Napreljac v. John Q. Hammons Hotels, Inc.

Decision Date08 November 2006
Docket NumberNo. 4:05-cv-00160-JEG.,4:05-cv-00160-JEG.
PartiesZuhdija NAPRELJAC, Plaintiff, v. JOHN Q. HAMMONS HOTELS, INC., d/b/a Embassy Suites, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Iowa

Bruce H. Stoltze, Brick Gentry Bowers Swartz Stoltze & Levis PC, West Des Moines, IA, for Plaintiff.

Brent N. Coverdale, Joseph Henri Knittig, Seyferth Knittig LLC, Paul David Seyferth, Husch & Eppenberger LLC, Kansas City, MO, Mary E. Funk, Thomas W. Foley, Nyemaster Goode Voigts West Hansell & O'Brien, PC, Des Moines, IA, for Defendant.


GRITZNER, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss and Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant John Q. Hammons Hotels, Inc. (Clerk's No. 30), and a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment filed by Plaintiff Zuhdija Napreljac (Clerk's No. 31). Plaintiff Zuhdija Napreljac is represented by Bruce H. Stoltze. Defendant John Q. Hammons Hotels, Inc., is represented by Paul D. Seyferth, Joseph H. Knittig, Brent N. Coverdale, Thomas W. Foley, and Mary E. Funk. A hearing on the pending motions was held on August 18, 2006. These matters are fully submitted and ready for disposition. The juxtaposition and interplay of the facts and the law related to the claims and arguments presented compel a detailed factual and legal analysis.

I. Introduction.

Plaintiff Zuhdija Napreljac is an alien resident from Bosnia living in Waukee, Iowa, who holds a green card,1 making him eligible to reside and work in the United States. Napreljac worked at the Embassy Suites, a Des Moines hotel owned by Defendant John Q. Hammons Hotels, Inc. (hereinafter, "JQH"), from September 2000 until his termination on September 24, 2003. Napreljac was an engineer for JQH. A "position description" lists the physical demands for the position as follows:

Heavy work: Exerting 50 to 100 pounds of force occasionally (Occasionally: activity or condition exists up to 1/3 of the time), and/or 25 to 50 pounds of force frequently (Frequently: activity or condition exists from 1/3 to 2/3 of the time), and/or 10 to 20 pounds of force constantly (Constantly: activity or condition exists 2/3 or more of the time) to move objects.

Pl.'s App. 14. Napreljac's duties included collecting trash around the hotel on a rotating basis with other engineers, inspecting and repairing items in hotel rooms, and conducting other general maintenance tasks around the hotel.

For a portion of 2003, Napreljac was the person performing the hotel's Holi-Care program, a maintenance program focusing on long-term maintenance tasks in the hotel rooms, such as caulking around plumbing fixtures and repairing larger objects. When Napreljac was able, he performed this maintenance for three rooms daily, but when physical restrictions were imposed on Napreljac following certain workplace injuries, these duties were not performed.

Engineers like Napreljac report to the hotel's chief engineer to obtain work tasks. For a time during Napreljac's employment, the chief engineer position was vacant, so Napreljac reported to Scott Johnston. Johnston was a lead engineer but performed the duties of the chief engineer.2

Kevin Beaver was the director of housekeeping and was responsible for the cleanliness of the hotel. Beaver drafted work orders filled by engineers and returned as proof repairs were completed. Although the Holi-Care program was typically managed by the chief engineer, Beaver was trusted with its oversight for a portion of Napreljac's employment.

Jayne Schmeling became the hotel's human resources manager on September 8, 2003, just over two weeks before Napreljac's employment ended. Schmeling's duties included recruiting and hiring new employees, administering the hotel's payroll, and providing orientation for new employees. Jane Postier had previously served as the human resources manager at the Embassy Suites and another hotel, but Postier had shifted her focus away from the Embassy Suites when Schmeling was hired. Because Schmeling was a new hire, Postier was training Schmeling when Napreljac was terminated.

Shannon Kaufman began at the hotel in 1998, became assistant general manager in 2000, and was promoted to general manager in 2003. As general manager, Kaufman oversaw certain aspects of the hotel's budget and administered operations of the entire hotel. She was vested with the power to hire employees and was the sole person capable of terminating employees. She was not involved in the decision to hire Napreljac but was responsible for his termination.

II. Napreljac's Employment at JQH.

Napreljac enjoyed favorable performance reviews from the beginning of his employment. A December 2000 review indicated he was "highly successful." In September 2001, he was again rated "highly successful." His third and final review, created in August 2002, reflected a "successful" rating. Napreljac's next review was to occur sometime in September 2003 but had not yet been completed at the time of his termination. Throughout his employment, Kaufman "never had any problems with" Napreljac, describing him as a good worker. Kaufman Dep. 128:1-17, Apr. 5, 2006. Napreljac's co-workers' opinions are in accord. See Johnston Dep. 29:14-30:5, Apr. 6, 2006; Postier Dep. 37:24-38:3, Apr. 6, 2006; see Def.'s App. 289 (evaluating Napreljac as "industrious and ... interested in moving forward").

A. Napreljac's Workplace Injuries in November 2001 and August 2003.

On November 9, 2001, Napreljac injured his neck and back while moving a wet piece of carpet at work. He underwent neck surgery in January 2002 related to this injury. When he returned to work in February 2002, he was subject to a twenty-five pound lifting restriction and a reaching restriction that his physicians believed was necessary for four weeks. A letter prepared by a physician on May 23, 2002, indicates Napreljac's neck injury had reached "maximum medical improvement" by May 1 but warranted an 8 percent impairment rating, and that his back injury was "degenerative in nature" and did not "warrant an impairment rating." Pl.'s App. 30. Records indicate continued pain from this injury. Notes from treatment in August 2002 indicate Napreljac suffered pain but that certain functional tests were invalid because Napreljac exhibited "submaximal effort." Pl.'s App. 32. A film of Napreljac's spine evaluated in February 2003 was normal but pain lingered. A bone scan and another test performed in March 2003 were normal, excepting deficiencies consistent with his surgery. Notes prepared in June 2003 indicate Napreljac continued to experience discomfort but was able to work on a full-time basis. During this time frame, Napreljac's "boss told [him] to do whatever [he] felt like being able, capable of doing, and whatever [he] couldn't do, [he] was supposed to write a note about it." Pl.'s Dep. 76:5-8, Feb. 23, 2006. Napreljac would leave work early if he felt pain.

Napreljac's physicians released him from all work restrictions on March 6, 2003. Still, there were some aspects of his work he could not complete without help. The record does not reveal what specific duties he was incapable of performing, but Napreljac testified that if he needed help, "[he] would ask others for help, and they would always have someone help [him]." Pl.'s Dep. 77:16-20, Feb. 23, 2005. On August 1, 2003, when Beaver noted deficiencies in certain repairs Napreljac performed, Napreljac reported "some parts of his job were too hard and that he could not do the work." Pl.'s App. 22.

On August 4, 2003, Napreljac injured his back at work. Notes prepared by Napreljac's treating physician indicate chronic neck and back pain, but tests designed to determine if workplace restrictions were appropriate were invalid because of insufficient effort on Napreljac's part.

Napreljac returned to work on August 5, 2003 but could not lift over ten pounds, bend more than ten times per hour, or push or pull over ten pounds of force. He was to undergo physical therapy three times weekly and perform certain therapeutic exercises. A memorandum prepared by Johnston on August 5 indicates Napreljac "complain[ed] of back problems and work overload" and could not do some tasks such as move furniture or reach overhead. Pl.'s App. 23. Restrictions put in place on August 7 barred Napreljac from lifting over five pounds, pushing or pulling over ten pounds of force, and bending more than five times each hour.

Napreljac was placed on "light duty" status at JQH. JQH materials define light duty work as follows:

The Company offers a light-duty program to help Associates injured on the job with temporary conditions to get back to work sooner. The light-duty program allows temporarily disabled Associates to return to work before they are ready to return to their original positions or duties.

The light-duty program is set up as a transitional program for workers who are expected to return to full duty at their original jobs. It is not intended to accommodate Associates with non-temporary disabilities.

Pl.'s App. 5 (emphasis added). When on this program, Napreljac picked up litter for about one hour each morning and then folded towels in the hotel's laundry department. This work was typical for engineers on light duty.

JQH had few problems accommodating Napreljac's physical restrictions, including his inability to perform the Holi-Care program; he was merely assigned to tasks within his physical restrictions. Napreljac relayed that he was not told he was doing his job improperly and, in his opinion, was capable of adequately performing his job duties.

B. Napreljac's Incident on September 18, 2003, and the Resulting Investigation.

On September 18, 2003, Napreljac began work at 8:00 a.m. His first task was to pick up litter around the hotel's property using a litter...

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