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Brunckhorst v. City of Oak Park Heights

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

February 4, 2019

Gary D. Brunckhorst Plaintiff- Appellant
City of Oak Park Heights Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: October 16, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before WOLLMAN, COLLOTON, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.


         Gary Brunckhorst filed this employment discrimination suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn. Stat. § 363A.01 et seq., against his former employer, the City of Oak Park Heights (the City). The district court[1] granted summary judgment to the City. We affirm.


         Brunckhorst worked for the City for more than fifteen years. In April 2014, he was serving as the Senior Accountant/Payroll Technician (Senior Accountant), a position that paid $72, 000 per year and required him to perform payroll and information technology (IT) functions. Because the City is a small organization with approximately twenty-one employees, Brunckhorst also carried out back-up duties for accounts payable and utility billing, assisted the front office in answering phones, and covered for other employees during their lunch breaks. Although Brunckhorst performed his job at City Hall, he was able to perform certain IT functions from a computer at his home.

         Brunckhorst contracted Fournier's gangrenous necrotizing fasciitis-a rare, life-threatening disease commonly known as "flesh-eating" bacteria-in mid-April 2014. He underwent three life-saving surgeries, spent nearly five months in a hospital/nursing care facility, and returned to his home in September 2014. The disease left Brunckhorst with long-term injuries.

         Brunckhorst requested and was approved for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) on April 16, 2014. Three months later, the City Administrator, Eric Johnson, informed Brunckhorst that his FMLA leave had been exhausted and that he was eligible to request unpaid leave for up to ninety days under a city ordinance.[2] Brunckhorst requested unpaid leave under the ordinance, and Johnson granted his request for sixty days with the possibility of thirty additional days thereafter.

         Johnson sent Brunckhorst an updated job description for the Senior Accountant position on September 15, 2014. The description set forth all of the duties that he had been performing. Johnson asked Brunckhorst to provide documentation from his doctor regarding whether Brunckhorst was able to perform the essential functions of the position. Brunckhorst responded with a letter from his doctor stating that Brunckhorst could not return to work within thirty days and requested extended leave. Johnson granted his request. Johnson again wrote to Brunckhorst about his condition on October 24 and requested that his doctor fill out a Medical Certification form. Brunckhorst replied with a doctor's note stating that Brunckhorst might be able to return to work on December 1. On November 14, Johnson extended Brunckhorst's leave up to December 1 and requested additional medical documentation. Brunckhorst's doctor returned a form on November 24 stating that Brunckhorst might be able to return to work on January 1.

         Earlier, on November 12, Johnson had told the City Council that the Senior Accountant position was no longer needed, partly because its duties had been absorbed by other employees. The City Council favored eliminating the position and offering Brunckhorst a severance package. Johnson, however, took steps to assign Brunckhorst to the position of Utility Billing Clerk/Accounting Technician so that he would have a job when he returned, albeit at a lower salary of $50, 000. The new position included the same benefits and was classified for union representation.

         Brunckhorst met with his supervisor, Betty Caruso, and Johnson on December 22. Johnson informed Brunckhorst that the Senior Accountant position had been eliminated and allowed him to choose between the new position or a severance package. Brunckhorst replied that he wanted to remain in his original position. Brunckhorst testified that he had complained at the meeting that he was being discriminated against because of his disability. Brunckhorst retained counsel following the meeting.

         Brunckhorst still had not returned to work by February 25, 2015. Johnson sent a letter asking Brunckhorst to provide a request by March 23 for any reasonable accommodations he might need to perform the essential functions of the new position, which included, among other duties, answering questions from the public and assisting with payroll. Johnson also required that Brunckhorst, were he to accept the new position, return to work by April 1 or his employment with the City would be terminated. Brunckhorst's attorney replied on March 24 requesting: (1) that Brunckhorst return to his original position, (2) that he work a graduated return-to-work schedule (e.g., work less than eight hours per day) for 120 days, and (3) that he be allowed to work from home during those 120 days. Counsel further claimed that "Mr. Brunckhorst has previously informed the City of his limited mobility due to bilateral leg weakness which limits his mobility and renders Mr. Brunckhorst unable to negotiate stairs without assistance and/or to drive his motor vehicle."

         A Work Ability Report from Brunckhorst's physician was also included with the letter, restricting him to four-hour work days with some physical limitations beginning March 18 and ending on May 18. The physician did not limit Brunckhorst to working from home. The City replied that it would consider Brunckhorst's requests at the next City Council meeting on April 6 and that City Hall was ADA accessible.[3] After the meeting, the City informed Brunckhorst that he could not return to his original position, nor could he work from home because he could not perform the essential ...

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