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Lewis v. School Dist. # 70

April 6, 2009

DEBRA L. LEWIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SCHOOL DISTRICT # 70, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stiehl, District Judge

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Before the Court are seven (7) pre-trial motions filed by the parties in this case:

(1) Defendants' first motion in limine (Doc. 107), to which plaintiff has filed a response (Doc. 115);

(2) Defendants' second motion in limine (Doc. 109), to which plaintiff has not filed a response;

(3) Defendants' third motion in limine (Doc. 118), to which plaintiff has not filed a response;

(4) Plaintiff's first motion for sanctions (Doc. 132), to which defendants have filed a response (Doc. 136), and plaintiff a reply (Doc. 140);

(5) Plaintiff's second motion for sanctions (Doc. 133), to which defendants have filed a response (Doc. 137), and plaintiff a reply (Doc. 141);

(6) Plaintiff's motion to vacate (Doc. 146), to which defendants have filed a response (Doc. 148), and plaintiff a reply (Doc. 149);

(7) Plaintiff's motion in limine (Doc. 152), to which defendants have filed a response (Doc. 154), and plaintiff a reply (Doc. 155).

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff alleges that defendants terminated her in retaliation for taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. §2601 et seq., and, in so doing, breached their employment contract with her. These are the only two remaining claims in this lawsuit. What follows is a series of rulings on all of the pending motions filed in this case.

ANALYSIS

I. Defendants' First Motion in Limine

In defendants' first motion in limine (Doc. 107) they seek to exclude evidence regarding plaintiff's claims to relief.

The Court must first address defendants' argument that plaintiff is not entitled, as a matter of law, to the relief she is seeking. As a threshold matter, the Court notes that defendants have improperly raised these dispositive legal arguments as part of a motion in limine. If the Court were to decide that plaintiff was not entitled to front or back pay, then she would be left with little or no remedy and thus such a ruling would render her claims moot. Since the time for dispositive motions has passed, defendants' motion seeking a ruling that plaintiff is not entitled to relief as a matter of law is DENIED.

However, the complexity of the issues presented in defendants' motion warrants further discussion. Defendants argue that plaintiff is not entitled, as a matter of law, to relief in this case because she was unable to return to work. Defendants maintain that plaintiff, her attorney, her health care providers, and government agencies, all agree that plaintiff has been unable to work since March 23, 2005, the date of her termination. Although plaintiff drew full salary as bookkeeper through June 30, 2005, defendants argue that she was not entitled to that pay given her inability to work. Plaintiff argues that there is evidence to show that she did, in fact, return to work after the date of her termination as bookkeeper; that defendants continued to pay her for her work; and, that she continued working in her reassigned position until January 2006, nearly a year after her termination as bookkeeper. The issue of whether plaintiff was able to return to work is one that the jury must decide in this case.

Defendants assert that the cause of plaintiff's inability to work is immaterial. Edgar v. JAC Prods., Inc., 443 F.3d 501, 515 (6th Cir. 2006).*fn1 In Edgar, the court held that even if the employer caused or exacerbated the health condition which prevented the employee from returning to work, an employee who is unable to work has no claim for relief under the FMLA. Id. at 515-16 ("[T]he regulation focuses on whether a "physical or mental condition" prevents the employee from returning to work, not on the cause of that condition . . . . " Id.). The Court FINDS the Sixth Circuit's reasoning to be persuasive, and applicable to this case. Accordingly, defendants' motion to exclude evidence regarding the cause of plaintiff's alleged physical or mental conditions is GRANTED.

The claims in this case do not require that the jury hear evidence on the cause of plaintiff's physical or mental conditions to determine whether those conditions rendered her unable to return to work. Plaintiff is, therefore, limited to submitting evidence with respect to the cause of her conditions from the date of her termination up to and including the date of trial.

A. Emotional Distress and Consequential Damages

Defendants also seek to exclude all evidence relating to emotional distress and consequential damages, on the grounds that such damages are not recoverable under the FMLA. See, Hite v. Biomet, Inc., 53 F. Supp.2d 1013, 1024 n.13 (N.D. Ind. 1999) (holding that the FMLA does not provide for emotional distress damages and that other courts that have reached the issue are all in agreement); Ammons-Lewis v. Met. Water Reclamation Dist. of Greater Chi., 2004 WL 2453835, *9 (N.D. Ill. 2002) (holding that the FMLA does not permit recovery of emotional distress damages); Heltzel v. Dutchmen Mfg., Inc., slip copy, 2008 WL 2098306, *1 (N.D. Ind. 2008) (same). As previously discussed, although plaintiff seeks to introduce evidence of her emotional distress at trial to show that she was unable to return to work, not to show that she is entitled to emotional damages under the FMLA, plaintiff, will not be allowed to introduce evidence of the cause of her mental or physical conditions. Accordingly, evidence of emotional distress will not be admitted (under either the theory of FMLA recovery or cause of her emotional distress) and defendants motion to exclude evidence relating to consequential or emotional distress damages is GRANTED.

B. Back Pay

Defendants argue that the Court, and not the jury, must decide whether and to what extent plaintiff is entitled to back pay, as back pay is an equitable remedy.*fn2 In Franzen, the Seventh Circuit considered whether the FMLA provided for a right to a jury trial, an issue it characterized as one of "first impression" in the Seventh Circuit. Franzen v. Ellis Corp., 543 F.3d 420, 426 (7th Cir. 2008). Although the Court decided the case on other grounds, it noted that the only other circuit to have considered this issue held that the FMLA provides a right to a jury trial. Id. at 425 (citing Frizzell v. S.W. Motor Freight, 154 F.3d 641 (6th Cir. 1998)). The legislative history of the FMLA indicates a close relationship between the FMLA and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., and courts have uniformly found that the FLSA provides a right to a jury trial. Franzen, 543 F.3d at 426.*fn3

Moreover, the Seventh Circuit has, in at least one instance, affirmed a decision of a district court where the issue of back pay under the FMLA was tried before a jury. See, Haschmann v. Time Warner Entm't Co., L.P., 151 F.3d 591 (7th Cir. 1998). Therefore, the Court FINDS that plaintiff is entitled to a jury trial on the issue of whether and to what extent she is entitled to back pay in this case. Accordingly, the Court DENIES defendants' motion to exclude evidence of back pay damages.

C. Front Pay

Defendants argue that the Court, and not the jury, must decide whether and to what extent plaintiff is entitled to front pay*fn4 , as front pay is an equitable remedy. Although the Seventh Circuit has recognized that front pay is an equitable remedy under the FLSA, Avitia v. Met. Club of Chi., 49 F.3d 1219, 1231 (7th Cir. 1995), it has not ruled on whether front pay is an equitable remedy under the FMLA. At least one other district court in this Circuit has held that front pay is an equitable remedy to be tried before the judge and not the jury. Kauffman v. Fed. Express Corp., 2006 WL 3232157, *1 (C.D. Ill. 2006). Upon review of the record, the Court GRANTS defendants' motion to exclude evidence of front pay, and FINDS this to be an equitable remedy which will not be presented to the jury.

The Court, therefore, DIRECTS plaintiff to file, upon the conclusion of trial, a brief arguing the merits of awarding front pay damages in this case, if warranted. Upon filing of that brief, defendants shall have ten (10) days in which to file a responsive brief. Plaintiff shall file a reply, if ...


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