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Linda A. Hillis v. Larson Engineering

July 5, 2011

LINDA A. HILLIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LARSON ENGINEERING, INC. DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Edmond E. Chang

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Linda Hillis filed this lawsuit against Larson Engineering alleging violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2061, et seq. (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et. seq. (ADA), stemming from the termination of her employment by Larson. Hillis claims that she is entitled to recovery under the FMLA because she was denied benefits and because Larson fired her for requesting medical leave. She also claims that Larson discriminated against her and failed to accommodate her under the ADA. This case is now before the Court on Larson's Motion for Summary Judgment. R. 25.*fn1 For the reasons stated below, Larson's motion is denied.

I.

Linda Hillis, who suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome, was hired by Larson Engineering on July 23, 2007. R. 26 ¶¶ 6-7. Hillis was a staff accountant, and her duties included processing daily cash receipts, managing accounts receivable and collection efforts, preparing reports, invoicing clients, managing write-offs and bad debts, entering timesheets, calculating overtime processing expense reports, and handling project budget worksheets. Id. ¶ 8. Her job duties also included setting employee reimbursement rates for Lynette Olsson, an employee hired six months after Hillis. Olsson often worked for other branch offices of Larson, and when she did, her time would be billed to that specific office. R. 31 ¶ 12. Hillis was in charge of keeping track of Olsson's time and invoicing the other offices for Olsson's time. Id.

On July 2, 2008, Hillis received a request from Larson's Wisconsin office to lower Olsson's rate. Id. ¶ 13. On the same day, Larson's Chief Financial Officer, Philip Deimel, asked Hillis to reduce Olsson's rate to fifty dollars an hour. Id. ¶ 14. Hillis followed Deimel's instructions without contacting her direct supervisors, Jack Pastore and Joe Tinder. Id. ¶ 16. Both were out of the office at the time. Id.

The next afternoon, Pastore (one of Hillis's direct supervisors) received an e-mail from Hillis, stating:

I am very frustrated regarding my situation here at Larson. I am getting anger addressed to me instead of clear direction. It is clear you are upset with me changing the rates that Lynette gets billed out at, but I was put in the middle! Do you want me to ignore a directive from Phil D[eimel]? Including all future directives? I was told to reissue the invoices in your absence! I changed the invoices to facilitate the close and balancing between the offices. I assumed we could readdress this question on the rates next week when everyone was back in the office. Jack, we need to talk. Please let me know the soonest we can do this.

R. 26 ¶ 20. On July 7 (the following Monday), Hillis met with Pastore and Tinder to talk about the rate change incident.*fn2 Id. ¶ 21. During this meeting, Pastore and Tinder explained to Hillis that she should have contacted one of them before changing the invoice and changing the billing rate. Id. Beyond what Pastore and Tinder explained, the substance of this meeting is disputed by both parties.

Soon after this meeting, Hillis contacted her supervisors to confirm vacation time that she had scheduled for the next month. R.32, Exh. 2 ¶ 50. She had previously requested this vacation in January 2008, intending it to be "a real vacation." Id. ¶ 49. As her carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms grew worse, however, she changed her plans and intended to use this time for surgery and recovery time. Id. ¶ 50. She explained to her supervisors that she would be needing surgery for her carpal tunnel syndrome. Id.

On July 24, 2008, Larson fired Hillis, effective immediately. R. 26 ¶ 28. Hillis filed a complaint with the EEOC, and on October 28, 2009, the EEOC issued her a right to sue letter, R.1, Exh. 1. Hillis then filed this lawsuit in January 2010.

II.

Summary judgment is proper when "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P 56(a). A genuine issue of material fact exists if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In determining summary judgment motions, "facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a 'genuine' dispute as to those facts." Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). The party seeking summary judgment has the burden of establishing the lack of any genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). After "a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the adverse party 'must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.' " Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (quoting Fed R. Civ. P. 56(e)).

III.

Hillis has alleged violations of the ADA*fn3 and the FMLA. There are four separate claims in her two-count complaint. Hillis seeks relief under the ADA's discrimination and retaliation provisions, and under the FMLA's interference and retaliation provisions. R. 1 ¶¶ 50, 56-86. This Court will address each of them in turn.

A. ADA Discrimination

To survive summary judgment, the plaintiff must produce sufficient evidence for a reasonable trier of fact to find that (1) he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, (2) that he is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, either with or without a reasonable accommodation, and that (3) he suffered from an adverse employment action because of his disability.Nese v. Julian Nordic Const. Co., 405 F.3d 638, 641 (7th Cir. 2005) (citing Byrne v. Board of Educ., School of West Allis-West Milwaukee, 979 F.2d 560 (7th Cir. 1992)). A plaintiff has met his burden on summary judgment if he produces "evidence supporting an 'inference' that discrimination was 'a determining factor'" in the employer's adverse employment action. Germano v. International Profit Association, 544 F.3d 798, 806 (7th Cir. 2008) (quoting Trujillo v. PacifiCorp, 524 F.3d 1149, 1154 (10th Cir. 2008)). If the employer demonstrates a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, the plaintiff must show that there is a genuine issue of fact that the proffered reason is pretextual. DeLuca v. Winer Indus., Inc., 53 F.3d 793, 797 (7th Cir. 1995)). A non-pretextual reason need not be a good reason, and the Court need not agree that it was a prudent, wise, or correct reason for the business action taken. Stewart v. Henderson, 207 F.3d 374, 378 (7th Cir. 2000); Green v. Nat'I Steel Corp., 197 F.3d 894, 900 (7th Cir. 1999).

With regard to the first element, a plaintiff can show that she is disabled for the purposes of the ADA through one of three ways: (1) she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits her in one or more major life activities; (2) she has a record of such an impairment; or (3) her employer regarded her as having such an impairment. Nese, 405 F.3d at 641 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)). Hillis takes the first approach.

The ADA defines major life activities as including, but not limited to, "caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working." Dvorak v. Mostradi Platt Associates, Inc., 289 F.3d 479, 483 (7th Cir. 2002)(quoting 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(i)). Hillis's declaration avers that she suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome and that this condition prevents her from caring for herself and her family. R. 32 ¶ 38. Her sleep is constantly disrupted from numbness in her hand and in her arm. Id. Hillis is also unable to cut her own food, open jars, cook, clean, or engage in other everyday life activities. Id.

Larson argues that Hillis cannot meet the disability requirement because Larson did not regard her as being disabled. R. 27 at 8-9. Larson claims that Hillis's managers were not aware of her ...


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