riley that it had "no record of any hearing problem or sensitivity to noises in general in [] [his] medical records;" therefore, it requested that Riley provide medical documentation to substantiate his claim. (Riley Dep. Ex. 6.) Riley testified that he provided the USPS with the results from that visit. (Clark Decl. Ex. A, Riley Dep. 84:14-18.) However, there is some dispute as to whether Riley submitted the requested proof. (Rowan Decl. ¶ 27.) Nevertheless, Riley asserts that he could have worn earplugs to reduce the noise and no one at the USPS told him that he could not use earplugs. (Id. at 85:6-11.) In fact, the DRAC officials inquired from Riley whether earplugs would sufficiently address his noise sensitivity. (Rowan Decl. ¶ 26.)

Subsequently, on October 24, 2009, Riley went back to the DVD and worked as a custodian. (Clark Decl. Ex. A, Riley Dep. 85:25-86:5.) Riley states that he was awarded this position through a bid; not as an accommodation from the DRAC. (Id. at 87:23-25, 88:9-12.)

George Lewis

George Lewis started working at the USPS in 1963 as a mail handler. (Clark Decl. Ex. B, Lewis Dep. 18:23-25, 21:5-7.) Lewis worked as a mail handler for about two or three years until he was relocated to the DVD in the 1970s. (Id. at 20:17-24, 29:12-14.) Lewis alleges that he suffered from back pain during the early years of his employment with the USPS and that he requested medical attention in 1979. (Id. at 26:22-27:1, 32:15-24; Lewis Dep. Ex. L-3.)

Consequently, on May 26, 1993, August 23, 1993, and October 5, 1994, Lewis "request[ed for] light duty consistent with [his] [] physical condition." (Lewis Dep. Ex. L-5 at 1-3.) On November 22, 1994, Dr. Joseph Hayes ("Dr. Hayes"), a medical officer for the USPS, noted that Lewis has been on light duty since April 15, 1993, for a non-occupational back disorder. (Lewis Dep. Ex. L-5 at 6.) Nevertheless, Lewis maintains that he has never been on light duty. (Lewis Dep. Ex. L-8.) In 1996, Lewis was put on permanent restriction because he was having difficulty with his lifting duties. (Clark Decl. Ex. B, Lewis Dep. 35:20-36:1; Lewis Dep. Ex. L-4.) Although Lewis was placed on medical restriction, he did not make a formal request for a modification of his job duties or accommodation. (Clark Decl. Ex. B, Lewis Dep. 36:9-13.) Lewis states that he merely spoke to his supervisor about modifying his duties. (Id. at 40:3-7, 61:11-13.) Lewis testified that his duties were modified so that even though he retained the position of mail handler, he did not have to do any heavy lifting. (Id. at 37:1-5, 37:12-17, 49:14-20.)

Lewis worked at the DVD performing his modified duties until he retired in February 2008. (Id. at 20:25-21:4, 49:14-15, 61:17-24.) Lewis claims he had to retire because he was told there was no work for him. (Id. at 61:4-6.) However, Lewis asserts that there was a mail handler ...


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