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Woods v. Jefferds Corp.

Supreme Court of West Virginia

February 28, 2019

DONALD WOODS, Petitioner
v.
JEFFERDS CORPORATION, a West Virginia Corporation, Respondent

          Submitted: January 30, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Putnam County The Honorable Joseph Reeder, Judge Civil Action No. 15-C-34

         Edward G. Atkins, Esq. Victor O. Cardwell, Esq. Charleston, West Virginia Michael P. Gardner, Esq. Counsel for the Petitioner

          Victor O. Cardwell, Esq. Michael P. Gardner, Esq. Woods Rogers, PLC Roanoke, Virginia Albert F. Sebok, Esq. Jackson Kelly, PLLC Charleston, West Virginia Counsel for the Respondent

         SYLLABUS

         1. "A motion for summary judgment should be granted only when it is clear that there is no genuine issue of fact to be tried and inquiry concerning the facts is not desirable to clarify the application of the law." Syl. Pt. 3, Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Fed. Ins. Co. of New York, 148 W.Va. 160, 133 S.E.2d 770 (1963).

         2. "Summary judgment is appropriate where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, such as where the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of the case that it has the burden to prove." Syl. Pt. 4, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994).

         3. "In order to make a prima facie case of employment discrimination under the West Virginia Human Rights Act, W.Va. Code § 5-11-1 et seq. (1979), the plaintiff must offer proof of the following:

(1) That the plaintiff is a member of a protected class.
(2) That the employer made an adverse decision concerning the plaintiff.
(3) But for the plaintiff's protected status, the adverse decision would not have been made."

Syl. Pt. 3, Conaway v. Eastern Associated Coal Corp., 178 W.Va. 164, 358 S.E.2d 423 (1986).

          4. "The 'but for' test of discriminatory motive in Conaway v. Eastern Associated Coal Corp., 178 W.Va. 164, 358 S.E.2d 423 (1986), is merely a threshold inquiry, requiring only that a plaintiff show an inference of discrimination." Syl. Pt. 2, Barefoot v. Sundale Nursing Home, 193 W.Va. 475, 457 S.E.2d 152 (1995).

         5. "In order to establish a case of discriminatory discharge under W.Va. Code, 5-11-9 [1989], with regard to employment because of a [disability], the complainant must prove as a prima facie case that (1) he or she meets the definition of [having a 'disability'], (2) he or she is a '[qualified individual with a disability],' and (3) he or she was discharged from his or her job. The burden then shifts to the employer to rebut the complainant's prima facie case by presenting a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for such person's discharge. If the employer meets this burden, the complainant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the employer's proffered reason was not a legitimate reason but a pretext for the discharge." Syl. Pt. 2, Morris Mem'l Convalescent Nursing Home, Inc. v. W.Va. Human Rights Comm'n, 189 W.Va. 314, 431 S.E.2d 353 (1993).

         6. "A '[qualified individual with a disability]' under the West Virginia Human Rights Act and the accompanying regulations is one who is able and competent, with reasonable accommodation, to perform the essential functions of the job in question." Syl. Pt. 1, Coffman v. W.Va. Bd. of Regents, 182 W.Va. 73, 386 S.E.2d 1 (1988), overruled on other grounds by Skaggs v. Elk Run Coal Co., 198 W.Va. 51, 479 S.E.2d 561 (1996).

          7. "To state a claim for breach of the duty of reasonable accommodation under the West Virginia Human Rights Act, W.Va. Code, 5-11-9 (1992), a plaintiff must alleged the following elements: (1) The plaintiff is a qualified person with a disability; (2) the employer was aware of the plaintiff's disability; (3) the plaintiff required an accommodation in order to perform the essential functions of a job; (4) a reasonable accommodation existed that met the plaintiff's needs; (5) the employer knew or should have known of the plaintiff's need and of the accommodation; and (6) the employer failed to provide the accommodation." Syl. Pt. 2, Skaggs v. Elk Run Coal Co., 198 W.Va. 51, 479 S.E.2d 561 (1996).

         8. Under the West Virginia Human Rights Act, W.Va. Code § 5-11-9 [2016], an employer may rely upon the reasonable opinion of a medical expert when deciding if a disabled individual is medically qualified to perform the essential functions of a job. A reasonable opinion is one made in good faith by an expert familiar with the individual, including the individual's work and medical history, and with the essential functional requirements of the job.

          OPINION

          HUTCHISON JUSTICE

         Plaintiff Donald Woods brought this disability discrimination action pursuant to the West Virginia Human Rights Act, W.Va. Code §§ 5-11-1 to -20. He alleged that the defendant, Jefferds Corporation ("Jefferds"), refused to hire him because of his physical disability. Jefferds moved for summary judgment asserting it declined to hire Mr. Woods because a pre-employment physical examination revealed that Mr. Woods's disability prevented him from completing essential responsibilities of the job. Additionally, Jefferds argued that Mr. Woods neither asked for nor proposed any reasonable accommodation that would allow him to complete those essential tasks. Instead, Mr. Woods insisted upon an unreasonable course: that Jefferds disregard the results of the physical examination. The Circuit Court of Putnam County granted the motion for summary judgment and dismissed the action.

         Mr. Woods now appeals the circuit court's summary judgment order. We affirm.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The respondent and defendant below is Jefferds Corporation, an equipment servicing company. Jefferds has employees permanently stationed within the Toyota manufacturing plant in Buffalo, West Virginia, who maintain and repair Toyota's assembly-line machinery, cranes, forklifts, and other equipment. Jefferds classifies each employee as an "engineering equipment mechanic," a physically demanding job that requires crouching, climbing ladders, lifting and carrying up to 75 pounds, crawling, and otherwise contorting oneself into tight and precarious positions. Some equipment in the plant is located atop lifts that can be repaired or maintained only by climbing vertical ladders; other equipment is in below-ground "containment pits" where fluids build up and pumps are serviced. Four engineering equipment mechanics work on the day shift at the Toyota plant, and two work the night shift.

         In late 2013, Jefferds advertised an opening for an engineering equipment mechanic at the Toyota plant on the night shift. The petitioner and plaintiff below, Donald Woods, responded to the advertisement and an in-person interview was arranged. In January 2014, Mr. Woods met with three Jefferds employees: the site supervisor at the Toyota plant, the company's human resources manager, and an operations manager. The parties agree that the interview went well.

         During the interview, Mr. Woods told the Jefferds employees that he had a prosthetic leg. In 2003, Mr. Woods was involved in a motorcycle accident that resulted in the amputation of his left leg above the knee. Because of his prosthesis, Mr. Woods expressed two limitations on his work abilities: first, he said he had difficulty picking up and then walking while carrying a heavy object, and second, he said he could not wear a heavy, steel-toed boot on his prosthesis. After discussions, the Jefferds employees agreed that Mr. Woods could use a dolly to move heavy objects, and that he could wear a tennis shoe on his prosthetic leg. During the first interview, Mr. Woods was invited to complete a formal job application for Jefferds.

         Several weeks later, a Jefferds supervisor contacted Mr. Woods and invited him back to the company's office. In this second meeting, the supervisor conditionally offered Mr. Woods the engineering equipment mechanic job. Mr. Woods later recalled that the supervisor told him "that I was perhaps, maybe, the best candidate that they had gotten so far." However, the Jefferds supervisor told Mr. Woods the offer was conditioned upon him successfully passing a pre-employment physical examination.[1]Jefferds scheduled and paid for the examination with an independent physician.

         Jefferds supplied the physician with a "Jefferds Corporation Physical Examination" form to complete after seeing Mr. Woods. Jefferds also supplied the physician with a four-page document that outlined the physical skills required of an engineering equipment mechanic. Those skills included "stooping, bending, crouching, crawling," "climbing step ladders," "climbing stairs and ladders," "climbing 40' extension ladders," and "building and climbing scaffolding."

         The physician saw Mr. Woods, completed the physical examination form, and returned it to Jefferds. On the form, the physician noted that Mr. Woods was wearing a prosthetic leg. Under the heading "Physician's Recommendations to the Prospective Employer," the physician declared that Mr. Woods was "unable to do jobs that require squatting or climbing ladders[.]" The physician also noted that Jefferds should not give Mr. Woods a job that involved "excessive stooping, bending, & crouching."

         Thereafter, employees of Jefferds contacted Mr. Woods and arranged a third, in-person meeting. At that meeting, the human resources director for Jefferds told Mr. Woods about the results of his physical examination. She told Mr. Woods that the physician had recommended Mr. Woods not be placed in a job that "require[s] squatting or climbing ladders[.]" Because these were essential tasks required of an engineering equipment mechanic, she said that Mr. Woods could not have the job.

         Mr. Woods objected and told the Jefferds employees present that the doctor was wrong. He insisted that he could climb ladders and that he could partially squat, and offered to demonstrate that he could complete these skills. The Jefferds employees listened to Mr. Woods's entreaties, but maintained they were bound by the physician's assessment of his abilities. In later depositions of the three Jefferds employees who met with Mr. Woods, each employee stated that the decision not to hire Mr. Woods was based solely upon the physician's recommendation that Mr. Woods not be placed in a job requiring squatting or climbing ladders.[2]

         On February 19, 2015, Mr. Woods filed the instant lawsuit against Jefferds in the Circuit Court of Putnam County, alleging that the company's refusal to hire him constituted disability discrimination in violation of the West Virginia Human Rights Act.[3]After the parties conducted discovery, Jefferds filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that Mr. Woods had failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination.

         In an order dated October 4, 2017, the circuit court granted summary judgment to Jefferds and dismissed Mr. Woods's disability discrimination claim. In order to establish his disability discrimination claim, the circuit court noted that Mr. Woods was required to offer proof that Jefferds acted with discriminatory intent and that Mr. Woods's disability actually motivated the employer's decision. The circuit court concluded that Jefferds could rebut any inference of discrimination because it articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for their decision not to hire Mr. Woods: it did not hire him because an independent physician concluded Mr. Woods ...


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