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Pena v. Honeywell International Inc.

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

January 29, 2018

MAYRA F. PENA, Plaintiff,
v.
HONEYWELL INTERNATIONAL INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          WILLIAM E. SMITH CHIEF JUDGE. UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Magistrate Judge Lincoln D. Almond filed a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) (ECF No. 42) recommending that Defendant Honeywell International Inc.'s (“Honeywell”) Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 27) be granted with respect to all counts in Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (ECF No. 9). Plaintiff Mayra F. Pena timely filed an Objection to the R&R (“Objection”) (ECF No. 45). For the reasons set forth below, the Court accepts the R&R.

         With respect to Counts I through VIII, Magistrate Judge Almond recommended that summary judgment is appropriate because, in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999), no reasonable juror could reconcile Plaintiff's position in this litigation with her prior declaration in the context of applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”). (R. & R. 14-15.) Additionally, Magistrate Judge Almond endorsed summary judgment with respect to Plaintiff's remaining retaliation claims (Counts IX through XII) because Plaintiff failed to set forth evidence upon which a reasonable juror could glean a sufficient causal relationship between Plaintiff's termination and her alleged protected activity, a complaint to her supervisor about her break schedule. (Id. at 17-19.)

         In her Objection, Plaintiff avers that she has sufficiently explained away any inconsistencies between her SSDI application and this litigation.[1] (Mem. in Opp'n to R. & R. 11, ECF No. 45-1.) Plaintiff suggests that Magistrate Judge Almond overlooked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) guidelines that discuss the impact of statements made in the context of SSDI applications on claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). (Id. at 12-14.) In Plaintiff's Reply to Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Objection[2] (“Reply”) (ECF No. 49), Plaintiff attempts to further reconcile her conflicting statements by identifying an affidavit in which she attested, “The SSDI application did not ask if I needed any accommodations of a disability in order to work and no one at any of the hearings asked. Had I been asked, I would have responded, ‘Yes.'” (Reply 1-2; Pena Aff. ¶ 24, ECF No. 45-3.) Plaintiff also argues that her deposition testimony elucidates that she did not understand the line of questioning and was tricked by Honeywell's counsel into “admitting that she is lying and trying to manipulate the system.” (Id. at 6-7.) Finally, with respect to the retaliation claims, Plaintiff, in a conclusory manner, suggests “a jury could find that Pena's February 21, 2013 complaint set off a chain of events that ultimately led to her termination on June 17, 2013.” (Mem. in Opp'n to R. & R. 15.)

         This Court's de novo[3] review leads it to the same conclusion as Magistrate Judge Almond: summary judgment is appropriate on all counts. As an initial matter, with respect to Counts I through VIII, it is clear that Plaintiff misconstrues and misapplies the governing standard. Throughout her filings with this Court, Plaintiff purports to rationalize or spell out why she provided inconsistent statements in her SSDI application and in this litigation.[4] However, this is not what Cleveland requires. Rather, “to defeat [a defendant's] motion for summary judgment, [a plaintiff] must explain why the representations of total disability [s]he has made in the past are consistent with [her] current claim that [s]he could perform the essential functions of [her position] with reasonable accommodation.” Sullivan v. Raytheon Co., 262 F.3d 41, 47 (1st Cir. 2001) (citing Cleveland, 526 U.S. at 798 (emphasis added)). Plaintiff simply has not satisfied this standard.

         In other words, Plaintiff has not sufficiently explained why her representation for purposes of SSDI that she became unable to work because of her disabling condition on March 8, 2013 and remained disabled after that point, is consistent with her position for purposes of this litigation that on March 8, 2013 (her final day of work), she was “completely capable of working in other settings” with the exception of the Molding Department. Moreover, a closer look at Plaintiff's deposition testimony crystallizes the inconsistency when viewed against Plaintiff's SSDI application.[5]While at times confusing, Plaintiff's deposition clearly states that she was wholly unable to work.

         Plaintiff's post hoc affidavit, which conflicts with her SSDI application and her deposition testimony, does not alter this landscape; indeed, “a party cannot create a genuine issue of fact sufficient to survive summary judgment simply by contradicting his or her own previous sworn statement (by, say, filing a later affidavit that flatly contradicts that party's earlier sworn deposition) without explaining the contradiction or attempting to resolve the disparity.” Cleveland, 526 U.S. at 806-07 (citations omitted). Further, in light of the Supreme Court's Cleveland decision handed down two years after the EEOC's guidance, Plaintiff's citation to and reliance on factors set forth by the EEOC is of no moment.

         Finally, summary judgment is appropriate with respect to Plaintiff's retaliation claims (Counts IX through XII). Plaintiff's conclusory declarations in her Objection do nothing to alter the fact that she still has not identified evidence upon which a reasonable juror could causally link her February 21, 2013 complaint to her supervisor with her June 17, 2013 termination. When Plaintiff's statements, bereft of evidentiary support, are dispensed with, all that remains is her reliance on temporal proximity, which in this instance cannot carry the day. See Calero-Cerezo v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 355 F.3d 6, 25 (1st Cir. 2004) (“Three and four month periods have been held insufficient to establish a causal connection based on temporal proximity.” (citations omitted)); see also Clark Cty. Sch. Dist. v. Breeden, 532 U.S. 268, 273 (2001) (“The cases that accept mere temporal proximity between an employer's knowledge of protected activity and an adverse employment action as sufficient evidence of causality to establish a prima facie case uniformly hold that the temporal proximity must be ‘very close.'” (citations omitted)). The Court has considered Plaintiff's remaining arguments and deems them to be without merit.

         Accordingly, the Court fully ACCEPTS the R&R (ECF No. 42) and adopts its reasoning. Defendant Honeywell's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 27) on all counts of Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (ECF No. 9) is GRANTED in its entirety. Judgment will enter for Defendant.

         IT IS SO ORDERED.

         REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

         Pending before me for a report and recommendation (28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B)) is Defendant Honeywell International, Inc.'s Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF Doc. No. 27). Plaintiff opposes the Motion. (ECF Doc. No. 33). A hearing was held on June 19, 2017.

         Background

         Plaintiff commenced this employment discrimination action in state court on or about April 16, 2015. Defendant removed the case to this Court on May 5, 2015. The operative pleading is Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (ECF Doc. No. 9) which was filed on August 28, 2015 and contains twelve federal and state statutory claims.[1]

         In her Amended Complaint, Plaintiff claims that Honeywell violated various anti-discrimination statutes by failing to reasonably accommodate her disabilities (Counts I through IV). She also claims her discharge was unlawfully motivated by her disabilities (Counts V through VIII). Finally, she claims that she was unlawfully subject to retaliation for reports of unlawful discriminatory conduct she made to the Human Resources Department at Honeywell (Counts IX through XII).

         Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show 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). When deciding a motion for summary judgment, the Court must review the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor. Cadle Co. v. Hayes, 116 F.3d 957, 959 (1st Cir. 1997).

         Summary judgment involves shifting burdens between the moving and nonmoving parties. Initially, the burden requires the moving party to aver “an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Garside v. Osco Drug, Inc., 895 F.2d 46, 48 (1st Cir. 1990) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986)). Once the moving party meets this burden, the burden falls upon the nonmoving party, who must oppose the motion by presenting facts that show a genuine “trialworthy issue remains.” Cadle, 116 F.3d at 960 (citing Nat=l Amusements, Inc. v. Town of Dedham, 43 F.3d 731, 735 (1st Cir. 1995); Maldonado-Denis v. Castillo-Rodriguez, 23 F.3d 576, 581 (1st Cir. 1994)). An issue of fact is “genuine” if it “may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Id. (citing Maldonado-Denis, 23 F.3d at 581).

         To oppose the motion successfully, the nonmoving party must present affirmative evidence to rebut the motion. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256-257 (1986). “Even in cases where elusive concepts such as motive or intent are at issue, summary judgment may be appropriate if the nonmoving party rests merely upon conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, [or] unsupported speculation.” Medina-Munoz v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 896 F.2d 5, 8 (1st Cir. 1990). Moreover, the “evidence illustrating the factual controversy cannot be conjectural or problematic; it must have substance in the sense that it limns differing versions of the truth which a factfinder must resolve.” Id. (quoting Mack v. Great Atl. & Pac. Tea Co., 871 F.2d 179, 181 (1st Cir. 1989)). Therefore, to defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must establish a trialworthy issue by presenting “enough competent evidence to enable a finding favorable to the nonmoving party.” Goldman v. First Nat'l Bank of Boston, 985 F.2d 1113, 1116 (1st Cir. 1993) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249). Additionally, if the affirmative evidence presented by the nonmoving party raises a question of credibility as to the testimony provided by the moving party, summary judgment is inappropriate, and that credibility issue must be presented to the factfinders at trial. Firemen's Mut. Ins. Co. v. Aponaug Mfg. Co., 149 F.2d 359, 363 (5th Cir. 1945) (“The success of an attempt to impeach a witness is always a jury question, as is the credibility of the witnesses where they contradict one another, or themselves.”).

         Facts

         The following facts are gleaned from the parties' statements of fact filed pursuant to Local Rule Cv 56. (ECF Doc. Nos. 28, 35, 36). Honeywell's Cranston manufacturing facility is comprised of several production/assembly areas, including the Respiratory Department, Molding Department, Logo Department, Quickloc/Cedars Department and the SCBA Area. (ECF Doc. No. 28 at ¶ 1). In the Molding Department, Honeywell manufactures finished goods and works in process for assembly. Works in process are products in the process of manufacture that have not yet reached the finished-good state. Id. at ¶ 2. Plaintiff frequently worked in the Respiratory Department. Id. at ¶ 6.

         In 2013, when Plaintiff worked at Honeywell, there were approximately twenty to twenty-five employees working in the Molding Department. Id. at ¶ 7. In the Molding Department, the machines run continuously, and a new part comes out of the machine every thirty seconds; in other Departments, the operator controls when the machines operate. Id. at ¶ 8. Some Honeywell employees indicated that they preferred to work in areas other than the Molding Department because other areas allowed employees to work at their own pace, whereas in the Molding Department, employees had to keep up with the pace of the machines. Id. at ¶ 10. Employees also preferred to work in areas other than the Molding Department because the machines were closer together in other Departments, and employees were able to more easily socialize. Id. at ¶ 11.

         In 2012, Honeywell decided that all employees who worked in the production and assembly areas should be cross-trained to work in all departments. Id. at ¶ 13. Honeywell felt it was important to have cross-trained employees to meet the demands of Honeywell customers. Id. at ¶ 14. It was Honeywell's business practice to move associate assemblers to departments where customer demand was greatest and, as a result, an employees' inability to work in any particular area would burden the production process. Id. at ¶ 15. It was particularly important for employees to rotate into the Molding Department because it runs twenty-four hours a day and does not shut down for employee lunch and other breaks. Id. at ¶ 16. To fill positions when employees took breaks, vacation time, or otherwise, employees working in other areas would move to the Molding Department. Id. at ¶ 17. Honeywell trained all of its employees, including Plaintiff, in all Assembly Departments for which training was required, including the Molding Department. Id. at ¶ 18.

         Honeywell hired Plaintiff in or about 2008 as a Machine Operator and Associate Assembler in its Cranston, Rhode Island facility. Id. at ¶ 19. Plaintiff was previously employed at the same location by North Safety Products starting in or about 2002, and Honeywell hired Plaintiff when it took over the facility in or about 2008. Id. at ¶ 20. Plaintiff completed her training for the Molding Department in October 2012. Id. at ¶ 21. Following her training, Honeywell asked Plaintiff to work in the Molding Department. Id. at ¶ 22. Working in the Molding Department was consistent with Plaintiff's position as an Associate Assembler. Id. at ¶ 23. Over a month after Plaintiff's training in the Molding Department, she took medical leave commencing on November 29, 2012. Id. at ¶ 24. This medical leave was, at least in part, due to her depression because of the change of season. Id. at ¶ 25. Prior to her medical leave commencing on November 29, 2012, Plaintiff had previously taken several other medical leaves of absence totaling twenty-three weeks, including from October 14, 2011 to November 21, 2011; from December 16, 2011 to February 13, 2012; and from June 22, 2012 to August 6, 2012. Id. at ¶ 26. Given these previous medical leaves, Plaintiff had no remaining Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) leave. Id. at ¶ 27. Plaintiff returned from medical leave on January 14, 2013. Id. at ¶ 28.

         Upon her return from medical leave, Plaintiff worked in the Molding Department for four hours per day, two to three times per week. Id. at ¶ 29. Plaintiff worked this schedule without incident for over a month and did not complain about working in the Molding Department until late February 2013. Id. at ¶ 30. In late February 2013, Plaintiff approached Jose Gouveia, Senior Human Resources Generalist at Honeywell, to report that one of the Production Leaders, Mayra Fermin, asked her to go to the Molding Department. Id. at ¶ 31. Plaintiff claims that she told Mr. Gouveia that she did not want to work in that Department because “it was harmful to [her] emotionally.” Id. at ¶ 32. On March 7 and March 8, 2013, Plaintiff met with Mr. Gouveia; Kevin Dyer, Plaintiff's supervisor; and Conor Ryan, the Health Safety and Environmental Site Leader. Id. at ¶ 33. At the March 7, 2013 meeting, Honeywell requested a letter from Plaintiff's doctor. Id. at ¶ 34. The next day, on March 8, 2013, Plaintiff provided a letter from her psychiatrist, Dr. James Greer, dated March 4, 2013. Id. at ¶ 35. Dr. Greer's March 4, 2013 note stated: “Currently [Plaintiff] is reporting exacerbation of her anxiety systems which are interfering with her ability to function. She reports that these specifically occur when she is being sent to the molding room as opposed to the more typical duties to which she is accustomed.” Id. at ¶ 37.

         Dr. Greer's note was reviewed by Mr. Ryan, as Health Safety and Environmental Site Leader, to determine what accommodations Plaintiff requested and whether Honeywell could make such accommodations. Id. at ¶ 38. Dr. Greer stated, “I am requesting that you assist her in other placements than in this setting….” Id. at ¶ 40. Dr. Greer's note did not explain how the Molding Department “exacerbate[ed]” Plaintiff's anxiety symptoms, while no other Department had this effect. Id. at ¶ 41. Plaintiff was informed that the March 4, 2013 note was not sufficient, and she would not be excused from working in the Molding Department as scheduled. Id. at ¶ 43. In response, Plaintiff told the Honeywell personnel that she was going to go home, and she called her daughter to pick her up. Id. at ¶ 44. Plaintiff never returned to work after March 8, 2013. Id. at ¶ 45.

         Plaintiff subsequently retained Attorney Veronika Kot of Rhode Island Legal Services, who instructed Plaintiff not to have any communication with Honeywell and that Ms. Kot would be the one to talk to Honeywell, not her. Id. at ¶ 47. Unaware that Plaintiff had retained Ms. Kot and of her directive to Plaintiff, Honeywell attempted to contact Plaintiff to clarify her condition to enable it to provide a proper accommodation. Id. at ¶ 48. To that end, Mr. Gouveia sent Plaintiff a Reasonable Accommodation Request Form for her to complete with Dr. Greer. Id. at ¶ 50. In addition, on April 2, 2013, Dr. Elizabeth Jennison, Honeywell's Associate Director of Health Services, wrote to Dr. Greer, asking for “additional documentation to understand the medical necessity for [Plaintiff's] request.” Id. at ¶ 51. Dr. Jennison's letter requested that Dr. Greer, “please clarify how [Plaintiff's] anxiety symptoms could allow her to work in many areas ...


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