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McMurray v. Eastman Chemical Co.

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

April 16, 2018



          Leon Jordan, United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [doc. 13], Defendant's Brief Supporting the Motion [doc. 14], Plaintiff's Response [doc. 19], Defendant's Reply [doc. 22], and Plaintiff's Sur-Reply [doc. 27]. For the reasons herein, the Court will deny Defendant's motion.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Matthew A. McMurray is a former employee of Defendant Eastman Chemical Company (“Eastman”), where he worked as a boiler auxiliary operator. [Pl.'s Dep., doc. 15-4, at 8:11-20; Pl.'s Aff., doc. 21, ¶ 2].[1] On June 10, 2013, Mr. McMurray became ill and missed work, and early in the next day, he emailed his supervisor and notified him of his intention to take thirty-six hours of medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601. [Email, doc. 20-1, at 1]. Mr. McMurray informed him that he planned “to have FMLA papers filled out.” [Id.]. In a reply email, his supervisor wrote, “OK.” [Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 3].

         On June 13, 2013, Mr. McMurray visited his physician's office and saw a nurse practitioner, Dawn Smith, who diagnosed him with a viral infection and prescribed medication for him. [FMLA Certification Form, doc. 20-2, at 1]. On Mr. McMurray's behalf, she completed an FMLA Certification Form, in which she verified his illness and noted that he is unable to perform his job because of his illness. [Id.]. Mr. McMurray asked her to send the form to his employer. [Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 4]. Although Mr. McMurray was aware that Eastman's FMLA Policy [doc. 20-4] allowed him to wait to submit his FMLA form until after he returned to work, [2] he chose to send it in early “in order to fully protect” himself. [Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 10; see FMLA Policy at 1]. The office's staff told him that it mailed the form to Eastman. [Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 4].

         During Mr. McMurray's absence from work, Eastman continued to pay him his regular wages, [Earnings Statement, doc. 15-16, at 1-5], under its Short-Term Disability Plan (“Plan”) [doc. 15-17], whose benefits to employees include “continuation of all or a portion of” their salary when they are “unable to work because of a non-occupational illness, ” [id. at 1]. Under the Plan, Eastman's employees become eligible for benefits if they are “unable, due to a medical condition, to perform [their] regular duties, ” so long as their work did not create the condition. [Plan at 2]. “In all cases of disability lasting 36 or more work hours, ” employees must provide Eastman with medical evidence that confirms their disability, “no later than 20 days after Eastman requests [it].” [Id. at 3]. Also, they must furnish Eastman with certain documents no later than two days after it requests them, including: (1) a Medical Evaluation Report Form TED 10975 (“MERF”), (2) a release of their medical information, and (3) any other documents necessary for Eastman to validate the existence of a disability. [Id. at 3].

         After learning that Mr. McMurray had missed more than thirty-six hours of work because of an illness, Heather Robinson, a nurse in Eastman's Work Reentry Department, mailed a Work Reentry Packet to his address on file. [Robinson Decl., doc. 15-2, ¶ 2]. The packet, which she shipped to him on June 17, 2013, contained “information on how to remain compliant with Eastman's Short-Term Disability program, ” a MERF, and FMLA paperwork. [Id.]. He received the packet. [Pl.'s Dep. at 15:8-23; Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 13].

         On June 21, 2013, Mr. McMurray attempted to return to work. [Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 6; Nurse Bowser's R., doc. 20-3, at 1-2]. He reported to Eastman's medical department, [3] where April Bowser, a senior occupational health nurse, examined him and decided to send him home. [Nurse Bowser's R. at 1-2]. After her exam, she generated a report in which she informed Mr. McMurray's supervisor that Mr. McMurray has a “medical condition” that requires not only his “absence from work” but also “medical clearance prior to returning to work.” [Id. at 1]. A few days later, he revisited his physician's office, where a second nurse practitioner, Jill Fleming, examined him and, like Ms. Smith, she documented his illness as a viral infection. [McMurray Chart, doc. 15-7, at 7]. Mr. McMurray presented a new FMLA form to the office's staff and, once again, requested that his physician complete it and forward it to Eastman. [Pl.'s Dep. at 12:13-21].

         On July 1, 2013, he went back to his physician's office, where Ms. Smith examined him again and prepared a Second FMLA Certification Form [doc. 15-9] on his behalf. In the form, she added a diagnosis-hypertension-and wrote that Mr. McMurray is unable to perform “[a]ll job functions from 6/28/13 [to] 7-11-13.” [Second FMLA Certification Form at 2]. Around this time, Mr. McMurray heard rumors that Eastman was going to fire him, and he reacted by reaching out to his supervisors. [Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 9]. They expressed no problems with his FMLA leave, [id.], so Mr. McMurray “believed that [he] was on FMLA-protected leave, ” [id. ¶ 7].

         Later in the month, however, Ms. Robinson spoke with him and she explained to him that she had not yet received necessary medical documentation from his medical providers; specifically, she requested a MERF. [Robinson Decl. ¶ 5]. She informed him that it was essential for compliance with the Plan. [Id.]. Mr. McMurray indicated to her that did not apply for disability benefits, and he was unaware that Eastman was depositing these benefits into his account. [Pl.'s Aff. ¶¶ 16, 18].[4] According to Mr. McMurray, she identified no problems with his FMLA leave, [id. ¶ 21]; instead, “her priority was short-term disability documentation and not Family Medical Leave papers.” [Pl.'s Dep. at 13:19- 20; see Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 21].

         Afterwards, Mr. McMurray asked Ms. Smith to complete a new FMLA form and a MERF, and he personally delivered these forms to Eastman's medical department, where he gave them to the receptionist-a “mature gray-headed lady” who said that she would transmit them to the proper person in the department. [Pl.'s Aff. ¶¶ 22-23, 27, 32]. In the past, he had hand-delivered his leave-related papers to the medical department with no issues. [Id. ¶ 24].[5] In early August, he received an updated FMLA form and MERF from his physician's office. [Id. ¶ 25]. He hand-delivered each of these forms to Eastman's medical department. [Id. ¶¶ 26-27, 32]. The receptionist, “a different lady than before, ” instructed him to place them in Ms. Robinson's mailbox on the wall, and he followed her instructions. [Id. ¶ 26].

         A week into August, however, Ms. Robinson left a voicemail on Mr. McMurray's phone, telling him that she still did not have necessary medical documentation and that he needed to come in to complete paperwork. [Robinson Decl. ¶¶ 6-8; Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 27]. When he arrived at Eastman's medical department on August 19, 2013, Ms. Robinson insisted that she had “not received any [disability] paperwork.” [Robinson Decl. ¶ 9]. She directed him to provide Eastman with a MERF. [Id.]. He advised her that, on two prior occasions, he had delivered a MERF to Eastman, along with his FMLA forms. [Id.; Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 32; Robinson Notes, doc. 21-8, at 3]. According to Mr. McMurray, she said that Eastman “did not need [his] FMLA paperwork” but “needed [disability] papers.” [Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 32]. He replied that he was not opting for disability benefits but only FMLA leave. [Id. ¶ 31]. She then requested his signature on a release form, which authorized Eastman to obtain his medical records. [Robinson Decl. ¶ 10]. He cooperated with her request and signed the release form. [Id.; Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 32]. Ms. Robinson received his records that day and found neither a MERF nor evidence of medical restrictions. [Robinson Decl. ¶ 10].

         On the following day, Mr. McMurray visited his physician, who ordered him to undergo numerous tests. [Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 38; Robinson Notes at 4]. Ms. Fleming completed a new FMLA form and MERF, [Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 39], in which she described Mr. McMurray's primary diagnosis as “[u]ncontrolled” hypertension, [MERF, doc. 21-10, at 1]. She also listed various work-related restrictions for Mr. McMurray, including an inability to use a respirator, [id. at 1], which was a regular part of his job, [Pl.'s Dep. at 23:1-7]. She wrote that his restrictions would remain in effect for one to two weeks, and she required him to return for a follow-up appointment in three days. [MERF at 1].

         Mr. McMurray went back to Eastman's medical department on that same day and handed his MERF and FMLA form directly to Ms. Robinson. [Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 39; Robinson Notes at 4]. According to Mr. McMurray, she examined these documents and “remarked that [his] doctor was putting [him] off work for one to two more weeks until he could get the various tests completed” and that “that was ‘fine.'” [Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 39]. She then reviewed the MERF with the medical department's physician; he stated that Mr. McMurray's physician would have to complete his “next” MERF. [Robinson Notes at 4]. He instructed her to “hold” his current MERF “at this time.” [Id.]. Ms. Robinson notified Mr. McMurray that his physician would need to complete his next MERF, and he “[v]erbalize[d] [his] understanding.” [Id.].

         But on August 22, before Mr. McMurray's follow-up appointment, Eastman made the decision to end his employment. [Termination Letter, doc. 21-4, at 1].[6] Eastman stated that he had “not complied with the process of providing continuing evidence of disability” until August 19. [Id.]. Eastman also pointed out that his medical records, when it received them on that date, contained “no indications [he] should be out of work or written restrictions.” [Id.]. Eastman therefore concluded that his absence from work, from June through August, constituted “a failure to adhere to the [Plan], ” which warranted his termination. [Id.]. After discharging him, Eastman discovered that he had also worked a pair of side jobs in 2013-one as the “own[er] and generat[or]” of a Virginia-based newspaper and one as a cattle rancher. [Pl.'s Interrog. Resp., doc. 15-25, at 2]. Eastman maintains that his participation in these side jobs is an additional ground for termination under the Plan, [Def.'s Br. at 18], which “automatically cease[s]” benefits “[t]he date you perform services for an employer other than the Company, even if you were employed with the other employer prior to the date your disability was incurred, ” [Plan at 4].

         Mr. McMurray has now filed suit in this Court against Eastman, claiming it (1) interfered with his FMLA rights, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1) and (2) terminated him in retaliation for taking FMLA leave, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(2). [Pl.'s Resp. at 2; Compl., doc. 1, ¶¶ 27-33]. Eastman moves for summary judgment on both of these claims. The Court will now address Eastman's motion.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is proper when the moving party shows, or “point[s] out to the district court, ” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986), that the record-the admissions, affidavits, answers to interrogatories, declarations, depositions, or other materials-is without a genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The moving party has the initial burden of identifying the basis for summary judgment and the portions of the record that lack genuine issues of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party discharges that burden by showing “an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's” claim or defense, id. at 325, at which point the nonmoving party, to survive summary judgment, must identify facts in the record that create a genuine issue of material fact, id. at 324.

         Not just any factual dispute will defeat a motion for summary judgment-the requirement is “that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is “material” if it may affect the outcome of the case under the applicable substantive law, id., and an issue is “genuine” if the evidence is “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. In short, the inquiry is whether the record contains evidence that “presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 251-52. When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the facts and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007). “[T]he judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. A court may also resolve pure questions of law on a motion for summary judgment. See Hill v. Homeward Residential, Inc., 799 F.3d 544, 550 (6th Cir. 2015).

         III. Analysis

         The FMLA entitles employees to an annual total of twelve weeks of leave for numerous reasons including a “serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position of such employee.” 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D). After the employee returns from FMLA leave, the employer must restore him to his position or to an equivalent position. Id. § 2614(a)(1). An employer will be subject to civil liability if it “interfere[s] with, restrain[s], or den[ies] the exercise of or the attempt to exercise, any right provided under th[e] [FMLA], ” id. § 2615(a)(1), or if it “discharge[s] . . . any individual for opposing any practice made unlawful by th[e] [FMLA], ” id. § 2615(a)(2); see Id. § 2617(a)(1).

         The FMLA allows employers to run an employee's FMLA leave concurrently with their additional leave programs, Hicks v. Leroy's Jewelers, Inc., No. 98-6596, 2000 WL 1033029, at *4 ...

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