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Jackson v. Jernberg Industries

January 6, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan B. Gottschall


Plaintiff Matthew Jackson brought this action pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654 (2006) (the "FMLA") against his former employer, defendant Jernberg Industries, Inc. Jackson has produced evidence showing that Jernberg required him to provide a doctor's note for each FMLA absence that he took, that he did not do so, and that as a result Jernberg disciplined and terminated him. Jernberg largely agrees with Jackson's material facts, but disagrees as to the legal conclusion to be drawn from those facts. Jernberg maintains that it simply enforced its attendance policy which, according to Jernberg, was a reasonable safeguard against employee abuse of FMLA leave, while Jackson asserts that Jernberg's enforcement of its policy violated the FMLA by interfering with his use of FMLA leave.

Presently before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons stated herein, the court denies Jernberg's motion for summary judgment, and grants Jackson's motion for summary judgment.*fn1


The material facts of this case are largely undisputed. (See Jernberg's Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment ("Def.'s Mem.") 1; see also Jackson's Memorandum of Law in Support of His Motion for Summary Judgment ("Pl.'s Mem.") 1.) The facts are taken from the parties' statements of uncontested facts, the responses thereto, and the evidence in support those facts and responses, and are undisputed unless otherwise stated.

A. Background

Jernberg manufactures forged and machined components for the automotive industry. Jernberg employs more than fifty employees within seventy-five miles of Jernberg's work site in Chicago, and specifically employed Jackson full-time from September 30, 2002 until June 29, 2006. Jackson worked in the Final Processing division of Jernberg, at times performing manual labor that was physically demanding. (Pl.'s Ex. B ¶ 7.) The parties agree that Jackson was at all relevant times an "eligible employee" of Jernberg within the meaning of the FMLA. (Id. ¶ 4.)

Jernberg's attendance policy required not just verbal notification of a medically necessary absence, but also a written doctor's note. (See Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Stmt. Add'l Facts ¶ 4.) Jernberg disciplined then terminated Jackson based on absences that Jackson verbally told Jernberg were due to his FMLA-certified wrist condition, but for which he failed to provide individualized documentation. (See id. ¶¶ 3, 29.) After taking the extended leave discussed within, Jackson otherwise continued to comply with Jernberg's attendance policy, with a few minor exceptions. (See id. ¶ 30; see also Def.'s Ex. 16.) Jackson had sufficient FMLA leave remaining during the period at issue so that, had Jernberg not required documentary support for medical absences, Jackson likely would not have been subject to discipline and termination for missing the days he did. (See Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Stmt. Add'l Facts ¶¶ 31, 33.)

B. Jernberg's Attendance Policy

Jernberg has an Employee Handbook, which Jackson received on his first day on the job. (Def.'s Ex. 8.) The Employee Handbook contains an attendance policy which states:

An absence is defined as any scheduled work day, including weekends, when the employee does not report to work. No distinction is made between excused and unexcused absences. However, if an employee is off for medical reasons, a Doctor's excuse is required after two (2) consecutive days. If no excuse is provided, each day will be considered a separate absence. (Def.'s Ex. 3 D053.) If the employee produces a "Doctor's excuse"--a term left undefined by the Employee Handbook--Jernberg counts several consecutive days covered by that excuse as one "instance" of absence.

Under Jernberg's attendance policy, instances of absence--whether unexcused individual days or excused extended periods of absence--are equal to points. Each "instance of absence" is equal to one point; tardy appearances are assessed .25 points, or .5 points if greater than one hour. (Id. D055.) Points trigger disciplinary action: an employee's accumulation of 5 points results in a written warning; 8 points in a second written warning; 12 points in a three-day suspension; and 14 points in termination. (Id. D057.)

However, not all instances of absence count toward these disciplinary thresholds:

Exceptions are defined as . . . absences that satisfy the provisions of the Family Medical Leave [sic] or American with Disabilities Act. By definition under FMLA an employee may take up to 12 weeks off in a 12 month period either consecutively or intermittently and this time off can not [sic]negatively affect the employee's attendance record.

However, the employee is required to follow the procedure for FMLA and a medical certification must be on file for no points to apply. (Id. D055; see also id. D020.) Jernberg grants FMLA leave, inter alia, when a "serious health condition of the employee . . . makes the employee unable to perform the employee's job." (Def.'s Ex. 3 D020.) A form that Jernberg employees complete to request FMLA leave requires that employees "understand and agree" that for "an intermittent leave, documentation must be presented with each absence for the absence to be applied against the FMLA status." (Def.'s Ex. 5 D268.) Finally, points are ...

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