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Larson v. Rush Fitness Complex

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville Division

November 13, 2014



THOMAS A. VARLAN, Chief District Judge.

This civil action is before the Court on defendant The Rush Fitness Complex's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 24]. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition [Doc. 30], and defendant replied [Doc. 32]. The Court has carefully considered the matter and, for the reasons stated herein, will grant defendant's motion as to plaintiff's remaining claims.[1]

I. Background

Michael Larson was employed by The Rush Fitness Complex ("The Rush" or "defendant") as a personal trainer [Doc. 25 p. 2; Doc. 30-1 p. 4]. He was an at-will employee who underwent two surgeries on his right knee in 2011 [Doc. 25 p. 2-3]. After plaintiff's February surgery, plaintiff was able to return to The Rush and perform all his duties as a personal trainer by May 2011 [ Id. p. 2]. The following month, however, a meniscus transplant became necessary after plaintiff "tweaked" his right knee again while playing indoor soccer [ Id. p. 2-3]. Because plaintiff anticipated his recovery would take longer than his recovery from the previous surgery, he asked his supervisor, Ashley Kittrell, about the possibility of taking leave [ Id. p. 3; Doc. 30-1 p. 3]. His supervisor submitted his leave request and allegedly said, "It sucks that you're going to be out for as long as you are, keep me posted, let me know, your job will be here when you get back" [Doc. 30-1 p. 3]. According to plaintiff, his supervisor's instructions were to be in communication with her and to return as a personal trainer when cleared by his doctor [ Id. p. 4].

On the day of his transplant operation, August 8, 2011, plaintiff went on Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") leave, which "is limited to a total of 12 workweeks" under Department of Labor regulations [Doc. 25 p. 3; Doc. 30-6; 29 C.F.R. ยง 825.200(a)]. Four days later, on August 12, 2011, plaintiff received a letter from Jenny Johnson, The Rush Benefits Coordinator [Doc. 32-1 p. 16]. The letter stated, in pertinent part:

I have received the FMLA paperwork for you.... [Y]our FMLA time is not paid leave. It is primarily job and pay rate security. In the FMLA paperwork, it states that your surgery was schedule[d] for August 8, 2011 and the duration of your leave will be 6 to 12 weeks. Please notify your supervisor that they will need to submit a [Personnel Change Notice] to Payroll placing you on FMLA leave. Please make sure your doctor lets me know when you are cleared for work before you return. Upon your return your supervisor will need to submit another [Personnel Change Notice] to Payroll returning you to Active status. While on leave you will need to make arrangements with me to send in your insurance premiums (since you will not have a payroll check for us to deduct from).

[ Id. ]. In plaintiff's view, this letter "ordered [him] that he could not return to work until he had a return to work release authorization from his doctor" [Doc. 30-1 p. 4]. Plaintiff understood he would have, at most, twelve weeks of FMLA leave [Doc. 24-1 p. 15-16].

Plaintiff's knee began to recover, and on September 29, 2011, about seven weeks after the surgery, his physician discontinued his brace and permitted him to walk and jog, but encouraged him to not bear weight past ninety degrees [ Id. p. 53]. In the fall, plaintiff coached soccer and worked out a few times at The Rush facilities [Doc. 25 p. 4]. He touched base once with his supervisor Ashley Kittrell and also ran into district fitness manager Mandy Lawson [ See Doc. 24-1 p. 16].

Plaintiff's FMLA leave expired in late October[2] [ see Doc. 30 p. 4-5], and he claims he did not return to work "based on the instructions that Jenny Johnson gave me and instructions of my boss, Ashley Kittrell, to come back once I'm released from my physician" [ Id. p. 8]. On November 21, 2011, The Rush Benefits Coordinator, Jenny Johnson, contacted plaintiff by email:

I have not yet received your insurance premiums for the month of October. Your FMLA leave technically ended on October 26, 2011. Please respond to this email if your intentions are returning to work. If I do not hear from you in the next two days, I will cancel your insurance effective 10/31/2011. Thanks.

[Doc. 24-1 p. 34]. Plaintiff responded by email that same day, stating, "I went to the doctor [at] the end of October and was not released for work yet. My next appointment isn't until December 29th. At this point I expect to be released to return to work" [ Id. p. 34-35]. His email went on to discuss how therapy "has gone very slow" and to discuss "the job function as a personal trainer and things [he] would not be able to do that [he had] not been cleared to" [ Id. p. 36]. This email exchange, and the fact that his membership card scanned properly in the month of November, allegedly contributed to plaintiff's belief "that everything was okay" and that his job would be secure if he continued to see his doctor and wait on his doctor to give him a return to work release [ See Doc. 30-1 p. 4, 6-9].

Just two days after the conversation with the Benefits Coordinator, on November 23, 2011, Sarah Miller, a Human Resources representative, completed the Personnel Change Notice ("PCN") that led to plaintiff's termination [ See Doc. 32-2 p. 6; Doc. 30-3 p. 4]. At the time, managers at The Rush would submit PCNs on an employee's behalf to make a change to their personnel record [Doc. 30-3 p. 2]. Although plaintiff's PCN was completed on November 23, 2011, it was backdated to reflect a termination date of October 27, 2011 [ See id. p. 5-6; Doc. 32-2 p. 6].

The section of the PCN form titled "Termination Reasons" instructed Ms. Miller to "check one box" and "provide a brief description of termination circumstances" [Doc. 24-1 p. 69]. There were two sections of boxes to check from: a "Voluntary" section which included, for example, "Medical Reasons, " "Company Policies, " and "Other, " as well as an "Involuntary" section which included, for example, "Attendance, " "Policy Violation, " and "Other" [ Id. ].[3] Ms. Miller checked "Medical Reasons" under "Voluntary" and wrote, "Michael's FMLA expired and he is not able to return to work at this time. He has been marked eligible for rehire & can re-apply in the future" [ Id. ].

According to The Rush's employee handbook, "The Rush will consider an employee to have voluntarily terminated his or her employment if an employee... [f]ails to return from an approved leave of absence on the date specified'" [Doc. 25 p. 6]. It appears undisputed, however, that The Rush never explicitly stated to plaintiff that he would no longer have a job if he failed to return to work by a specified date [ See id. 2-8; Doc. 30 p. 3]. In plaintiff's words, "[a]t no point did they ever say you need to be here at X, Y, Z" [Doc. 30-1 p. 7]. It is also undisputed that The Rush did not notify plaintiff that he had been terminated. Plaintiff first learned of his termination when he went to The Rush to exercise in December 2011 and his membership card would not scan [ See id. p. 9]. At no point did plaintiff approach The Rush about allowing him to work as a personal trainer with accommodations for his physical limitation or request to be placed in any other position at The Rush [ See Doc. 24-1 p. 2-3].

Approximately five months after the August surgery, on January 13, 2012, plaintiff's physician cleared plaintiff to return to work as a personal trainer and gave him no permanent restrictions [ See id. p. 54; Doc. 25 p. 6]. The physician noted that plaintiff was "doing so well" but still wanted him to "limit weight bearing past 90 degrees for heavier exercise type things" and to wait one more month before running, skipping, or jumping [Doc. 24-1 p. 54]. As of February 9, 2012, almost exactly six months after the August surgery, plaintiff believed he no longer had a disability [ See Doc. 30-1 p. 2 ("I do not have a disability now, but I did have one.")].

Plaintiff then brought this action, seeking, among other things, at least $275, 000 in back pay, front pay, and the value of The Rush stock options [ Id. p. 10-11; Doc. 1 p. 8]. The Court dismissed Counts II (mental and emotional distress), III (breach of contract), and IV (FMLA violation) of the complaint, as well as any claim under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 [Docs. 15, 19]. Defendant now moves for summary judgment on plaintiff's remaining claims of disability discrimination and misrepresentation [Doc. 24 p. 1-2].

II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is proper "if the movant shows 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). The moving party bears the burden of establishing that no genuine issues of material fact exist. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 n.2 (1986); Moore v. Phillip Morris Cos., Inc., 8 F.3d 335, 339 (6th Cir. 1993). All facts and all inferences to be drawn therefrom must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving ...

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