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Ridings v. Riverside Medical Center

August 11, 2008

JANET M. RIDINGS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
RIVERSIDE MEDICAL CENTER, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 05 C 2134-Michael P. McCuskey, Chief Judge.

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

ARGUED JANUARY 9, 2008

Before WOOD, SYKES, and TINDER, Circuit Judges.

Janet Ridings brought this action alleging that her former employer, Riverside Medical Center, interfered with her rights and retaliated against her in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") and retaliated against her in violation of the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act. The district court granted Riverside's motion for summary judgment on all claims. We affirm the district court's decision.

I. Background

The following facts are construed in the light most favorable to Ridings, the non-moving party. South v. Ill. Envtl. Prot. Agency, 495 F.3d 747, 751 (7thCir. 2007). Ridings was an employee of Riverside Medical Center from October 1998 until May 13, 2004. As a Knowledge Manager, Ridings's work primarily required her to respond to requests from Riverside employees for Ridings to extract data from Riverside's computer databases through query reports. Riverside classified Ridings as a full-time exempt employee. Riverside required full-time exempt employees to "swipe in" to the time-keeping system every day, but the employees' hours were not tracked.

In December 2002, Ridings was diagnosed with Graves' disease, which is a disorder of the thyroid. In January 2003, Ridings's doctor advised her to have her thyroid removed. Ridings applied for a leave of absence from Riverside pursuant to the FMLA. Ridings completed an FMLA leave application form and submitted a medical certification form to her doctor, as required by Riverside. Riverside granted the FMLA leave for two weeks and later permitted Ridings to extend the leave for one additional week after her surgery. Ridings returned to work after her surgery on February 3, 2003, and she worked from about 8:00 a.m. until 12:00 p.m. for a few weeks. Thereafter, she gradually increased her hours at work until she was working nearly a full day. On two occasions in 2003, Ridings nearly fell asleep while driving home; thereafter, she did not work past 4:30 p.m. unless she had a ride home.

In June 2003, Ridings received an annual evaluation of her work from her supervisor, Kyle Hansen. Ridings received an overall rating of "Key Contributor" which is one step below the highest possible ranking of "Role Model." Many employees at Riverside were ranked as "Key Contributors," including Hansen and his supervisor Jeff Pollack.

In July 2003, Ridings submitted a claim under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act, asserting that she had developed Graves' Disease due to workplace stress. Also*fn1 in July 2003, Ridings began working on a large project relating to Riverside's payroll system, which she completed in January 2004. Due to the removal of her thyroid, Ridings was required to take medication replacing the hormones that are normally produced by the thyroid, and that medication was adjusted by her doctor at certain intervals throughout the year. Ridings continued to work on the premises of Riverside less than eight hours per day for the remainder of the year because she frequently became fatigued by the end of the day. Ridings regularly took work home in the evenings and on weekends.

On January 25, 2004, Hansen discussed Ridings's work schedule with her, and he expressed that she needed to begin working a full eight-hour day on the premises. On February 25, 2004, Hansen again met with Ridings to request that she work a full eight-hour day. Ridings did not adjust her work schedule after either meeting. On March 11, 2004, Hansen drafted a "corrective action report" ("CAR") regarding Ridings's work schedule and sent it to Becky Hinrichs, Riverside's Director of Human Resources, for her to review. The document was forwarded to Brent Mallek, Riverside's Vice President for Human Resources. Mallek recommended that Hansen remove the CAR's references to Ridings's need to provide medical documentation.

Hansen took Mallek's advice and gave Ridings the modified CAR on March 22, 2004. The CAR stated that Ridings's attendance was unsatisfactory because she had not been working a full eight-hour day. The report also stated that Ridings must begin working a full eight-hour day immediately and advised her that the next action taken, if she did not comply, would be to place a warning in her personnel file. Ridings signed the CAR, as required by the disciplinary process, but noted that she had asked what sort of medical documentation she should supply but her question had not been answered.

Ridings provided a note from her doctor on the same day, March 22, 2004, which stated that she could not work an eight-hour day because of a medical condition until further notice. On April 1, 2004, Hansen met with Ridings and informed her that based on her doctor's note, she needed to provide Riverside with FMLA paperwork. He gave Ridings an FMLA leave application to complete and an FMLA medical certification form for her physician to complete. On April 16, 2004, Hansen asked Ridings about the FMLA forms. She presented Hansen with her attor- ney's business card and stated that her attorney needed to handle the matter.

On April 21, 2004, Hansen provided Ridings with another CAR. The CAR stated that Ridings had failed to adhere to policy because she "[d]id not complete FMLA paperwork as requested in 15 day period." The CAR stated that the "expected improvement" for Ridings would require that "FMLA paperwork requesting intermittent leave . . . be completed by her physician and presented back to her supervisor by April 28, 2004." The CAR stated that the next action taken if the FMLA forms were not completed would be to place Ridings on suspension for three days without pay. If she returned to work after the suspension without presenting the FMLA paperwork to Hansen, then she could be terminated. Ridings signed the CAR, objecting to the disciplinary process.

On May 10, 2004, Hansen provided a third CAR to Ridings. At that time, Ridings was suspended for three days without pay because she "did not turn in FMLA paperwork requesting intermittent leave by April 28, 2004." The CAR identified the next action that would be*fn2 taken: "Upon returning to work after the suspension, if the FMLA paperwork is not presented then further action, up to and including termination may be taken." Ridings signed the CAR, again objecting to the disciplinary process.

On May 13, 2004, Ridings returned to work after her suspension without the completed FMLA paperwork, and Riverside terminated her employment.

II. Analysis

We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. South, 495 F.3d at 751. We view all facts and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. Summary judgment is proper only where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Id. (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)).

A. FMLA Interference

The FMLA entitles an eligible employee up to twelve work weeks of leave during a twelve-month period where the employee has a serious health condition that renders her unable to perform the functions of her position. 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a). The FMLA also permits the employee to take leave intermittently or on a reduced schedule when medically necessary. Id. § 2612(b). Under the FMLA, it is unlawful for an employer to interfere with an employee's attempt to exercise the rights established by the FMLA. Id. § 2615(a). An employee does not need to be aware of her rights in order to invoke them; "[t]he employee need not expressly assert rights under the FMLA or even mention the FMLA, but may only state that leave is needed." 29 C.F.R. § 825.303(b).

To prevail on an FMLA interference claim, an employee must show that her employer deprived her of an FMLA entitlement. Burnett v. LFW Inc., 472 F.3d 471, 477 (7th Cir. 2006). The employee must establish that: (1) she was eligible for the FMLA's protections; (2) her employer was covered by the FMLA; (3) she was entitled to leave under the FMLA; (4) she provided sufficient notice of her intent to take leave; and (5) her employer denied her FMLA benefits to which she was entitled. Id.

We address each of the parties' arguments: that the district court failed to acknowledge Riverside's factual admission, that Ridings failed to invoke her FMLA rights, that Riverside failed to responsively answer her questions about FMLA certification, that Riverside was attempting to force Ridings to take intermittent leave, that Riverside never requested medical certification from Ridings, that Riverside did not give Ridings the opportunity to cure any deficient certification, that Riverside's discipline and termination of Ridings was unauthorized, and that Ridings was working a full schedule based on Riverside's policies.

The parties do not dispute that Riverside is an employer covered by the FMLA or that Ridings was an eligible employee. Ridings initially alleged in her complaint that she did not have a serious health condition; however, in her appellate brief, she stated that the district court properly determined that she did have a serious health condition. Although Riverside noted that Ridings had originally claimed not to have a serious health condition, it did not otherwise dispute that her illness should be treated as a serious health condition.

Ridings contends that the district court erred when it granted summary judgment in favor of Riverside because the court failed to consider evidence in her favor and ignored factual admissions by Riverside. Many of Ridings's arguments rely upon an admission made in Plaintiff's Interrogatory Number 6. The interrogatory requested: "State all dates on which plaintiff was on leave, of any kind, from her employment by Riverside between January 1, 2002 and May 13, 2004 and, for such leave, state how it was categorized by Riverside (sick leave, vacation, FMLA, etc.)." Riverside's answer stated that Ridings "was on a reduced leave schedule under the FMLA from February 3, 2003 to May 13, 2004." Before the close of discovery, Riverside amended its response to Interrogatory Number 6 and stated:

Plaintiff did not work her scheduled hours from February 3, 2003 to May 13, 2004. Technically, this period was FMLA leave, see Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide, Inc., [535] U.S. 81 (2002), although her reduced hours were never designated FMLA leave by Riverside. On April 24, 2004, Riverside requested medical certification from Plaintiff to determine her status and whether her reduced hours schedule should be designated FMLA leave. Due to Plaintiff's refusal to produce certification, no determination was ever made as to her status.

The district court did not refer to either interrogatory answer in its written opinion. Oddly, Riverside did not mention on appeal that the interrogatory answer had been amended, despite Ridings's frequent reliance upon the original answer to the interrogatory. Riverside again explained its original interrogatory answer with the contention that, under Ragsdale, Ridings's leave ...


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