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Caskey v. Colgate-Palmolive Co.

July 24, 2008

TRACY L. CASKEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
COLGATE-PALMOLIVE COMPANY AND HILL'S PET NUTRITION, INCORPORATED, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 04 C 1239-David F. Hamilton, Chief Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bauer, Circuit Judge

ARGUED OCTOBER 29, 2007

Before BAUER, RIPPLE and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

After being disciplined and ultimately terminated, Tracy Caskey sued her former employer and its parent company. Caskey alleged that the defendants (1) interfered with her right to medical leave, in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq.; (2) discriminated against her because of her sex, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; and (3) retaliated against her for exercising her rights under the FMLA, Title VII, and Indiana law. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants, finding that Caskey's discipline was lawful and that her termination resulted from three unexcused absences from work. Caskey now appeals, and for the reasons stated below, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

Hill's Pet Nutrition, Inc. ("Hill's") produces pet food, and Colgate-Palmolive Co. ("Colgate") is the corporate parent of Hill's. Caskey began working as a technician at the Richmond, Indiana plant of Hill's in 1995. One of her primary duties involved operating an extruder, a piece of heavy machinery that, at the Hill's plant, pushed unprocessed dog food through a grinder and then sliced the food into smaller pieces known as "kibbles." Caskey was terminated after a series of incidents in 2003, including two extruder-related accidents and a series of unexcused absences.

At the plant employee work performance issues were addressed through the Individual Improvement Process ("IIP") which included a multi-tiered discipline system:

(1) formal coaching; (2) performance agreement; (3) decision-making leave ("DML"); and (4) "deselection" or termination. Hill's employees who received an absenteeism rate in excess of 2.12% in one calendar year were subject to discipline. In addition, Hill's provides paid leave for illness for its employees under the FMLA. Because of this and other paid time-off programs, employees do not have "sick days." If an employee is absent, and the absence does not qualify as Family Medical Leave ("FML") or another form of protected leave, the absence is recorded as an unexcused absence.

Caskey requested and received FML several times during her employment with Hill's, including from June 27 to September 13, 2000, from April 5 to 15, 2002, from December 13 to to 15, 2002, and from April 24 to May 12, 2003. According to Hill's, Caskey also accrued a series of unexcused absences that did not qualify as FML. As a result of the unqualified absences, Hill's placed Caskey in the formal coaching stage of the IIP in November 2001. On February 27, 2003, Caskey progressed into the performance agreement stage for having an absenteeism rate above 3% in the calendar year.

Caskey advanced further in the IIP the following month. On February 21, 2003, Caskey slipped and fell while operating the extruder. She injured her wrist in the accident, and the injury was treated as a worker's compensation injury. Hill's claimed that Caskey had behaved unsafely; an investigatory team reported that the incident had occurred because Caskey was standing on the "at risk" side of the extruder. Caskey claimed that the standard operating procedure for the extruder at the time of her injury did not include an "at risk" side of the extruder, and that she fell because the floor of the plant was slippery and littered with product. Caskey did not return to work for her next two scheduled shifts on February 22 and 23. A few weeks later, during Caskey's shift, over 50,000 pounds of reject product were produced on the plant line producing kibble-apparently bits of kibble were inappropriately sized-and 20,000 pounds of the defective kibble were bagged in the packaging area before being discovered. Caskey's responsibilities included quality control checks on the plant line that produced the defective product. Based on these two incidents, on March 12, 2003, Hill's placed Caskey on the DML stage of the disciplinary process, the final stage before termination.

While in the DML stage, a Hill's employee must sign a letter of recommitment and have "no absences and use no emergency vacation time for the duration of the agreement." In April 2003, Caskey violated the terms of her letter of recommitment by requesting vacation time on less than the required forty-eight hours' notice. After an internal discussion, Hill's decided not to terminate Caskey at that point. Later in the month, Caskey saw her family doctor for depression-related symptoms, including "distress, shaking, and heart racing," and the physician recommended that Caskey take time off from work. She requested and received FML from April 24 to May 12, 2003. The treating physician then released Caskey to work as of May 12, and did not authorize additional leave or impose further work restrictions beyond that date.

After returning from FML on May 12, Caskey took a birthday holiday on May 16, and took vacation on May 17 and 18. On May 20, she saw an employment assistance counselor regarding her depression. The counselor, like her treating physician, did not impose any work restrictions on Caskey. The following day, Caskey called a teammate at the Hill's plant and said she was "sick" and was going to miss work for the following two days. She then failed to report to work on May 21, 22, and 27. Caskey did not receive any medical treatment for these absences, and her next visit to a physician occurred in August 2003 for an unrelated condition. On May 29, Hill's sent Caskey a letter stating that she had "self-terminated" by not reporting to work on those three days.

Caskey filed a charge with the EEOC on July 10, 2003 and filed her complaint against Hill's and Colgate on July 28, 2004. On June 9, 2006, the district court granted summary judgment to both Hill's and Colgate ...


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