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Christopher M. Kirchner v. Sunbelt Rentals

April 1, 2011

CHRISTOPHER M. KIRCHNER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SUNBELT RENTALS, INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Matthew F. Kennelly, District Judge:

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Christopher Kirchner has sued his former employer, Sunbelt Rentals, Inc., alleging that he was terminated in retaliation for exercising his rights under the Illinois Worker's Compensation Act (IWCA) and asserting claims under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Sunbelt has moved for summary judgment. For the reasons below, the Court denies the motion in part and grants it in part.

Background

The Court takes the following facts from the allegations in Kirchner's amended complaint and the parties' submissions on the summary judgment motion.

Kirchner began working for Sunbelt in November 2005 as a yardman at its Countryside store and, soon thereafter, became a member of the Local 150 union. In August 2006, Sunbelt promoted Kirchner to a rollback truck driver. In this position, Kirchner's primary responsibility was to deliver and remove construction-related equipment.

On November 12, 2007, Sunbelt called Kirchner in after normal work hours to deliver a piece of equipment to a customer. Kirchner injured his right ankle while loading the equipment onto his truck. Kirchner's manager, Patrick Vande Linde, and another employee, Robert D. Johandes, saw Kirchner fall. Kirchner wrapped his ankle with an Ace bandage and applied ice. Vande Linde and Johandes finished loading Kirchner's truck while he sat on the pavement. Kirchner then delivered the equipment, returned the truck to the Countryside store, and drove home in his personal vehicle. According to Kirchner, he struggled to complete the job because he found it difficult to put weight on his ankle.

Vande Linde later completed a computer-generated employee accident report form in which he described the accident as follows:

Chris was unable to load a 40' Elec. Art. M/L b/c of a slippery surface on the deck of the rollback. When exiting the basket of the machine his right foot slipped on the wet pavement. The majority of his weight was on his right foot which exacerbated the ankle injury.

Pl.'s LR 56.1 Stat., Ex. 3 at 19.

That night, Kirchner's wife drove Kirchner to the Ingalls medical care facility. A doctor examined Kirchner, ordered x-rays of his ankle, and issued a work status discharge sheet for Kirchner's employer. The discharge sheet characterized Kirchner's injury as an "ankle sprain" and stated that the x-ray was negative. It prescribed the use of crutches, an Ace bandage with ice, and ibuprofen. It also requested that Kirchner stay off of his right leg and return for a reevaluation on November 15.

On the morning of November 13, Kirchner's wife drove Kirchner to the Countryside store to speak with Vande Linde. Kirchner, who was on crutches, provided Vande Linde with a copy of the discharge sheet from the doctor. Vande Linde advised Kirchner that he planned to attend a mangers' meeting in Indiana for two days. The parties dispute Vande Linde's subsequent instructions to Kirchner. According to Kirchner, Vande Linde agreed to let Kirchner stay home through his reevaluation on November 15. Vande Linde counters that he allowed Kirchner to go home that day but told Kirchner to report for light duty on November 14.

Kirchner did not go to work on November 14 or 15. On November 15, he returned to the Ingalls medical center for reevaluation. Kirchner received a second work status discharge sheet instructing him not to use his right leg and to elevate his foot.

During Vande Linde's absence, Sunbelt customer service representatives Roger Ruiz and Christine Harej managed the Countryside store. Vande Linde returned to the store on the morning of November 16 and learned that Kirchner was not at work. Prior to November 12, Vande Linde has testified, Kirchner had never failed to show up at work. Vande Linde advised the union steward to inform Kirchner to contact Vande Linde immediately. Kirchner then called Vande Linde.

The parties dispute the circumstances of Kirchner's subsequent termination. Kirchner's version of events is as follows. Vande Linde notified Kirchner of his termination during the November 16 telephone conversation and requested that he return his uniform. Kirchner's wife drove Kirchner to the Countryside store. While at the store, he met with Vande Linde, who instructed him to sign a termination notice. Kirchner told Vande Linde, "I thought this was a workmen's comp, and [Vande Linde] said no, it's not a workmen's comp case." Kirchner Dep. 94.

According to Sunbelt, Kirchner had failed to return phone calls from Ruiz and Harej on November 14 and 15 inquiring why he had not reported to work. Ruiz and Harej reported the absences to Vande Linde, who consulted with his supervisor, John Vedok, on the proper response. After speaking with Vedok, Vande Linde decided to issue Kirchner a disciplinary warning. When he questioned Kirchner about his conduct over the phone on November 16, however, Kirchner responded in an insubordinate and belligerent tone. At that point, Vande Linde decided to terminate Kirchner and told him to bring his uniform to the store. Vande Linde then prepared a termination notice. When Kirchner and his wife arrived at the store, they began yelling obscenities and arguing with Vande Linde. Vande Linde instructed Kirchner to sign the termination notice. He denies discussing workers' compensation with Kirchner.

The termination notice stated:

Chris was instructed to return to work on Wednesday November 14 to light duty b/c of an injury to his ankle that was suffered on 11/12/07. Chris failed to show for work on 11/14 & did not return any calls. Chris repeated th[is] action on 11/15 as well. This constitutes job abandonment. . . . 3 day no show.

Pl.'s LR 56.1 Stat., Ex. 1 at 23. The notice made no mention of Kirchner's alleged insubordination over the telephone.

Kirchner received treatment for his ankle injury at multiple doctor's visits. On November 30, 2007, he learned that he had microfractures and torn ligaments in his ankle. In December 2007, he underwent surgery on his ankle. Between November 20 and November 29, Kirchner's doctor authorized him to work light duty. From November 30, 2007 to April 9, 2008, he was not authorized to work at all. Beginning on April 10, 2008, ...


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