Knutson v. AG Processing, Inc., No. C01-3015-MWB (N.D. Iowa 10/29/2002), No. C01-3015-MWB.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
Writing for the CourtMark W. Bennett
PartiesTIMOTHY J. KNUTSON, Plaintiff, v. AG PROCESSING, INC., Defendant.
Docket NumberNo. C01-3015-MWB.
Decision Date29 October 2002

Page 1

No. C01-3015-MWB.
United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Central Division.
October 29, 2002.

MARK W. BENNETT, Chief District Judge.

A. Procedural Background

On February 21, 2001, plaintiff Timothy J. Knutson filed a complaint against his former employer, defendant Ag Processing, Inc. ("APG"), seeking damages resulting from his termination on March 13, 2000. In his complaint, Knutson alleges three causes of action: a claim of disability discrimination pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., a similar claim under Iowa Code Chapter 216 et seq., and a state common law claim for retaliatory discharge in violation of public policy. With respect to his state common law claim, plaintiff Knutson asserts that he was fired in retaliation for seeking workers' compensation benefits. Defendant APG answered Knutson's complaint on May 11, 2001, denying Knutson's claims and asserting various defenses.

On September 4, 2002, defendant APG filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on all of Knutson's claims. First, in its motion, defendant APG claims that Knutson is not "disabled" within the meaning of either the ADA, or Chapter 216 of the Iowa Code. Specifically, defendant APG asserts that Knutson does not have a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more of his major life activities. Second, APG claims that Knutson's claim that APG failed to accommodate his disability is not relevant because it did not discharge him because of any physical limitations but for violating APG policy by conducting unauthorized videotaping in APG's plant. Third, APG asserts that Knutson cannot establish the necessary elements for his claim of retaliatory discharge. Specifically, APG claims that Knutson cannot establish a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. APG also asserts that Knutson cannot demonstrate that its stated reason for terminating Knutson's employment was pretextual. On September 30, 2002, Knutson resisted APG's Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that there are genuine issues of material facts in dispute regarding all of his claims.

On October 22, 2002, the court heard telephonic oral arguments on APG's Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff Knutson was represented by Blake Parker of Blake Parker Law Office, Fort Dodge Iowa. Defendant APG was represented by Becky S. Knutson of Davis, Brown, Koehn, Shors & Robert, P.C., Des Moines, Iowa. Before discussing the standards for APG's Motion for Summary Judgment, however, the court will first examine the factual background of this case.

B. Factual Background

The summary judgment record reveals that the following facts are undisputed.

Ag Processing, Inc. is an Iowa Corporation with its corporate headquarters located in Omaha, Nebraska. APG's primary business is soybean crushing, producing crude soybean oil and soybean meal. APG has eight soybean crushing plants located in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Missouri, including one located in Eagle Grove, Iowa. APG's Eagle Grove plant is a non-union plant.

Plaintiff Knutson started work at APG's Eagle Grove plant on June 24, 1988. He was hired as a "Utility I" in the general plant department. On February 18, 1991, he was transferred from the general department to the preparation department. On September 16, 1991, Knutson was transferred from a utility position with the preparation department to a process operator position with the energy/power department. On October 15, 1991, he was transferred to general clean up in the energy center.

On September 27, 1992, Knutson suffered a back injury while opening a valve at the APG plant. He received medical treatment through June 14, 1993, when his physician, Dr. McGuire released him from his care. During the period of September 27, 1992 through June 14, 1993, Knutson worked at the APG plant with a lifting restriction.

From October 1993, through June 25, 1997, plaintiff Knutson worked at the APG plant without incident. On June 25, 1997, Knutson was injured in a boating accident. He was released by his doctor to go back to work on June 30, 1997, with a lifting restriction that lasted for four days. Knutson then worked without restriction until October 5, 1998. At that time, Knutson was admitted to the hospital for surgical repair of a hernia. He was released to return to work on November 9, 1998.

During November of 1998, Knutson called Janet Schmitz, an APG employee in Omaha, Nebraska, who handled worker's compensation issues for APG. Knutson raised the issue of having surgery on his back connected to his 1992 injury. He also complained of shoulder pain. Schmitz requested records to analyze the claim. Schmitz denied coverage due to the expiration of the statute of limitations on the six year old accident. Knutson received short-term disability benefits beginning on December 14, 1998, for a left shoulder impingement and a spinal degeneration.

Plaintiff Knutson returned to work on February 10, 1999, with work restrictions that limited him to no lifting over 25 pounds and no overhead work. These limitations were considered by Knutson's physician to be temporary and it was anticipated that he could return to full duty in 3 weeks. On March 2, 1999, Knutson's restrictions were modified to permit him heavier duty. He was limited to no lifting over 45 pounds, no overhead work and no repetitive pushing or pulling. On March 29, 1999, Knutson was released for full duty.

On May 18, 1999, another work restriction was placed on Knutson as a result of his prior hernia operation. Knutson was restricted from raking out the ash beds. On June 14, 1999, Knutson was told to continue on restricted duty. He was to be rechecked in six weeks. On July 8, 1999, Knutson filed his original petition with the Iowa Worker's Compensation Commissioner. He claimed that pain on his right side was a new condition. He subsequently stated that he had been experiencing the pain since May.

On July 23, 1999, Knutson reported calcium deposits from repetitive motion dating back to December 13, 1998. He completed a first report of injury claiming left shoulder pain. He claimed that this was a new injury. On August 10, 1999, Knutson received six more weeks of light duty with the same restrictions.

On October 13, 1999, Knutson's lifting was restricted to 20 pounds due to injury and treatment of his back and left shoulder, and for post-operative care for his hernia. On October 15, 1999, in order to work with these restrictions, Plant Manager Carl Parker assigned Knutson to report to the energy center at the plant. Knutson was transferred from his boiler job to general clean up in the energy center. Knutson's title and rate of pay did not change.

On October 18, 1999, Dr. Crighton, from Trimark Corporate health Services, issued a status report in which it was noted that the diagnosis of low back pain was not work related. He indicated permanent restrictions concerning Knutson's left arm, noting "no work c L arm outstretched @ shoulder level more than occasionally." Defendant's App. at 34. Dr. Crighton also recommended that Knutson avoid lifting 15 pounds from floor to waist level, lifting 25 pounds from waist level to shoulder level, and to pushing or pulling 75 pounds. These later restrictions were designated as "temporary until surgical correction can be performed." Defendant's App. at 35. Knutson remained employed in the same position, receiving the same pay, until he requested leave for surgery.

On November 26, 1999, APG received a video in the course of discovery in the worker's compensation action. APG became aware for the first time that Knutson had taken videotape of another worker and inside the APG plant. APG believed this to be a violation of its policies and began an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the creation and release of the videotape.

On December 21, 1999, Knutson went back on short-term disability for back surgery. The condition and treatment were not work related. As a result, Knutson was required to use his own individual health insurance benefits to cover the costs of the surgery. As of January 6, 2000, Knutson was not yet released to return to work. On February 4, 2000, Knutson's physician continued to refuse to release Knutson to return to work. On March 8, 2000, Knutson was released to return to work with a restriction that he refrain from lifting, carrying, or pushing over 35 pounds more than 25 feet.

In order to deal with the restrictions placed on Knutson in 1999, APG assigned the regular turbine operator to perform the job duties that Knutson was unable to do. This resulted in the loss of regular duty time by the turbine operator. Because of transfers out of the work area by personnel, the boiler department was left with no qualified, trained boiler operators to fill the vacancies in the department. A new trainee was hired, and was assigned to Knutson's shift to relieve the turbine operator of the additional duties so that he could focus on his responsibilities. Knutson's work restrictions required other boiler operators to cover Knutson's job duties with overtime. The operators were scheduled to work on their days off and had to reschedule vacation days and family time to accommodate the situation. Work morale suffered and other employee transfers out of the department appeared to be imminent.

On November 26, 1999, Rina Degland, APG's Benefits Administrator, received a videotape in the mail. The videotape came from Joseph Andres, APG's legal counsel in Knutson's pending worker's compensation claim. The videotape was not authorized by anyone at APG. The tape showed an employee working in the energy center in APG's Eagle Grove plant. A copy of the tape was sent to Carl Parker, Plant Manger in the Eagle Grove...

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