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West v. Pella Corp.

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

October 20, 2017



          Thomas B. Russell, Senior Judge United States District Court.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Pella Corporation's Motion for Summary Judgment, [DN 20.] Plaintiff Charles West responded, [DN 22], and Pella Corporation replied, [DN 23.] Fully briefed, this matter is now ripe for adjudication. For the reasons set out below, Pella Corporation's motion for summary judgment is DENIED.


         This matter arises out of Plaintiff Charles West's employment with Pella Corporation (“Pella”) at its manufacturing plant in Murray, Kentucky. West was employed by Pella from March 2004 until his termination in February 2015. [DN 22-1 at 7 (West Deposition).] According to Pella, West had a history of attendance issues throughout his employment. [See DN 20-1 (Pella's Motion for Summary Judgment).] In April of 2005, West applied for and was granted FMLA leave after he suffered from severe gum disease that required a large amount of dental work, including the extraction of his teeth. [DN 22-1 at 22.] However, according to West, Pella provided him with the paperwork, he “just filled in the blanks, and they told me to give it to the doctor, and he filled in the rest.” [Id. at 23.] West further explained in his affidavit that, during that period of leave, he called into work every day and told his supervisor that he would not be able to work. [DN 22-3 at 1 (West Affidavit.)] West stated that, after he called in every day for several weeks, Pella sent West the FMLA paperwork to be completed by West and his dentist. [Id. at 2.] In other words, West stated that he “did not ask for the paperwork, and did not know or understand that it was FMLA paperwork.” [Id.]

         In June of 2014, West injured his back at work while lifting heavy windows. [DN 22-1 at 11.] West did not immediately visit a doctor for his injury, but testified that he was taking Ibuprofen, which helped him get through his shifts, “until it got worse” about two weeks later. [Id. at 12-13.] West began calling in sick for work on June 9, 2014, and continued to call in every day until he returned to work on August 26, 2014. [DN 20-11 at 2 (Jeremy Phillips Affidavit).] Each day, West stated that he could not work due to back pain or spasms. [Id.] West explained in his affidavit that, by calling in every day to report that he was not feeling well enough to work, he followed the same procedure as he had in 2005 when he was absent due to his extensive dental work. [DN 22-3 at 2.]

         West testified that he visited a primary care physician about two weeks after he began his absence from work. [DN 22-1 at 14-15.] That visit took place on June 26, 2014, and resulted in diagnoses of lumbago and muscle spasms. [DN 20-24.] Additionally, West's provider prescribed multiple medications. [Id.] After that visit, West went into Pella to provide the doctor's note from that visit to Jeremy Phillips, Pella's human resources manager. [DN 22-1 at 19-20.] According to West, at that time, Phillips provided him with contact information to apply for short-term disability benefits. [Id. at 20.] Though Phillips averred in his affidavit that West received both short-term disability and FMLA leave paperwork, [DN 20-11 at 2], West testified in his deposition that Phillips only ever told him about short-term disability, and only every provided him with a phone number to call, rather than paperwork. [DN 22-1 at 18.] West did apply for short-term disability, but his application was denied because his “doctor's notes didn't cover the entire time that [he] was out” from work. [Id. at 20.] When asked whether West ever applied for FMLA leave during his absence, West responded “I didn't know anything about it.” [Id. at 21.] The parties agree that West never filled out an application for FMLA leave relating to his June 9 to August 25, 2014 absences.

         According to West, sometime in July, his manager, Johnny Phillips, contacted him and told him that, since he had been out from work, he needed to go back to the doctor. [Id. at 15- 16.] On July 31, 2014, West returned to the same primary care provider he saw at his previous visit. [DN 20-25.] At that visit, West's doctor performed an x-ray, which revealed severe arthritis, in addition to his other diagnoses of degenerative disc disease and lumbago. [Id.; DN 22-1 at 17.] The doctor prescribed West multiple medications. [See DN 20-25.]

         When West returned to work on August 26, 2014, he received two disciplinary letters, called “Class 3 Corrective Action Letters, ” related to his absence from June 9 to August 25, 2014. Both letters are dated June 25, 2014. [DN 20-13; DN 20-14.] The first Corrective Action Letter was issued due to West's failure to report for mandatory overtime on June 14 and June 21, 2014. [DN 20-13.] The second Corrective Action Letter was issued due to “excessive absenteeism” from June 9, 2014 to June 25, 2014. [DN 20-14.] Both letters warned West that “receiving three Class 3 Corrective Action Letters in a one-year period will lead to the termination of your employment.” [DN 20-13; DN 20-14.] West testified that he was told to sign both letters (which he did), or that he would be terminated. [DN 22-1 at 27.]

         West testified during his deposition that, after he received the two Corrective Action Letters upon his return to work on August 26, he informed Pella that he would “be on medication for the rest of [his] life” due to his back issues. [Id. at 44.] However, West did not discuss with Pella representatives what type of medication he was on. [Id. at 45.]

         Pella's records indicate that West next called in sick for five consecutive workdays in February 2015. According to Pella, West called in sick on February 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, and 12. [DN 22-1 at 29-30.] West's manager at that time, Tony Robinson, stated that, each day West called in on February 4, 5, and 6, that West requested vacation for those days. [Id. at 30.] Robinson stated that he approved West for vacation, but that on the third day, he charged West with an attendance incident for failing to request the vacation in advance as required by Pella's policy. [Id. at 31.] Pella next claims that West called in sick on February 9 and 10 after he ran off the road and his truck got stuck in the mud. [Id. at 31-32.] Finally, Pella's records indicate that West also called in sick on February 12, 2015 for “personal business.” [DN 20-20.]

         West agrees that he called in sick on February 9 when his truck was stuck, but denies ever calling in sick on February 4, 5, 6, 10, or 12. [Id. at 30-32.] According to West, he “was only out one day” in February. [Id. at 33.] According to Phillips, on February 10, 2015, West was formally counseled over the phone about his absences and tardiness at work. [DN 20-11 at 3.] However, West testified that he could not recall this phone conversation ever taking place. [DN 22-1 at 35-36.] West agreed, however, that after he was absent for his truck breaking down, Pella called to inform him that he was suspended for absenteeism. [Id. at 37-38.] According to West, he was already suspended before February 12, 2015, when Pella claims West called in sick due to “personal business.” [DN 22-1 at 41.]

         Pella sent West a letter via certified mail dated February 12, 2015 stating that West received a third Class 3 Corrective Action Letter on February 12, 2015 for “excessive absenteeism/tardiness' and that he was discharged from employment at Pella that same day for receiving three Class 3 Corrective Action Letters in a twelve month period. [DN 20-20.] According to Pella, Jeremy Philips met with West on February 13, 2015 to discuss his attendance issues. [DN 20-11 at 4.] Philips states that he asked West whether “there was an underlying reason for the absences that [Pella] could address though Pella's employee assistance program, and Mr. West answered no and mentioned that his absences were caused by ‘other stuff that keeps happening.'” [Id.]

         Under Pella's Attendance Policy, unexcused absences constitute “occurrences, ” and the time employees miss from work count toward the calculation of an “absenteeism rate %.” [DN 20-5 at 1.] Pella's Policy explains that an employee's attendance record will be considered “unacceptable” when an employee incurs four or more occurrences or has an absenteeism rate of 2% or higher, whichever occurs first in a rolling twelve-month period. [Id. at 2.] According to Pella, because West's attendance record violated its attendance policy, and because West received three Class 3 Corrective Action Letters in a one-year period, it determined that West was properly terminated under the progressive discipline process outlined therein. [DN 20-11 at 5.] Pella sent a termination letter to West on February 18, 2015 formalizing his February 12, 2015 discharge. [Id.]

         West brought suit against Pella, asserting, relevant to the instant motion, claims of FMLA interference and FMLA retaliation. [DN 15 (First Amended Complaint).]


         Summary judgment is appropriate when the record, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, reveals “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute of material fact exists where “there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). The Court “may not make credibility determinations nor weigh the evidence when determining whether an issue of fact remains for trial.” Laster v. City of Kalamazoo, 746 F.3d 714, 726 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing Logan v. Denny's, Inc., 259 F.3d 558, 566 (6th Cir. 2001); Ahlers v. Schebil, 188 F.3d 365, 369 (6th Cir. 1999)). “The ultimate question is ‘whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.' ” Back v. Nestlé USA, Inc., 694 F.3d 571, 575 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52).

         The moving party must shoulder the burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact as to at least one essential element of the nonmovant's claim or defense. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Laster, 746 F.3d at 726 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324). Assuming the moving party satisfies its burden of production, the nonmovant “must-by deposition, answers to interrogatories, affidavits, and admissions on file-show specific facts that reveal a genuine issue for trial.” Laster, 746 F.3d at 726 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324). “[N]ot every issue of fact or conflicting inference presents a genuine issue of material fact.” Street v. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1477 (6th Cir. 1989). The test is “whether the party bearing the burden of proof has presented a jury question as to each element in the case.” Hartsel v. Keys, 87 F.3d 795, 799 (6th Cir. 1996). Nor will mere speculation suffice to defeat a motion for summary judgment: “[t]he mere existence of a colorable factual dispute will not defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. A genuine dispute between the parties on an issue of material fact must exist to render summary judgment inappropriate.” Monette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1177 (6th Cir. 1996).


         Though West asserted a total of six claims in his amended complaint, [DN 15], in his response to Pella's motion for summary judgment, West indicated that he is abandoning all but two of those claims. Herein, West only opposes summary judgment with regard to his claims under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). [DN 22 at 1-2 (West's Response).]

         “The FMLA entitles qualifying employees up to 12 work weeks of leave under specified circumstances, including if they are suffering from a serious health condition.” Tennial v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 840 F.3d 292, 307 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D)). The Sixth Circuit “has recognized two theories of recovery under the FMLA: interference and retaliation. Id. (citing Seeger v. ...

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