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Smith v. Hope School

March 30, 2009

TANUM SMITH, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
THE HOPE SCHOOL, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 06-CV-3244-JES-BGC-Jeanne E. Scott, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: *fn1FLAUM, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED FEBRUARY 19, 2009

Before FLAUM and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges, and KAPALA, District Judge.

Tanum Smith appeals from the district court's grant of summary judgment in her suit against her former employer, The Hope School, for denying her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Smith claims that the district court improperly held that her application for leave was fraudulent because she altered a health care provider's certification form, arguing that the alteration is irrelevant because Smith was entitled to medical leave based on the authentic, unchanged information. She thus maintains that there is sufficient evidence to reach the jury on her interference and retaliation claim.

For the following reasons, we affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment.

I. Background

From May 5, 2005 until September 19, 2006, Tanum Smith worked for the Hope School, a residential facility for children with developmental disabilities. Smith began as an individual instruction aide, assigned to work one-on-one with students. During the course of 2006, however, Smith was injured in two separate physical altercations with students. The first incident occurred on April 3, 2006. A student pushed Smith to the ground, struck her, and kicked her. The second incident followed shortly after the first, on June 9, 2006. That time, a student struck Smith in the mouth, causing her to suffer a chipped tooth and neck pain. Smith filed workers' compensation claims in Illinois after each incident.

After the June 9 altercation, Smith visited a chiropractor, Dr. Bryan Taylor, who advised Smith to stay home from work for two or three weeks. Taylor approved her return to work on June 21 so long as she was confined to light duty. Hope School assigned Smith to clerical work in The Autism Project, a division of the school. After the two attacks, Smith was apprehensive about working with students, but had no contact with them in her new assignment. Attendant to her workers' compensation claims, Smith went to a physician, Dr. Dellheimer, for an independent medical examination. On August 10, Dellheimer approved Smith's return to work without any restrictions. However, just four days later, Dr. Cara Vasconcelles, Smith's primary care physician, gave her a note restricting her to light duty and assignments that would not require her to be around Hope School residents. Vasconcelles has previously treated Smith*fn2 for mild anxiety, a condition that Smith claimed was triggered when she was around students. Vasconcelles also referred Smith to a neurologist, Dr. Dave Gelber, for her neck pain. Ultimately, Dr. Gelber informed Hope School that Smith did not require any work restrictions.

In response, Hope School transferred Smith to its dietary department. The parties dispute whether this assignment actually kept Smith from interacting with Hope School students. Smith contends that students would enter the dietary department in order to get lunch trays and utensils. Hope School contends that the area was off limits to students. Regardless, Smith reported to the school's human resources department on either August 22 or August 23 that a student named Tia approached her in the kitchen. Smith went to the human resources department and complained that Hope School had not provided her with a safe work environment, that she was leaving work because of that, and that she would not return until she had a safe job assignment. Hope School claims that it sent Smith a letter the next day, telling her that she should not have contact with students in the dietary area because it was off limits to them, and that if she needed to be out of the kitchen someone would be around to accompany her. The letter continued that Hope School expected Smith to show up for work on Friday, August 25, and that if she did not report for work they would consider it an unexcused absence.

Smith claims that she never received this letter and saw it for the first time when she sat for her deposition. On August 24, Smith left a voicemail message with Vasconcelles' office saying that Hope School had not given her a job assignment that kept her out of contact with residents. On the message, she asked if she could receive FMLA leave. Vasconcelles told her nurse to call Smith back and inform her that "she could try" for FMLA leave. Nevertheless, on August 25 Smith showed up at work and clocked in, although she left only a few minutes later without reporting to anyone. Smith claims that she did report in at work by leaving a voicemail message with Melissa Thompson, a Hope School human resources employee who specialized in workers' compensation claims.

The next Monday, August 28, Smith met with Jennifer Cline, a Hope School human resources employee responsible for fielding FMLA claims. The parties dispute what happened in this meeting. Cline apparently gave Smith the FMLA paperwork, and told her the forms needed to be completed by her doctor as soon as possible. Cline testified that Smith said she was only considering applying for FMLA leave, while Smith testified that she told Cline she was too stressed to work and that she was not coming back, but was going to see her doctor immediately. Smith asserted that after her conversation with Cline*fn3 she believed that her request for leave had been approved. Cline testified that she had the opposite impression, that Smith was only considering applying for leave. Smith then left the paperwork from Cline at Vasconcelles' office. Vasconcelles completed the paperwork that same day, although Smith did not pick up the forms until September 6. In the space provided for a health care provider to certify the patient's condition, Vasconcelles wrote that Smith was having "severe recurrent muscle tension [headaches] and [right] neck & arm pain [secondary] to trauma suffered at work."

Smith did not show up for the next scheduled work day, August 29, and did not call her supervisor to report her absence. In response, the Hope School sent Smith another letter telling her about security provisions at the school if she felt unsafe at work, and telling her once more that failing to show up at work would count as an unexcused absence.

On September 6, Smith picked up her FMLA paperwork from Vasconcelles' office. Neither party disputes that upon receiving the form, Smith added to Vasconcelles' description of her condition on the health care provider's certification form: Below Vasconcelles' narrative, Smith added the words "plus previous depression." Importantly, Vasconcelles had never diagnosed Smith with depression, nor has any other doctor diagnosed or treated Smith for that condition. Smith had not consulted with Vasconcelles before adding that condition to the form.*fn4

Smith faxed the altered form to the Hope School. When Cline and Thompson reviewed her paperwork, they suspected that the health care provider's certification had been altered. Cline then asked another employee from the human resources department to call Vascon- celles' office and ask about the possible alteration. That office confirmed the alteration. Cline then contacted a*fn5 representative from the Department of Labor, who according to Hope School advised them that they could deny Smith's request for leave because she did not give timely notice and altered FMLA documentation. On September 11, Cline ...


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