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Manning v. Abington Rockland Joint Water Works

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 4, 2019




         The plaintiff, Teresa Manning, brings this action against her former employer, Abington Rockland Joint Water Works, claiming the Water Works failed to provide her reasonable accommodations for her disabilities and chose instead to terminate her employment because of those disabilities.

         The Water Works has moved for summary judgment both because Ms. Manning failed to exhaust her administrative remedies and because she cannot establish that the Water Works failed reasonably to accommodate her disabilities. I will grant the Water Works' motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background[1]

         Ms. Manning began working at the Water Works in 1999 as an office clerk. She was terminated from her employment with the Water Works on August 26, 2014. During the course of her employment with the Water Works, Ms. Manning reported to the same two supervisors: Dan Callahan, the Superintendent, and Mr. Callahan's assistant, JoAnne Hall.

         Office clerks perform a variety of tasks, many of which require the clerk to be present in the office on a daily basis. Their responsibilities are specialized and include billing individual customer accounts, answering phone calls, resolving customer concerns, receiving payments at the office window, scheduling service calls. It is unlikely that any temporary replacement employee without prior work experience at the Water Works or a similar entity would be able to perform these duties effectively unless that employee had weeks or months of on the job training.

         For most of Ms. Manning's employment with the Water Works, she had a good attendance record. In fact, Ms. Manning took no sick leave during the 2013 fiscal year, and she was therefore given additional personal days for the 2014 fiscal year. But Mr. Callahan and Ms. Hall had longstanding concerns about Ms. Manning's work performance, including frequent mistakes, and her tendency to respond to criticism of her work performance with a contentious attitude.

         Ms. Manning's alleged disabilities, a heart condition and a proclivity to panic attacks, surfaced in 2013. Her heart condition resolved quickly and has not reappeared since. The heart condition consisted of a single hospitalization with viral congestive heart failure on September 8, 2013. Ms. Manning took a paid medical leave of absence from September 9, 2013 until October 8, 2013. The Water Works did not object to Ms. Manning's leave of absence, and it accommodated her follow up medical appointments.

         According to Ms. Manning, her proclivity to panic attacks became a disability in October 2013 and ended when her employment was terminated. The first instance of this type of disability occurred on October 23, 2013, the day after she had an argument with Mr. Callahan about taking work papers home. During that argument, Mr. Callahan told Ms. Manning that the Water Works policy did not allow documents to leave the office, and Ms. Manning became upset. She had taken Water Works documents home many times before this incident, including prior to the 2013 fiscal year.

         On October 23, 2013, Ms. Manning experienced chest pain at work and left the office early to go to the hospital. Ms. Manning emailed her supervisors that she was not well; at the hospital she was diagnosed as likely having had stress-induced pain and discomfort. After this episode, Ms. Manning did not return to work until November 18, 2013, providing the Water Works with notes and documentation from her doctors that verified her condition. Ms. Manning was paid her full salary during this leave of absence.

         In early November 2013, before she returned to work, Ms. Manning called Richard Muncey, one of the members of the Water Works Board of Commissioners (“the Board”), and she told him about her argument with Mr. Callahan on October 22. Ms. Manning told Mr. Muncey that she had been mistreated, and Mr. Muncey told Ms. Manning to bring her concerns before the Board.

         On November 6, 2013, Ms. Manning and her attorney appeared before the Board, and Ms. Manning explained the circumstances surrounding the October 22 incident and complained that she had been mistreated. Ms. Manning told the Board that she was on medical leave and would soon return to work, but she did not say that she had any disabilities or that she was seeking an accommodation. The Board did not take action against Mr. Callahan.

         On December 12, 2013, Mr. Callahan and Ms. Hall met with Ms. Manning to discuss her uncooperative attitude and the strain it was placing on the work environment. Thereafter, Mr. Callahan felt that Ms. Manning continued to make careless mistakes and exhibit an uncooperative attitude. In January 2014, he informed the Board that he wanted to terminate Ms. Manning's employment. The Board held a hearing in late January or early February of 2014 at which Ms. Manning, accompanied by her attorney, testified and presented supporting witnesses. Although Ms. Manning complained of unfair treatment by Mr. Callahan, she did not discuss her alleged disabilities and did not request any accommodations. The Board chose not to support Ms. Manning's discharge.

         In February 2014, after the hearing, Ms. Hall sent Ms. Manning an email telling her that they should communicate with each other on work-related matters solely in writing. Ms. Hall instituted this policy in order to help prevent disputes. Over the next month, Ms. Manning continued to make mistakes at work, and Ms. Hall sent Mr. Callahan an email on March 5, 2014 that documented those mistakes.

         On March 7, 2014, Ms. Manning took a medical leave of absence. Ms. Manning's psychologist, Dr. Vicki Beggs, PhD, prepared a note on March 11, 2014 that indicated Ms. Manning was being treated for depression and was unable to work. This was the first point at which Mr. Callahan was aware that Ms. Manning suffered from depression. The note did not indicate when Ms. Manning would return to work. Ms. Manning's leave was left open-ended. The leave of absence presented difficulties for the Water Works because of its open-ended nature. The Water Works fell behind on its work.

         On April 4, 2014, Mr. Callahan sent Ms. Manning a letter enquiring when she would be returning to work. Ms. Manning's psychologist, Dr. Beggs, sent back a note that Ms. Manning would be reevaluated in May for a possible return to work. Then, on May 8, Dr. Beggs prepared a note indicating that Ms. Manning would be able to return to work on May 19, which she did. For the duration of her leave, Ms. Manning was paid her full salary.

         After Ms. Manning returned on May 19, she took 15 days of vacation and three personal days between May 21 and August 8. This was time that Ms. Manning was entitled to under her employment contract.[2] Nevertheless, the time off put additional pressure on the other office staff and caused the Water Works to continue to fall behind. Even so, Mr. Callahan and Ms. Hall did not oppose or reject any of Ms. Manning's requests for time off.

         In July, Ms. Hall notified Ms. Manning of a number of errors she had made that needed to be corrected. Ms. Hall also notified Mr. Callahan of these mistakes and her frustration. For his part, Mr. Callahan exchanged emails with Ms. Manning, seeking an explanation for the mistakes. Mr. Callahan informed Ms. Manning that he found her mistakes, her excuses, and her defensive responses troubling.

         On August 4, 2014, Ms. Manning began a week-long vacation, which was followed immediately by an open-ended medical leave of absence. On August 7, Dr. Beggs prepared a note indicating that Ms. Manning was being treated for depression and anxiety and that she was unable to work. The note indicated that Ms. Manning would be reevaluated on August 29. This was the first time Mr. Callahan learned that Ms. Manning was being treated for anxiety. Ms. Manning sent Mr. Callahan an email informing him of her medical leave of absence on August 10.

         Finally, on August 26, 2014, Mr. Callahan sent Ms. Manning a letter terminating her employment on the basis of her inability to perform the job duties of an office clerk and excessive absenteeism. By this time, Ms. Manning had not been present at work for 81 out of the 124 work days in her last six months of employment, and she was not present for 129 of 249 total work days during her last 12 months of employment. Of the 129 days missed, 98.5 of the days were due to medical leave. Manning never requested an accommodation for her disabilities from the Water Works except to the degree her medical leave requests may be construed to be accommodation requests.

         B. Procedural Background

         On May 21, 2015, Ms. Manning filed a Complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). The Complaint did not mention that the Water Works failed to accommodate her disabilities, nor does it address the contention that Ms. Manning took work papers home in an attempt to accommodate her disabilities. In fact, Ms. Manning alleged that she took work papers home over the course of her time with the Water Works — long before either of her stated disabilities manifested themselves.

         The EEOC issued Ms. Manning a notice of right to sue on June 28, 2015.

         On September 16, 2016, Ms. Manning filed the three-count Complaint in this case alleging wrongful termination, sexual harassment and sex discrimination, and a violation of ...

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