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Richard Goeden v. Darigold

December 26, 2012

RICHARD GOEDEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DARIGOLD, INC., A WASHINGTON CORPORATION DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable B. Lynn Winmill Chief U. S. District Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

The Court has before it a motion for summary judgment filed by defendant Darigold and a motion for partial summary judgment filed by plaintiff Richard Goeden. The Court heard oral argument on both motions on November 14, 2012, and took the motions under advisement. For the reasons expressed below, the Court will deny Darigold's motion and grant in part Goeden's motion.

FACTS

Goeden was fired by Darigold after working there for about 18 years. In this lawsuit he claims he was fired because of his disability and age. Goeden was 62 at that time, and had been hearing impaired since 1980.

Goeden was originally hired by Darigold in 1992 to work in their Caldwell plant as a Maintenance Mechanic. He held that position for 12 years, and then transferred to Darigold's newer milk processing plant in Jerome in October 2004.

He worked there as a Maintenance Mechanic for over two years until January 2007, when he slipped and fell on some ice at the plant, causing a shoulder injury that required surgery. To accommodate Goeden's injury, Darigold created a new Preventative Maintenance position for him that required less physical exertion.

In 2009, Darigold decided to reduce the workforce at the Jerome plant. In implementing that decision, Plant Manager Clay Powell targeted Goeden's Preventative Mechanic position for elimination. This meant that Goeden, with 17 years of experience, would be laid off while another maintenance worker with just two years of service would be retained. Darigold's corporate officials balked at Powell's plan, and so informed him on September 11, 2009. That same day, Powell told Darigold's Director of Human Resource Operations that Goeden was a safety risk in the plant. The Director responded that Goeden should be evaluated for fitness for duty.

Before requiring Goeden to undergo a fitness-for-duty exam, Darigold offered him a severance package. When he turned it down, Darigold required him to undergo a fitness-for-duty exam before they would allow him to transfer back into his Maintenance Mechanic position.

On November 11, 2009, Goeden was sent for evaluation by a physical therapist and a physician's assistant. Goeden passed the physical part of the exams with regard to his shoulder and recent knee surgery. But physician assistant William Jacobs stated that

[w]ith regard to the essential functions of his position, I question whether Mr. Goeden can listen to machines and other devices while they are in operation in order to locate possible causes of trouble. I also feel after evaluation that he may not be able to effectively communicate with supervisors and co-workers via a radio. Mr. Goeden admits that he can hear a noise from a radio that is used for communication, however he has difficulty in recognizing many of the words . . . . In my opinion, Mr. Goeden cannot currently perform the essential functions of this position; however, [he] could be qualified with an improved quality of hearing prosthesis. Perhaps an audiologist could help Mr. Goeden with this.

See Jacobs' Letter (Dkt. No. 53-23). The results of this evaluation surprised Darigold. For years, Goeden had been performing the essential functions of these positions. His hearing had been tested by Darigold annually and it remained statistically steady since 2004. There is no evidence of any recent deterioration of his hearing that would justify a concern that he was unfit for the position. In an email sent to Powell from Darigold's Human Resources Operations Manager on November 13, 2009, the Manager wrote: "Interesting, [Goeden] was declared not fit for duty -- but only because of his hearing impairment!"

Pursuant to Jacobs' recommendation, Darigold required Goeden to undergo an evaluation by an audiologist. On December 2, 2009, Goeden saw Greg Schroeder, a hearing instrument specialist, who conducted various hearing tests. Those tests were evaluated by Schroeder's father, an audiologist. He sent a letter of evaluation to Darigold dated December 22, 2009, stating in pertinent part as follows:

[Goeden] has hearing, but no ability to understand speech and language unless the individual is facing him. His ability to effectively communicate with co-workers and supervisors is extremely handicapped due to the lack of any speech discrimination scores. There are certainly tasks he can perform, however communicating over the radio or telephone appears to be impossible. It is our opinion that he cannot perform the requirements listed in his job description.

See Williamson Declaration (Dkt. No. 44) at Exh. 7. On January 4, 2010, thirteen days after receiving Schroeder's letter, Darigold fired Goeden in a letter that reads in pertinent part as follows:

The results of Mr. Schroeder's evaluation were unchanged from those of Mr. Jacobs . . . . Mr. Schroeder provided a written evaluation in which he concluded that you were unable to fulfill the requirements of the Maintenance Mechanic position because of your hearing deficit . . . . Because you are unable to fulfill the requirements of the Maintenance Mechanic position, you will not have the option of transferring to that position. This means that . . . your employment with Darigold will be terminated, effective today.

See Juarez Declaration, Exh. TT (Dkt. 53-32). Darigold made no attempt to interact with Goeden after receiving notice from Jacobs and Schroeder that Goeden's hearing impairment rendered him unfit for the job. Darigold also made no attempt to follow up with either Jacobs or Schroeder to determine if any reasonable accommodation would allow Goeden to perform the essential functions of his job.

Goeden responded by filing this lawsuit, alleging that he was fired because of his disability and age in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Idaho Human Rights Act (IHRA). He also alleges that his termination constitutes a breach of contract. In his ADA claim, Goeden argues that Darigold (1) failed to engage in the required interactive process in good ...


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