MBJ Victory: Federal Court Grants Summary Judgment for Harvard University in Multi-Count Disability Discrimination and Retaliation Case

The U.S. District Court has issued a 19-page decision granting summary judgment in favor of Harvard University, the defendant in a six-count civil action entitled John J. Fiumara v. Harvard University, 05-12105.   Acting on a motion filed by Robert P. Joy and Daniel Field of Morgan, Brown & Joy on behalf of Harvard, the Court dismissed the case in its entirety, agreeing that there was no genuine issue as to any material fact in the case and that Harvard was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

MBJ moved on Harvard’s behalf for summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiff was not a qualified handicapped person because he was unable to perform the essential functions of his job—driving a bus; thus, he was not entitled to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act or under state law.  Additionally, the defendant contended that it had been informed by plaintiff’s physicians that he was not able to return to work and the plaintiff never engaged in an interactive process to determine work accommodations.

In his lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that two accommodations may have allowed him to perform the essential functions of the job: 1) the right to bid for an open van driver position and 2) additional indefinite leave.  As to the first requested accommodation, the Court, Gorton, J., held that “[a]lthough Harvard is required to provide reasonable accommodation to its disabled employees, it is not required to provide an accommodation that is inconsistent with contractual rights of other workers under a CBA.”  As for the second accommodation, the Court concluded that where the plaintiff failed to indicate when he would return to work, the defendant “was not, therefore, required to extend [the plaintiff’s] leave indefinitely as an accommodation.”  The Court held that this sort of open-ended, indefinite leave extension was not a reasonable accommodation.

The Court also dismissed the plaintiff’s retaliation claim because he failed to proffer any evidence that he engaged in “protected activity.”  The Court further concluded that the plaintiff could not show that any possible protected conduct was causally related to his termination.

The Court declined to address the merits of claims of breach of the contract and the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing because this would have required an interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement.  The federal Labor-Management Relations Act preempts state law claims if such claims require an interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement.  Under the Labor-Management Relations Act, the plaintiff was required to first exhaust the grievance and arbitration procedure outlined in the collective bargaining agreement before suing.   Thus, the defendant was entitled to summary judgment on both contract-based claims.  The Court dismissed the plaintiff’s Labor-Management Relations Act-based claim because he failed to adequately specify how Harvard had violated the Act.