Austin v. Fuel Systems, LLC

Decision Date16 August 2004
Docket NumberNo. 1:03-CV-374.,1:03-CV-374.
Citation379 F.Supp.2d 884
PartiesPamela S. AUSTIN, Plaintiff, v. FUEL SYSTEMS, LLC, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Michigan

Jason S. Schnelker, Siebers Mohney, PLC, Grand Rapids, MI, for Plaintiff.

Jonathan P. Kok, Warner, Norcross & Judd, LLP, Grand Rapids, MI, for Defendant.

OPINION

QUIST, District Judge.

Plaintiff, Pamela S. Austin, sued Defendant, Fuel Systems, LLC, after Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment. In her Complaint, Plaintiff claims that Defendant: (1) violated her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq.; (2) discriminated against her on the basis of age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and Michigan's Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act ("Elliot-Larsen"), M.C.L. 37.2201 et seq.; and (3) discriminated against her on the basis of disability in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and Michigan's Persons With Disabilities Civil Rights Act ("PWDCRA"), M.C.L. 37.1101 et seq. Now before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment on all three claims. For the reasons stated below, the Court will deny Defendant's motion with respect to the FMLA claim and grant the motion with respect to the age and disability discrimination claims.

I. Background

Borg-Warner Automotive was a predecessor of Defendant. In October of 2000, a temporary employment agency hired Plaintiff and provided her to Borg-Warner to perform work as an office manager. Borg-Warner itself hired Plaintiff as a full time employee in January 2001 and expanded the scope of her duties so that she worked both as an office manager and as a customer service representative. In April 2001, Defendant acquired the division of Borg-Warner that employed Plaintiff, and Defendant became Plaintiff's employer. In April 2002, Plaintiff began working exclusively as a customer service representative.

In the summer of 2000, Plaintiff began experiencing severe headaches, pain in her neck, and tingling along her left arm, hand, and fingers. Her condition deteriorated, and in July 2002, she was diagnosed as having an Arnold-Chiari malformation, a congenital defect in which the cerebellum portion of the brain protrudes into the spinal cord, resulting in pressure that causes symptoms such as those experienced by Plaintiff. Plaintiff informed Defendant of the condition in August of 2002, and was given a Request for Family Medical Leave Form. On October 7, 2002, Plaintiff officially requested FMLA leave in order to have surgery in hopes of relieving her symptoms. Defendant approved the leave request. Plaintiff began her FMLA leave on October 9, 2002, the day she underwent surgery. The procedure involved clipping away portions of Plaintiff's cranium and surrounding vertebrae to allow room for the brain malfunction to expand. The surgery, however, did not attempt to remove the malformation itself, which remained in place and is incurable. Plaintiff was discharged from the hospital on October 16, 2002, and went home to continue recovering.

On December 16, 2002, Plaintiff saw her doctor for a follow-up appointment. Later that day, Rick Claypool, Defendant's plant manager, telephoned Plaintiff to inquire when she would return to work. Plaintiff told Claypool that her doctor had not released her for work but that she had a follow-up doctor's appointment on January 16, 2003 and would know more then. Plaintiff went to her appointment on January 16, and then went to Defendant's facility with a notice from her doctor stating that she would be able to return to work for four hours a day beginning January 20, 2003. On January 20, 2003, Defendant informed Plaintiff that her employment was terminated. Plaintiff was 44 years old on that date.

II. Summary Judgment Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Material facts are facts which are defined by substantive law and are necessary to apply the law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A dispute is genuine if a reasonable jury could return judgment for the non-moving party. Id.

A motion for summary judgment is properly supported if the moving party shows that there is no evidence to support the non-moving party's case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324-25, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553-54, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). If the moving party makes its showing, the non-moving party must demonstrate with "concrete evidence" that there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial. Id.; Frank v. D'Ambrosi, 4 F.3d 1378, 1384 (6th Cir.1993). The court must draw all inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party when evaluating a summary judgement motion. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 578-88, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1352-58, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). It may, however, grant summary judgment when "the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party." Agristor Fin. Corp. v. Van Sickle, 967 F.2d 233, 236 (6th Cir.1992) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., 475 U.S. at 587, 106 S.Ct. at 1356).

III. Discussion

A. FMLA Claim

The FMLA permits eligible employees of a covered employer to take a total of 12 workweeks of leave during a 12-month period because of, among other things, a serious health condition that renders the employee unable to perform the functions of his or her job.1 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1). Upon returning from FMLA leave, the employee is entitled to be restored to the same or an equivalent position. 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a). However, an employee who exceeds the permitted FMLA leave time has no right to be restored to his or her job. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.214(b); Hicks v. Leroy's Jewelers, Inc., No. 98-6596, 2000 WL 1033029, at *5 (6th Cir. July 17, 2000); Green v. Alcan Aluminum Corp., No. 98-3775, 1999 WL 1073686, at *1-2 (6th Cir. Nov.16, 1999); Cehrs v. Northeast Ohio Alzheimer's Research Ctr., 155 F.3d 775, 785 (6th Cir.1998).

Under the FMLA, "an employer is permitted to choose any one of the following methods for determining the '12-month period' in which the 12 weeks of leave entitlement occurs":

(1) The calendar year;

(2) Any fixed 12-month "leave year," such as a fiscal year, a year required by State law, or a year starting on an employee's "anniversary" date (3) The 12-month period measured forward from the day any employee's first FMLA leave begins; or

(4) A "rolling" 12-month period measured backward from the date an employee uses any FMLA leave.

29 C.F.R. § 825.200(b). The first and fourth methods of leave calculation are relevant in this dispute. The regulations explain that under the first method, known as the calendar year method, "an employee would be entitled to up to 12 weeks of FMLA leave at any time in the fixed 12-month period selected. An employee could, therefore, take 12 weeks of leave at the end of the year and 12 weeks at the beginning of the following year." 29 C.F.R. § 825.200(c). Under the fourth method, known as the rolling method, "each time an employee takes FMLA leave the remaining leave entitlement would be any balance of the 12 weeks which has not been used during the immediately preceding 12 months." Id.

An employer "will be allowed to choose any one of the alternatives in paragraph (b) of this section provided the alternative chosen is applied consistently and uniformly to all employees." 29 C.F.R. § 825.200(d)(1). However, if "an employer fails to select one of the options in paragraph (b) of this section for measuring the 12-month period, the option that provides the most beneficial outcome for the employee will be used." 29 C.F.R. § 825.200(e).

Defendant maintains that it chose and uniformly and consistently applied the rolling method (i.e., the fourth method in the list above). It is undisputed that if the rolling method is applied in this case, Plaintiff exceeded her authorized 12 weeks of FMLA leave. Defendant therefore moves for summary judgment on the FMLA claim, arguing that it was justified in firing Plaintiff. Plaintiff opposes the motion because, she asserts, Defendant was required to notify her of its selected method and failed to do so, and thus her leave period must be determined using the method most beneficial to her. Under the calendar method, which Plaintiff seeks to apply, the clock starts afresh on January 1 of each year. Plaintiff did not exceed her authorized leave if the calendar method is used.

As the following discussion explains, the Court will deny Defendant's motion for summary judgment on the FMLA claim because the Court finds that Defendant was required to notify Plaintiff of the leave method and because whether Plaintiff received such notice remains a disputed issue of material fact.

(1) Employers Must Provide Notice of the Method Selected for Calculating the 12 Weeks of FMLA Leave Entitlement

The parties dispute whether an employer is required to notify employees of the method it has chosen for calculating FMLA leave. Defendant argues that the FMLA and its implementing regulations create no requirement to provide such notice. Defendant maintains that because it has applied the rolling method "consistently and uniformly" in accordance with 29 C.F.R. § 825.200(d)(1), it fulfilled its obligations and properly applied the rolling method in this case, regardless of whether Plaintiff knew of the method selected. In response, Plaintiff contends that employers are required to inform employees of the method chosen for calculating leave and that because Defendant failed to do so, it terminated her in violation of the FMLA.

(a) The Bachelder Decision

Plaintiff...

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