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Juarez v. John Deere and Co.

February 10, 2010

ROBERT JUAREZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOHN DEERE AND COMPANY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joe Billy Mcdade United States District Judge

ORDER

Before the Court are the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant, Deere & Company,*fn1 on April 17, 2009 [Doc. 34], the Motion to Strike Portions of Supplemental Complaint filed by Defendant on July 1, 2009 [Doc. 44], the Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff's Supplemental Complaint filed by Defendant on September 21, 2009 [Doc. 48], and the Amended Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff's Supplemental Complaint filed by Defendant on October 26, 2009 [Doc. 52]. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, the Motion to Strike is MOOT, the Motion for Summary Judgment on the Supplemental Complaint is MOOT, and the Amended Motion for Summary Judgment on the Supplemental Complaint is GRANTED.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff alleges in an August 10, 2007 Amended Complaint [Doc. 23] that he was subject to discrimination for various reasons including his age, disability, national origin and race. Plaintiff makes claims of hostile work environment because of his race (Count I), race discrimination (Count II), disability discrimination (Count III), age discrimination (Count IV), retaliation for filing a Charge of Discrimination (among other things) (Count V), and an Illinois state law claim of retaliatory discharge (Count VI). In his Supplemental Complaint [Doc. 42], Plaintiff adds additional counts of retaliation for filing this lawsuit (Count VII) and an Iowa state law claim of retaliatory discharge (Count VIII).

It would be beneficial to give a broad summary of Plaintiff's relationship with Defendant and then provide the details. Robert Juarez was employed by Defendant prior to 1982 and from 1998 to 2003. In 2003, Juarez became disabled and no longer was capable of working. When Juarez's disability benefits ran out in June, 2008, his employment was coincidentally terminated by operation of a provision in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (hereinafter "CBA") to which he was subject. However, after filing a grievance through his Union, Local 281, Juarez was reinstated in October, 2008 and given back pay to cover the months of June to October, 2008. The grievance was granted by Defendant when a doctor indicated that he could work without restrictions. Juarez's employment did not last. On March 6, 2009, Juarez was involved in an altercation with a supervisor, Steve Hansen, and his employment was suspended. After a Disciplinary Action Hearing pursuant to the CBA, Juarez's employment was terminated on March 10, 2009.

The two Charges of Discrimination were filed during his disability period and prior to his return to work. It appears that Juarez was informed in July, 2006 that when his disability benefits expired, his employment would be terminated. This prompted the first Charge of Discrimination which was filed in September, 2006. The second charge, filed in August, 2007, alleges that Defendant retaliated against him for filing the September, 2006 Charge. The Amended Complaint [Doc. 1] in this matter was filed prior to the filing of the second Charge and prior to Juarez's reinstatement in October, 2008. His Supplemental Complaint [Doc. 42] was filed after his employment was terminated.

Now to the details. Juarez was rehired by Defendant on February 16, 1998*fn2 and worked at its Davenport Works. Plaintiff was a member of Local 281 of the International Union United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America and his employment with Defendant was governed by a Collective Bargaining Agreement (hereinafter "CBA") (Defendant's Appendix to Motion for Summary Judgment (hereinafter "App."), p. 42-68). On April 7, 2003, Juarez stopped working because of a disability, an inability to tolerate fumes and dust, and he began receiving disability payments. According to the CBA, "employment will be broken" for a number of reasons, including when an employee quits or is discharged. (App. p. 64-65). In relevant part, the CBA also provides that employment will be broken if an employee has been absent from active employment for a time period that equals his seniority prior to the absence. (App. p.64). From February, 1998 to April, 2003, Juarez had accumulated 62 months of seniority. From April, 2003 to June, 2008, a total of 62 months, Juarez had been absent from active employment. Thus, Juarez's employment was "broken," i.e. terminated, by operation of the CBA in June, 2008. It also happens that Juarez's disability benefits also ended in June, 2008.

While Plaintiff was disabled, on September 24, 2005, Juarez authored a letter to Nicole Thomsen, Manager of Industrial Relations, informing her that he "do[es] not see where I can return to fulltime employment from a labor perspective" based on his doctor's opinion. (App. p. 5). A year later, on August 17, 2006, Juarez wrote another letter to Thomsen stating "[t]here are no immediate plans for my returning to employment with Deere Davenport, due [sic] to my current medical condition." (App. p. 6). Prior to April,, 2007, Thomsen was not aware that Juarez was willing to return to work. (App. p. 83, Thomsen Affidavit ¶ 6). However, she became aware that Juarez wanted to return to work through contact with Deere Direct which is a unit of Defendant that deals with disability benefits. (Id.). In response, on April 23, 2007, Thomsen sent a letter to Juarez informing him of the steps necessary to return to work, including the necessity of a medical release and medical examination. (App. p. 85). Thomsen sent a follow-up letter to Juarez on April 30, 2007 indicating the items that were not completed for a successful return to work. (App. p. 83, Thomsen Aff. ¶ 7). Thomsen then states that in a May 3, 2007 letter, Juarez indicated that "he still had medical problems." (App. p. 84, Thomsen Aff. ¶ 10).

The record is not particularly clear, however, it seems that around June, 2006, Deere Direct informed Juarez his disability benefits would terminate a year later. It also appears that Juarez was told or assumed that his employment also would cease at that time. On June 4, 2007, Deere Direct terminated Juarez's long term disability benefits. On June 14, 2007, Juarez filed a grievance pursuant to the CBA stating that he is physically able to return to work but that Defendant is not allowing him to work. (App. p. 36). This grievance was denied on July 12, 2007. (Id.). Juarez filed a second grievance on August 23, 2007 which also was denied. (App. p. 37).

Deere Direct, however was mistaken in terminating Juarez's benefits in June, 2007. In fact, Juarez was entitled to an additional year of long term disability benefits. Deere Direct caught the error and, in an October 3, 2007 letter, acknowledged that Juarez's benefits would continue until June 7, 2008. (App. p. 33). Juarez contacted Thomsen again on November 6, 2007 about the steps necessary to return to work, to which Thomsen responded. (App. p. 83, Thomsen Aff. ¶ 8). It appears that Juarez received a return to work note from Dr. Felipe Enriquez (who examined Plaintiff pursuant to the CBA)*fn3 and he resumed employment in October, 2008. (App. p. 160). The resumption of Juarez's employment was the result of a settlement agreement of a third grievance that Juarez filed (Defendant has not provided a copy of this grievance) (App. p. 84, Thomsen Aff. ¶ 10). The settlement also provided that Juarez would receive back-pay from June, 2008 to October, 2008. (Id.). As noted above, his employment did not last long.

On September 29, 2006, Juarez filed a Charge of Discrimination against Defendant. (App. p. 21). In this Charge, Juarez stated:

I was initially hired by Respondent in June 1979 and was discharged in 1982 for violation of Respondent's attendance policy. I was rehired by Respondent in 1998 and my most recent position was Resource Pool Employee. Since my rehiring, similarly situated non-Mexican employees have also violated Respondent's attendance policies, most recently in or about June 2005, but they have not been discharged. Additionally, since April 2003 Respondent has kept me on disability leave. I have attempted to return to work as recently as July 2006, to no avail. On or about July 2006 I was informed by Respondent that I will be discharge in or about June 2007 when my disability benefits expired.

I believe that I have been discriminated against because of my national origin, Mexican . . . . I also believe that I have been discriminated against in violation of the Americans ...


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