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Brunckhorst v. City of Oak Park Heights

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

September 28, 2017

Gary D. Brunckhorst, Plaintiff,
v.
City of Oak Park Heights, Defendant.

          Thomas E. Glennon, Esq., Thomas E. Glennon, P.A., counsel for Plaintiff.

          Julie Anne Fleming-Wolfe, Esq., Fleming-Wolfe Law, P.A., counsel for Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPNION AND ORDER

          DONOVAN W. FRANK United States District Judge

         INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court on a Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendant City of Oak Park Heights (“Defendant” or the “City”). (Doc. No. 19.) This case centers on alleged discrimination claims under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”). Plaintiff Gary Brunckhorst brought this action after he was terminated by the City from his position as Senior Accountant/Payroll Technician (“Senior Accountant”). (See generally Doc. No. 1 (“Compl.”).) For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants the City's motion.

         BACKGROUND

         Brunckhorst was employed by the City as a Senior Accountant from January 1999 until his termination in April 2015. In this role, Brunckhorst was responsible for managing the payroll functions of the department, which included maintaining employee files, collecting time cards, issuing paychecks, and assisting other employees with changes to their withholdings. (Doc. No. 21 (“Flemming-Wolfe Aff.”) ¶ 2, Ex. 1 (“Plaintiff Dep.”) at 12.) In addition, Plaintiff provided backup for accounts payable and utility billing. (Id. at 10.) Plaintiff also performed basic IT functions, such as purchasing and setting up computers, and maintaining the servers and the network. (Id. at 10-11.) Brunckhorst's supervisor also stated that Brunckhorst would provide back-up support to the front office by answering phones when needed. (Flemming-Wolfe Aff. ¶ 4, Ex. 3 (“Caruso Dep.”) at 17.) Brunckhorst received satisfactory performance reviews. (Id. ¶ 3, Ex. 2 (“Johnson Dep.”) at 32-33.)

         The job description for a Senior Accountant listed various “Essential Functions” including:

• Record, maintain, balance, and reconcile accounts payable, accounts receivable, payroll, utilities and cash for City funds.
• Prepare payroll and review to ensure accuracy including fringe benefits and leave calculations.
• Provide technical maintenance support for PC's and/or computer network. Assist users with applications as necessary.
• Installs hardware, including peripherals. Load Programs and generally prepare systems for users.
• Prepare payroll reporting for quarterly and annual transmissions to the proper agencies.
. . .
• Performs general accounting procedures as directed by the Finance Director.

(Flemming-Wolfe Aff. ¶ 5, Ex. 4 (“Job Description”).) Additionally, the Job Description indicated that a Senior Accountant may need to lift or move up to forty pounds and that the Senior Accountant would frequently be required to stand, walk, sit, and reach with hands and arms. Id.

         On or around April 15, 2014, Brunckhorst contracted Fournier's Gangrenous Necrotizing Fasciitis, a life-threating disease (Plaintiff Dep. at 55-57), which resulted in bilateral leg neuropathy, acute kidney injury, and lumbar radiculopathy. (Flemming-Wolfe Aff. ¶14, Ex. 13.) Brunckhorst requested and was granted twelve weeks of leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). (Flemming-Wolfe Aff. ¶ 6, Ex. 5.) At the end of the twelve weeks, the City wrote to Brunckhorst explaining that his leave was exhausted and requesting that they “begin a dialog” regarding a potential return to work date. (Id.) The City also noted that if Brunckhorst needed additional time, then he could request additional unpaid leave under City Ordinance 203.14(B)(2). (Id.) This ordinance allows the City Administrator, at his or her discretion, to grant an employee ninety days' unpaid leave of absence, with the option for an extension not exceeding one year. (Flemming-Wolfe Aff. ¶ 7, Ex. 6 (“City Ordinance”).)

         On July 29, 2014, Brunckhorst wrote to the City requesting an indefinite unpaid leave of absence under the City Ordinance because he was still recovering and unable to return to work. (Flemming-Wolfe Aff. ¶ 8, Ex. 7.) On August 11, 2014, the City granted him sixty days' leave and requested a health status update by September 29, 2014, noting the potential for up to thirty additional days of leave. (Id. ¶ 9, Ex. 8.) On September 15, 2014, the City sent Brunckhorst the Senior Accountant Job Description and requested that Brunckhorst's doctor confirm that Brunckhorst could perform the Senior Accountant's essential functions with or without reasonable accommodation. (Id. ¶ 10, Ex. 9.) On September 26, 2014, Brunckhorst requested an additional thirty days' leave and included a letter from his doctor stating that Brunckhorst would likely be unable to return to work even after thirty more days. (Id. ¶ 11, Ex.10.) The City granted the additional thirty days' leave on September 30, 2014, reaching the ninety-day threshold. (Id. ¶ 12, Ex. 11.)

         On October 24, 2014, the City requested an update on Brunckhorst's progress, as he had exhausted FMLA leave and the ninety days' unpaid leave under the City Ordinance. (Id. ¶ 13, Ex. 12.) In particular, the City stated: “Based on your follow-up, we want to determine from your doctor whether you can perform your job duties with or without reasonable accommodation, and whether you are able to perform your job safely.” (Id.) The City also included a Medical Certification form with the letter, which the City requested be completed by November 7, 2014. (Id.) On November 6, 2014, Brunckhorst indicated that he would not be able to return to work until December 1, 2014, and requested additional leave until he was cleared. (Id. ¶ 14, Ex. 13.)

         On November 14, 2014, the City extended Plaintiff's leave through December 1, 2014. (Flemming-Wolfe Aff. ¶ 15, Ex. 14.) The City also requested that a Medical Certification form be completed indicating a potential return date and any accommodations that may be needed to safely perform the job duties. (Id.) On November 24, 2014, Brunckhorst's doctor returned the form and indicated that Brunckhorst would be unable to return to work by December 1, 2014, but may be able to return by January 1, 2015. (Id. ¶ 16, Ex. 15.)

         While Brunckhorst was on leave, many of his duties were assumed by others: City Finance Director Betty Caruso and Accountant Judy Tetzlaff took over Brunckhorst's finance and payroll duties, while the City's computer consultant assumed Brunckhorst's IT responsibilities. (Johnson Dep. at 37-38.) As a result, City Administrator Eric Johnson told the City Council at a meeting on November 12, 2014, that the Senior Accountant position may not be needed because the duties could be absorbed by other employees. (Flemming-Wolfe Aff. ¶ 17, Ex. 16.) Once the City determined that the Senior Accountant was no longer needed, the City created a Utility Billing/Accountant Technician position to allow Brunckhorst to return to a job with the City. (Johnson Dep. at 64-66.)

         On December 22, 2014, City Administrator Johnson invited Brunckhorst to a meeting with him and Finance Director Caruso. At this meeting, Brunckhorst was informed that the City planned to eliminate the position of Senior Accountant, but that the Utility Billing position would be available if he wanted to remain with the City. (Johnson Dep. at 68-69.) It was at this meeting that Brunckhorst first complained to the City that he felt that the City was discriminating against him based on his disability. (Plaintiff Dep. at 155.) In a follow-up letter to Brunckhorst on December, 232014, Johnson stated that “due to the fact that certain functional portions of your position . . . are no longer needed, your former position has essentially been eliminated.” (Flemming-Wolfe Aff. ¶ 17, Ex. 18.) The letter also explained that the City would create a new full-time position--Utility Billing/Accounting Technician--which paid approximately $50, 000. Id. The letter also offered Brunckhorst a severance package as an alternative to the Utility Billing position. Brunckhorst did not accept either option ...


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