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Velez-Ramrrez v. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

June 27, 2016

GISELA VÉLEZ-RAMÍREZ, Plaintiff, Appellant,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PUERTO RICO, through its Secretary of Justice on behalf of the Correction and Rehabilitation Department; CORRECTIONAL HEALTH SERVICES CORPORATION (CHSC); JOSÉ U. ZAYAS-CINTRÓN, [*] in his official capacity as Acting Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation of Puerto Rico; DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS AND REHABILITATION; LIBERTY MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendants, Appellees, JOHN DOE, Defendant.

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO [Hon. Pedro A. Delgado-Hernández, U.S. District Judge]

          Manuel Porro-Vizcarra, with whom Yesenia M. Varela-Colón and Manuel Porro Vizcarra Law Offices were on brief, for appellant.

          Carmen Lucía Rodríguez Vélez, with whom Néstor J. Navas D'Acosta, Navas & Rodríguez, P.S.C., Mariel Y. Haack, and Adsuar Muñiz Goyco Seda & Pérez-Ochoa, P.S.C. were on brief, for appellees Correctional Health Services Corporation (CHSC) and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company.

          Margarita Mercado-Echegaray, Solicitor General, with whom Andrés González-Berdecía, Assistant Solicitor General, Department of Justice, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, was on brief, for appellee Commonwealth Of Puerto Rico.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Torruella and Lynch, Circuit Judges.

          HOWARD, Chief Judge.

         The Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12001, et seq., provides persons with disabilities equal opportunities under law. Plaintiff-appellant Gisela Vélez-Ramírez ("Vélez") alleges that her employers violated the ADA by discharging her and not rehiring her because of her vision disability. Because the record establishes that the defendants acted for a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, we affirm the district court's entry of summary judgment in their favor.

         I.

         We take the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Vélez. Collazo-Rosado v. Univ. of Puerto Rico, 765 F.3d 86, 89 (1st Cir. 2014). Vélez worked as a contract health educator for the Puerto Rico Department of Corrections ("the Department") and the Correctional Health Services Corporation ("the Corporation"). The Department operates Puerto Rico's correctional facilities. The Corporation provides health care for the Department's inmates.

         In 2007, Vélez was diagnosed with the eye disease diabetic retinopathy. In February 2010, she asked the defendants to reasonably accommodate her vision loss. That same month, she underwent laser eye surgery. Afterward, she did not return to work. In April, the Corporation denied her request for reasonable accommodations on the basis that she was an independent contractor.

         Later that month, the defendants considered whether to renew their professional services contracts, and they affirmatively recommended the renewal of Vélez's contract. They also notified the contractors about the renewal process via an automatically-generated email. The email was sent over the Department intranet, a private computer network accessible only from the Department's premises.

         Vélez says that because she had stopped going to work, she did not sign on to the intranet or read the notice. Nevertheless, she acknowledges that she understood the contract renewal procedures, including whom she had to contact, the paperwork required, and the deadline. Despite this undisputed evidence, she did not submit the required paperwork or contact the defendants about the renewal. Her contract subsequently expired in June 2010 and was not renewed.

         During the time that the contract renewal process was unfolding, Vélez applied for government benefits through the Vocational Rehabilitation Program. On her application, she claimed that she had left her job with the defendants because her "[c]ondition prevented [her] from doing job." In May 2010, she was deemed eligible to receive benefits under the Program.

         The following February, Vélez filed an administrative complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), claiming that the defendants had discriminated against her because of her disability. She later formalized this charge, see 29 C.F.R. §§ 1626.3, 1626.6, 1626.8, and the EEOC notified her of her right to sue. Vélez then brought this action in the District of Puerto Rico, alleging that the defendants violated the ADA.[1]She alleged discrimination on two grounds: first, that the defendants actually or constructively discharged her by denying her request for reasonable accommodations; and second, after Vélez's contract expired in June 2010, that the defendants refused to rehire her because of her disability. Vélez also alleged that the defendants refused to rehire her in retaliation against her request for reasonable accommodations.

         The district court awarded summary judgment to the defendants. The court assumed that Vélez was an employee rather than an independent contractor, and that she had exhausted administrative remedies. It nevertheless dismissed Vélez's discrimination claims for three reasons: (1) Vélez was not an ADA "qualified individual" because she admitted to the Vocational Rehabilitation Program that she could not work; (2) the defendants' denial of Vélez's request for reasonable accommodations did not constitute discharge; and (3) the defendants' decision not to rehire Vélez ...


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