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Hurst v. Lilly Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

July 26, 2017




         This civil action is before the Court on defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 18] to which plaintiff responded [Doc. 21] and defendant replied [Doc. 22]. For the reasons discussed herein, the Court will grant defendant's motion [Doc. 18].

         I. Background [1]

         This cases arises from defendant's decision to terminate sixty-one-year-old plaintiff's employment. Plaintiff began his employment as a forklift service technician (“forklift mechanic”) on August 28, 1978 [Doc. 21-1 p. 16]. In his capacity as a forklift mechanic, plaintiff was required on a daily basis to lift sixty to seventy pound LP tanks and place them onto fork lifts [Doc. 19-1 pp. 15-16]. In addition, plaintiff was sometimes required to lean over and place twenty to thirty pound parts in engine spaces [Id. at 19-20]. Plaintiff admits that his position involved a lot of “bending over” and “reaching for things, ” and he also states that he sometimes had to crawl underneath the forklifts [Id.].

         Plaintiff began having issues with his back in 2011 [Id. at 38]. At that time plaintiff began experiencing back pain such that his back “hurt all the time” [Id.]. In early 2012 plaintiff saw a doctor and received shots into his back, which alleviated the pain for approximately one year [Id. at 41-42]. In 2013, plaintiff returned to the doctor and again received shots into his back [Id.]. This time, the shots only alleviated plaintiff's pain for approximately one month [Id.].

         On June 24, 2014, plaintiff underwent a discectomy to remove a herniation in his L4-L5 disk [Doc. 19-34 p. 15]. On a medical form for plaintiff's disability benefits, plaintiff's Doctor, Dr. Patrick Bolt, indicated that it would be five to six months before plaintiff could expect significant improvement in his medical condition after the surgery [Id. at 13]. Dr. Bolt, provides however, that this timeline was just an estimate, and that the timeframe for recovery with respect to this type of surgery is “extremely variable” [Id. at 12-14]. Dr. Bolt did not believe at that time, however, that plaintiff would require any additional surgery [Doc. 21-1 p. 7]. On June 27, 2014, plaintiff submitted to defendant a request for Family Medical Leave Act (the “FMLA”) leave, in which he requested leave from June 16, 2014, to September 30, 2014 [See Doc. 19-2]. Although plaintiff's position was not covered by the FMLA, and even though the requested leave was for a longer period of time than that required by the FMLA, defendant approved the leave request [See id.; Doc. 19 p. 3].

         On July 11, 2014, and again on August 8, 2014, plaintiff returned to Dr. Bolt claiming that he was having increased pain [Doc. 19-34 p. 18]. Dr. Bolt ordered an MRI, and the results of the MRI necessitated that plaintiff undergo a second surgical procedure on August 26, 2014 [Id. at 20]. Dr. Bolt provides that the second surgery restarted the clock on plaintiff's estimated recovery time [Id. at 21]. Dr. Bolt states, however, that the time at which plaintiff would be able to return to work would ultimately depend on his symptoms [Id.].

         On October 8, 2014, approximately one week after his leave had ended and not having returned to work, plaintiff returned to Dr. Bolt's office and met with Ashley Self, Dr. Bolt's nurse practitioner [Doc. 19-35 p. 13]. After the appointment, plaintiff called Dr. Bolt's office, indicating that he was in “terrible pain” and needed a note for his employer giving him additional time off of work in order to recover from the second surgery [Id.]. Nurse Self then provided plaintiff with such a note [See Doc. 19-12]. In the section of the note indicating at what point plaintiff could return to work, Nurse Self wrote the following: “Off work until [follow-up] apt on 11/19/14 & will be determined at that time” [Id.]. That day, plaintiff provided Nurse Self's note to his supervisor, Chris Oxendine [Doc. 21-1 p. 28]. The next day, October 9, 2014, defendant terminated plaintiff's employment [See id.].

         On November 19, 2014, plaintiff had his follow-up appointment with Nurse Self [See Doc. 19-17]. At this appointment, Nurse Self stated that plaintiff was “ready to be released to work at full duty” [Id. at 1]. Nurse Self provides that a key factor in her determination that plaintiff was able to return to work full time was the extent to which plaintiff could tolerate any remaining pain [Doc. 19-35 p. 16]. That day, plaintiff spoke to Oxendine, who advised plaintiff that he would not be allowed to return to work [See Doc. 21-1 p. 3].

         The next day, on November 20, 2014, plaintiff called Dr. Bolt's office to speak with Nurse Self [Doc. 19-35 p. 19]. Later that day, plaintiff called CIGNA, defendant's long-term disability benefits provider, and CIGNA provides that plaintiff stated that his foot was numb and that he had back pain [See Doc. 19-19]. CIGNA further provides that plaintiff told it that his employer had terminated him and that Dr. Bolt was still keeping him off of work [Id.]. Plaintiff submits that what he actually told Dr. Bolt, Nurse Self, and CIGNA, is that his employer considered him unable to perform his job [Doc. 21-1 p. 4]. Nurse Self subsequently ordered another MRI on plaintiff, which was performed on November 26, 2014 [Doc. 19-35 p. 20]. Based on the results of the MRI, Nurse Self indicates that she would recommend that plaintiff alternate sitting and standing, and not lift over twenty pounds [Id. at 20-21]. Nurse Self provides that these limitations would continue until she had a chance to reevaluate plaintiff [Id.].

         In December 2014, plaintiff spoke with Wally Painter, defendant's operations manager, about the possibility of getting his position back [Doc. 21-1 p. 22]. During that conversation, Painter told plaintiff, “with your age, you just need to go ahead and try to get your disability” [Id.].

         Plaintiff subsequently initiated this suit, alleging disability and age discrimination under both federal and state law [See Doc. 1]. Defendant moves for summary judgment as to all of plaintiff's claims.

         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., 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 party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Burchett v. Kiefer, 301 F.3d 937, 942 (6th Cir. 2002).

         “Once the moving party presents evidence sufficient to support a motion under Rule 56, the nonmoving party is not entitled to a trial merely on the basis of allegations.” Curtis Through Curtis v. Universal Match Corp., 778 F.Supp. 1421, 1423 (E.D. Tenn. 1991) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 317). The plaintiff must offer “concrete evidence from which a reasonable juror could return a verdict in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986). “[M]ere conclusory and unsupported allegations, rooted in speculation, do not meet that burden.” Bell v. Ohio State Univ., 351 F.3d 240, 253 (6th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). Summary judgment may not be defeated “based on rumors, conclusory allegations, or subjective beliefs.” Hein v. All Am. Plywood Co., 232 F.3d 482, 488 (6th Cir. 2000). To establish a genuine issue as to the existence of a particular element, the non-moving party must point to evidence in the record upon which a reasonable finder of fact could find in its favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The genuine issue must also be material; that is, it must involve facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Hein, 232 F.3d at 488.

         The Court's function at the point of summary judgment is limited to determining whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of fact a proper question for the factfinder. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. The Court does not weigh the evidence or determine the truth of the matter. Id. at 249. Nor does the Court search the record “to establish that it is bereft of a genuine issue of material fact.” Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1479-80 (6th Cir. 1989). Thus, “the inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is a need for a trial-whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff brings claims for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) and the Tennessee Disability Act (the “TDA”). He also brings claims for age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (the “ADEA”) and the Tennessee Human Rights Act (the “THRA”). Defendant has moved for summary judgment with respect to all of these claims. The Court will first discuss the disability discriminations claims, and then turn to the age discrimination claims.

         A. Disability ...

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