Dollar v. Smithway Motor Xpress Inc.

Decision Date13 April 2011
Docket NumberNo. C09–3043–MWB.,C09–3043–MWB.
Citation787 F.Supp.2d 896
PartiesChristine Ann DOLLAR, Plaintiff,v.SMITHWAY MOTOR XPRESS, INC., Smithway Motor Xpress Corp., a Nevada Corporation, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

John P. Roehrick, Roehrick, Hulting Krull & Blumberg, PC, Des Moines, IA, for Plaintiff.Stuart J. Cochrane, Johnson Kramer Good Mulholland Cochrane & Driscoll, Fort Dodge, IA, Isham B. Bradley, Western Express, Inc., Nashville, TN, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER ON TRIAL ON THE MERITS

MARK W. BENNETT, District Judge.

+-----------------+
                ¦TABLE OF CONTENTS¦
                +-----------------+
                
                I. INTRODUCTION                                                       901
                
 A. Procedural Background                                          901
                    B. Findings Of Fact                                               902
                
                II. LEGAL ANALYSIS                                                    907
                
 A. Overview of the FMLA                                           907
                    B. Dollar's FMLA Claims                                           909
                
 1. Dollar's FMLA retaliation claim                           909
                         2. Dollar's FMLA Interference Claim                          910
                
 a. Eligible employee and employer                        911
                             b. Serious health condition                              911
                             c. Notice                                                912
                             d. Denial of benefits                                    913
                
 3. Remedies                                                  913
                
 a. Compensatory damages                                  914
                             b. Back pay and benefits                                 915
                             c. Reinstatement versus front pay                        917
                
 i. Reinstatement                                    918
                                 ii. Front pay                                        920
                                 iii. Calculation of front pay                         923
                
 d. Liquidated damages                                    926
                             e. Liquidated damages: front pay                         926
                             f. Punitive damages                                      927
                             g. Interest                                              928
                
                III. CONCLUSION AND ORDER FOR JUDGMENT                                 929
                

May an employer lawfully fire an employee who is on short term medical leave for depression without considering whether the employee's leave was protected by the FMLA? This case presents that question. It also presents a corollary question, is the employee's ability to return to work considered in light of her job at the time she took her leave or in light of the job to which the employer transferred her while she was on leave?

I. INTRODUCTION
A. Procedural Background

On July 1, 2009, plaintiff Christine Dollar filed her Complaint against defendants Smithway Motor Xpress, Inc. and Smithway Motor Xpress Corp. (collectively SMX). In Count I, Dollar contends that SMX interfered with her right to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601–2654, and that her termination was in retaliation for her exercising her rights under the FMLA. In Count II, Dollar asserts an Iowa common law claim that she was wrongfully discharged in violation of Iowa public policy for seeking leave she was entitled to under the FMLA. SMX filed a timely answer to Dollar's Complaint denying these allegations.

In July, both parties filed motions for summary judgment limited to Dollar's FMLA claims. After timely resistances, I denied the cross-motions for summary judgment. I heard this case in a bench trial on March 28, 2011. At the start of the trial, Dollar withdrew her Iowa common law claim. Plaintiff Dollar was represented by John P. Roehrick of Gaudineer, Comito & George, L.L.P., Des Moines, Iowa. Defendant SMX was represented by Isham B. Bradley, Nashville, Tennessee.

B. Findings Of Fact

Defendant SMX is a national over-the-road trucking carrier. Its principal place of business was previously in Fort Dodge, Iowa.1 Plaintiff Christine Ann Dollar lives in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and was 48 years old at the time of trial. She did not graduate from high school, but did obtain a General Education Degree (“GED”). After obtaining her GED, she attended Iowa Central Community College and obtained an Associate of Arts degree. After finishing her Associate of Arts degree, she attended Buena Vista University in Fort Dodge working on a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology with a minor in criminology. 2 Dollar has a long history of suffering from depression. She was first diagnosed with depression when she was around 23 years old. Dollar was employed by SMX on two occasions.

SMX provides a handbook to its non-driver employees, such as Dollar, which explains various employee benefits and its employment policies and requirements. The handbook states that employees with less than three years of employment receive one week of vacation a year. It also contains the following explanation of SMX's “Pay Continuation for Illness or Disability”:

On your employment date, you will be allocated forty-eight (48) days in a pay continuation bank established for you. The days in this bank are for you to use when you have an illness or disability that causes you to be absent from work for a day or more. (This policy will be administered in conjunction with the General Medical Leave and Family and Medical Leave policies.)

This pay continuation bank will be replenished at each January 1 of the following calendar year at the rate of up to twelve (12) days. (There can be no more than 48 days in the bank at the beginning of each calendar year.)

You must be employed six (6) months before you will be eligible to use pay continuation. You will not be paid for unused pay continuation at termination.

Plaintiff's Ex. 2, Employee Handbook at 17.

SMX's employee handbook further explains an employee's ability to take unpaid leave under FMLA, providing in relevant part:

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), eligible employees will be granted up to a total of 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during a “rolling” 12–month period for one or more of the following reasons:

....

To take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.

Employees are eligible for FMLA leave when they have worked for Smithway Motor Xpress, Inc [sic] a total of at least 12 months and have worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous 12 months.

You are required to give as much notice as is practical, preferably at least thirty (30) days, of your intentions concerning family or medical leave. With respect to foreseeable medical treatments, you are to make reasonable efforts to schedule the treatments so as to not unduly disrupt the company's operations.

In situations where it is medically necessary, you may take leave intermittently or on a reduced leave schedule. You may be required to temporarily transfer to an equivalent position which better accommodates your need for recurring periods of leave.

Employees must first exhaust accrued paid leave (sick or vacation) before utilizing unpaid FMLA leave.

Medical certification will be required when leave is taken based on a serious health condition and recertification will be required for any extensions, or at four week intervals, whichever is sooner.

You will be expected to report periodically (at least every 2 weeks) on the status of your leave and your intention to return to work.

....

You will be required to provide a certification to resume work before you return to work from any leave based on your own serious health condition.

....

Service time with the Company shall continue during the leave and every effort will be made to reinstate you to the same position or, if unable to do so, one of equal status at the same rate of pay upon returning to work. Limitations for benefits and pay practices during leaves of absences apply here.

Plaintiff's Ex. 2, Employee Handbook at 23–24.

Dollar was first employed by SMX in the fall of 1989. At that time, SMX had two divisions: the Van Division and the Flatbed Division. She was hired to work in the dispatch department as a billing clerk for the Flatbed Division. In her position as a billing clerk, Dollar was responsible for providing billing for drivers' bills of lading for a gypsum mill client. Beginning in January of 1998, Dollar suffered a bad bout of depression, and used up all 48 days of her banked sick leave. Dollar returned to work at SMX for a short period of time, then quit, after nearly nine years with SMX, to move to Georgia.

Dollar moved back to Iowa, and returned to work at SMX on March 22, 2006. Dollar again worked in the dispatch department, but as a load coordinator in SMX's Van Division, the only position available when Dollar applied. As a load coordinator, Dollar's primary responsibility was working with SMX's customers to obtain loads for drivers in her designated geographic area. She was paid a salary of $600 per week initially plus benefits that included health, dental, and vision insurance. Dollar's immediate supervisor in the Van Division was Terry Wieland.

Dollar missed work on August 10, 2006, and August 11, 2006. After which, on August 23, 2006, Dollar was orally reprimanded by Wieland for her absenteeism. That same day, Wieland emailed Dollar a memorandum which summarized their conversation. In his memorandum, Wieland states:

I talked to Chris Dollar this morning about her absences. She explained the first time she was sick, 052506, she had a sinus infection. The second time she was sick, 081006 and 081106, she had problems with her depression medication. I explained to her that when I hired her I made the comment that I needed someone that was here everyday and was on top of his or her game. I explained to her also that when one person is gone it stresses the entire system. She said she was...

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8 cases
  • Gilster v. Primebank
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa
    • August 14, 2012
    ...I determined that the plaintiff's length of employment strongly supported a front pay award, see, e.g., Dollar v. Smithway Motor Xpress, Inc., 787 F.Supp.2d 896, 921 (N.D.Iowa 2011) (nine years with defendant employer); Baker, 263 F.Supp.2d at 1178 (seventeen years), three years shows stabi......
  • Hudson v. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa
    • February 26, 2014
    ...claim than a retaliation claim.Resistance at 12 (citations omitted). Hudson compares his case with Dollar v. Smithway Motor Xpress, Inc., 787 F. Supp. 2d 896 (N.D. Iowa 2011), vacated in part on other grounds, 710 F.3d 798 (8th Cir. 2013), a case in which, according to Hudson, "the [d]efend......
  • Ruble v. American River Transp. Co.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Missouri
    • June 29, 2011
    ...Thus, plaintiff's complaint does not notify defendant of a possible retaliation claim. See Dollar v. Smithway Motor Xpress, Inc., 787 F.Supp.2d 896, 909–10, 2011 WL 1399800, at *9 (N.D.Iowa 2011) (plaintiff raised only an interference claim, and not a retaliation claim, where she never actu......
  • Hayes v. Vermeer Mfg. Co.
    • United States
    • Iowa Court of Appeals
    • May 9, 2012
    ...Accordingly, Hayes' depression would qualify as a serious health condition under both categories. See Dollar v. Smithway Motor Xpress, Inc., 787 F.Supp.2d 896, 911 (N.D.Iowa 2011). An employee may take intermittent leave “for absences where the employee ... is incapacitated or unable to per......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Chapter § 1-77 29 CFR § 825.702. Interaction With Federal and State Anti-Discrimination Laws
    • United States
    • Full Court Press Maslanka's Texas Field Guide to Employment Law Title Chapter 1 The Family and Medical Leave Act
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    ...of front pay). A district court disagrees and collates cases on both sides of the issue. • Dollar v. Smithway Motor Xpress, Inc., 787 F. Supp. 2d 896 (N.D. Iowa. 2011) (rejects Palasota, noting that the remedies of front pay and liquidated damages serve different purposes, and that liquidat......

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