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Sechrist v. Harris Steel Co.

November 30, 2005


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge John A. Nordberg


Plaintiff Carl M. Sechrist has filed a one-count complaint, alleging that his employer, Harris Steel Company, violated § 2615 of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA") when it fired him after he took off several days from work in January 2001 to care for his father who was sick. Harris Steel has filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Sechrist failed to establish -- either in January 2001 or now -- that his father's sickness was a "serious health condition" under the FMLA. For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted.


Plaintiff's FMLA claim focuses solely on whether he was justified under the FMLA in taking off from work in January 2001. However, the parties in their briefs discuss plaintiff's employment history, including his alleged history of absenteeism, leading up to January 2001. Although these facts are irrelevant to the legal claim asserted by plaintiff, we will nonetheless briefly describe them as they provide context.

Plaintiff's Employment History Leading Up To January 2001

Carl Sechrist began working at Harris Steel on March 2, 1997. A few weeks after he began working, he signed a statement acknowledging that he had received copies of the company's work rules, attendance policy, and FMLA policy. Several years later, on June 14, 1999, Sechrist once again signed a written acknowledgment that he received copies of the work rules, attendance policy, and FMLA policy.

According to Sechrist, sometime in either in December 1999 or January 2000, he told the plant manager (Scott Decker) that Sechrist's father was diagnosed with cancer, which he described as "lymphoma carcinoma." (Dep. at 23.) Sechrist further claims that Decker did not take this statement seriously as evidenced by his response, which was: "Your father should be fine. My brother had that when he was twenty." (Id. at 29.)*fn1

According to the company, in 2000, Sechrist began having attendance problems and was disciplined under the company's attendance policy. This policy sets forth a point system in which an employee loses points for various types of absences -- for example, an employee loses 4 points if he is absent without giving notice but only loses 3 points if he is absent with notice. (Def. Ex. C at 2.)*fn2 The policy further states that an employee will receive various punishments -- including termination -- if he receives a set amount of points in a certain time period. Relevant here, an employee who has accumulated eight points within 120 days after receiving disciplinary time off will be terminated.

According to Harris Steel, in 2000, Sechrist violated this policy several times, thus placing him in danger of termination in January 2001 if he had any further unexcused absences. Specifically, Harris Steel asserts the following facts. On June 27, 2000, Harris Steel gave Sechrist a warning for excess absenteeism and placed him on probation for 90 days. The day after this probation period ended, Sechrist left early after working only a half a day. A few days later, he was entirely absent from work. He then missed time from work before an October 17, 2000 grievance hearing and then again after his grievance was denied. Thus, Sechrist had acquired eight points under the policy, which meant that he would be fired if he had any further unexcused absences within the 120 days following September 25, 2000.*fn3

The January 2001 Absences

Sechrist was scheduled to work on Friday, January 5, 2001. He says that the night before he received a telephone call from his father who "seemed quite nervous on the telephone" and who stated that he was "feeling dizzy, sweaty, weak, and scared." He says that the call was received sometime between 10 p.m. and 12 a.m. on January 4th. Sechrist further states that, because he knew that his father was suffering from a "serious health condition," he immediately drove to his father's home. He then tried to take his father to the hospital, but his father refused to go. Sechrist stayed with his father and "[j]ust cooled him off" and "tried to fan him a little bit." (Dep. 104.) He also "made sure that he had something cold to drink." (Id.) Eventually, his father calmed down. (Id.)

The next morning, at 6:00 a.m., Sechrist telephoned Harris Steel to let it know he would be absent from work that day. After two or three unanswered calls, Sechrist finally reached Bob Gilley and told him that Sechrist's father "was sick" and that he needed to speak with Decker (the plant manager) or Ivory Thompson (his immediate supervisor). Gilley said that neither of them were present. At around 7:15 a.m. Sechrist spoke to Thompson and told him that he would not be at work, stating once again that his "father was sick." Sechrist asked Thompson if he would let Decker know that Sechrist would not be coming in. (Dep. at 106.) According to Sechrist, Thompson then stated: "I don't think that's going to fly with Scott." (Id. at 106-07.)

That night Sechrist received a call from Decker who asked about the condition of Sechrist's father. Sechrist told Decker that his father "was sick." Sechrist claims that Decker then told him that he was fired and that he should not report to work on Monday January 8, 2001.*fn4

On January 10, 2001, plaintiff's father, Jeffrey Sechrist, faxed a letter to Decker, attempting to explain why his son missed work. This letter states:

This is to confirm that my son Carl was asked to stay with me on Friday Jan 5, 2001, because I wasn't feeling well as my wife was out of town.

As it turns out, I needed him for the following day as well. I am sorry if I caused Carl or your ...

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