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Lori Townsend v. St. John's Hospital of the Hospital Sisters of the Third Order of

September 21, 2012

LORI TOWNSEND, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ST. JOHN'S HOSPITAL OF THE HOSPITAL SISTERS OF THE THIRD ORDER OF ST. FRANCIS, AN ILLINOIS NOT-FOR-PROFIT CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard Mills, U.S. District Judge:

E-FILED

Monday, 24 September, 2012 10:07:39 AM Clerk, U.S. District Court, ILCD

OPINION

Pending before the Court is the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Lori Townsend filed a Complaint, wherein she asserted that Defendant St. John's Hospital of the Hospital Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis ("the Hospital" or "St. John's") violated her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA" or "the Act"), 29 U.S.C. § 2615 et al. In Count 1, Townsend alleges the conduct of St. John's interfered with her rights under the FMLA, in violation of § 2615(a)(1). In Count II, Townsend asserts St. John's discriminated against her in retaliation for using her family and medical leave ("FML") benefits, in violation of § 2615(a)(2).*fn1

The Hospital seeks the entry of summary judgment as to both counts. It claims Townsend's FML benefits were exhausted by August 20, 2007, a date on which she was medically unable to return to work. Thus, the Hospital alleges it did not interfere with the use of her benefits. Even if the benefits were not exhausted, Townsend was unable to perform the essential functions of her job on September 3, 2007. As to Count II, the Hospital asserts that Townsend does not have sufficient evidence of a retaliatory animus to withstand the entry of summary judgment.

Townsend claims that there are genuine factual disputes as to both counts, thus precluding the entry of summary judgment.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

St. John's is an Illinois not-for-profit corporation which provides healthcare services at a facility located in Springfield, Illinois. Townsend was a registered nurse who was employed by St. John's to work as a case manager in the Hospital's case management unit. She is a citizen of the United States and an Illinois resident. The Court has jurisdiction over the subject matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1337, and 29 U.S.C. § 2617, and venue is proper in this district.

A. Job description and functions As a case manager for the Hospital, Townsend examined medical records located in certain medical treatment units of the Hospital and conferred with physicians, health insurers, and staff of the Hospital with respect to those medical records. Townsend developed the discharge plan in collaboration with the patient, physician, payor and interdisciplinary team and assigned accountability for aspects of the plan of care.

The Plaintiff regularly worked five days a week, Monday through Friday, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. She was primarily assigned to the fifth floor cardiac unit, where she was required to cover all three nursing stations on the floor, located approximately 100 feet apart. Townsend reported to Larry Deal, Case Management Coordinator, who reported to Debbie Woodford, Director of Outcomes Management.

The Hospital contends that the physical demands of Townsend's case manager position required that she be capable of stooping, bending, stretching and lifting, able to tolerate variable amounts of standing, walking and/or sedentary activity and possess manual dexterity to handle and manipulate equipment and appliances. Townsend disputes that the position required some of these as physical essential functions.

At the beginning of her shift, Townsend usually went to her office on the fifth floor to retrieve her laptop and any books or notes she needed for the day. She carried her laptop and books in a rolling suitcase. She would then plug in her laptop in the dictation room on the fifth floor, walk out to the nurses station to retrieve a chart, which was usually two or three inches thick, walk back to the dictation room and put the reviews in the laptop based on what was listed in the chart. The Plaintiff states that she did not carry a laptop for the last six months of her employment. Townsend reviewed 25 to 35 patient charts daily, and was thus required to repeat this action up to 70 times a day. Townsend notes that the case manager usually worked within a few feet of the revolving chart rack. According to the Hospital, charts were not always on the rack and sometimes had to be located in different places.

The Hospital asserts that Townsend's supervisors testified that case managers also had direct involvement with patients, talked to patients about their discharge needs, worked with the social worker to assist with home need preparation, and conferred with patients and families at the time of discharge. Moreover, case managers were held to the same standards as nurses that are in patient rooms taking care of people, insofar as they should not be wearing open toed shoes. Townsend disputes some of these aspects of the case manager job description.

The Hospital further contends that case managers needed to be mobile because they had to go in and see patients and were required to travel to the case management office on the second floor about two or three times a day. Moreover, Townsend admitted that she was required to go to an office on the second floor of the hospital to retrieve Medicare letters and deliver them to patients. Townsend disputes these alleged facts and claims she was only rarely required to deliver a Medicare letter to a patient. Except for that purpose, Townsend alleges that she had no other reason to go to a patient's room. Case managers on other floors had more patient interaction.

St. John's next asserts that Townsend acknowledged the job requirements as follows: a case manager is required to be able to walk while carrying or pulling supplies; be in and out of patient's rooms to interact with patients and families; and interact with physicians, staff, nurses and other health care team members, sometimes at a moment's notice. Townsend disputes this statement, suggesting that the position is more sedentary than is reflected in the job description.

B. St. John's FMLA policy and Townsend's FMLA leave The Hospital had an FMLA policy in its Employee Handbook allowing for up to 12 work weeks of leave for eligible employees. Under the policy, the 12-week period was calculated on a calendar year basis, rather than rolling year. Since the Hospital instituted its FMLA leave policy that rests with the calendar year, approximately 20 employees have taken leave during back-to-back years. When an employee is on FML, it is the responsibility of her supervisor to track time taken to assure that it does not exceed 12 weeks.

There was no Hospital policy that stated an employee could not return to work unless it was with a physician's full release without restrictions. Every case was handled individually. In each case, Human Resources Coordinator Kathy Maxey would look at the physician restrictions and the employee's health to determine if the employee could function within the restrictions. Woodford believed that depending upon the position, a Hospital employee would be allowed to resume work with restrictions.

Under Hospital policies, an employee must give evidence of her ability to return to work through documentation from the physician. Documentation would include: (1) any restrictions; (2) the type of work to be released to perform; and (3) whether it is a full or partial release. This policy permits an employee to resume previous duties with evidence of her ability to resume those previous duties.

When the employee is certified by a physician as able to return to work at a time after the expiration of FML, the employee can return to his position if it has not been filled. Otherwise, the employee would have a job search period. The job search period is 60 days. If an employee does not locate a position within that period, she is terminated. No preference is given to the employee in competing for a position.

From May 10, 2006, to at least May 3, 2010, Townsend was treated for depression by her physician, Dr. Sarma, or a physician within his practice, on an ongoing basis. In 2006, she took FMLA leave for depression. Townsend did not take more than 12 weeks for this leave in 2006, and she returned to her case manager position after that leave.

The Plaintiff took another two weeks of leave for depression in early 2007, from February 12, 2007 through February 23, 2007. Her treating physician, Dr. Sarma, provided Townsend with a return to work letter, dated February 26, 2007, which stated that Townsend had been "unable to work from February 12-- 23rd" due to her medical condition, but was released back to work "without restriction" on February 26, 2007.

Later that same year, on June 9, 2007, Townsend fell from a ladder at her home and fractured the talus bone in her right ankle. She was referred to Barry Mulshine, M.D., an ankle specialist. Townsend underwent surgery on June 18, 2007, to repair the fracture in her ankle.

After her surgery, the Plaintiff's right ankle was in a splint similar to a cast and it was non-weight bearing. Townsend was unable to walk for a period of time. She used a wheelchair before her physician allowed her to walk with crutches. Townsend cannot recall when she quit using the wheelchair, but she used crutches simultaneously and also then wore a boot with a hard bottom and velcro straps. While wearing the boot, her toes were covered by socks.

Townsend began taking leave for the ankle injury on June 11, 2007. At the time, she was an employee in good standing with no disciplinary issues. On June 13, 2007, St. John's sent Townsend information on its FMLA policy, a leave of absence request form and a request for health care provider certification, which she received. In connection with her leave request, Townsend submitted an FMLA Leave Request Health Care Provider Certification completed by Dr. Mulshine on June 26, 2007, which stated that Plaintiff's current health condition has a "probable duration through September 2007." It further stated that she should not work until re-evaluated on July 3, 2007, and thereafter would be seen at 2 to 4 week intervals. Townsend saw Dr. Mulshine on July 3, 2007, at which time her ankle was put into a cast. She saw Dr. Mulshine again on July 31, 2007. On that date, her doctor removed her cast, put her in an immobilizer boot and told her to remain non-weight bearing at that point. The Plaintiff was released for sedentary work if transportation was provided to her. At the time, Townsend was instructed to use some device such as crutches for walking to avoid putting weight on her ankle. Townsend made arrangements with her father for transportation to and from work.

C. St. John's leave update request

On July 17, 2007, St. John's Human Resource Coordinator Kathy Maxey sent a letter to the Plaintiff requesting an update from her physician regarding her return to work date. At that time, Maxey mistakenly believed Townsend's FMLA expired on August 26, 2007, so she specifically requested information as to whether Townsend was able to return to work before that date. When Maxey received the FMLA leave request from the Plaintiff, it did not include a beginning date for the leave. Maxey referred to Townsend's time card report and saw that June 4 and June 5 of 2007 were designated as unpaid time off and mistakenly assumed June 4, 2007, was the start date of the Plaintiff's leave, instead of a vacation day. Maxey wrote June 4 on the FMLA leave request form that was sent to Townsend, but wasn't informed by the Plaintiff that the start date was wrong until August 23, 2007.

The Hospital alleges that on or about July 31, 2007, Dr. Mulshine responded to its update request and stated that Plaintiff's return to work date was still "unknown" but that it would be "after August 26, 2007." Dr. Mulshine further stated that Plaintiff was to perform "no work until reevaluated in four weeks." St. John's received Dr. Mulshine's response on August 1, 2007. The Plaintiff disputes these allegations, citing a "Nurses Note" dated July 31, 2007, from Dr. Mulshine's office, which provided in pertinent part, "May return to work for sedentary duty only -- if transportation is provided. Otherwise no work until re-evaluated in 4 weeks." At the time Dr. Mulshine sent in the update on Townsend's return to work, Townsend was still on non-weight bearing crutches and a boot.

The Hospital alleges Townsend admitted that she did not feel capable to return to her position as of July 31, 2007, because she could not perform all the duties of the case manager position. Moreover, the medical restrictions provided by Dr. Mulshine on the July 31, 2007, update were not going to change before her next appointment at the end of August 2007. Townsend disputes this allegation and claims she was capable of performing sedentary duty on July 31, 2007. Townsend says she was bored and wanted to go back to work.

Townsend asserts that following her July 31, 2007 appointment with Dr. Mulshine, she told Deal she would like to return to work. She claims that Deal stated that Townsend could not return to work because she was using crutches and her ankle was in the boot. He also said Townsend could not return to work with any restrictions. The Hospital disputes these allegations, claiming that at her ...


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