United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
JOHN J. THARP, Jr., District Judge.
This is a pregnancy discrimination case brought by Araceli Cadenas, who worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) at defendant Meadowbrook Manor's nursing and rehabilitation facility in Naperville. She contends that Meadowbrook unlawfully terminated her employment because of her pregnancy; she also alleged that Meadowbrook improperly withheld her personnel file in violation of Illinois law, but she has since abandoned that claim. The defendant moved for summary judgment, and for the reasons explained herein and on the record at the hearing on July 10, 2014, the motion is denied as to the discrimination claim.
Cadenas began working for Meadowbrook's nursing home facility in Naperville, Illinois as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) in September 2011. The CNA job description states that the position's major tasks include assisting residents with range of motion exercises, placing and removing splints, and assisting with dressing, bathing, eating, and using the bathroom, as well as lifting, moving, and physically transferring residents from their beds to their wheelchairs safely. CNA duties also include turning and re-positioning residents who cannot do this themselves every two hours and assisting residents with walking and moving around the facility for meals and other activities. Meadowbrook considered Cadenas to be a good worker, and she did not have any instances of employee performance problems.
The CNA job is physically demanding and sometimes required Cadenas to push more than twenty pounds when she was pushing a resident in a wheelchair. Meadowbrook also has a Limited Life Resident Handling Policy that requires CNAs to carry safety or "gait belts" with them at all times to assist with resident lifts, moves and transfers. CNAs place the belts around residents' chests or waists, and use their own weight to pull and lift the resident up. These maneuvers require CNAs to pull, push or lift at least 20 pounds.
Meadowbrook has an unwritten policy of offering light duty work only to employees who have work-related injuries. According to Human Resources Director Joan Soppi, who began working at Meadowbrook in 2001, no employee has received light duty work for a non-work-related injury, including for pregnancy. In her declaration, Soppi provided two examples where she says light duty work was denied for non-work-related injuries. Cadenas testified that two Meadowbrook employees, one of them an unnamed CNA who hurt her arm and the other an employee Cadenas identified as "Irma, " did receive light duty. Soppi stated in her declaration that the only Meadowbrook employee with an arm injury was Christina Forget, a CNA who injured her arm while turning a resident at Meadowbrook, and that the only Irma at Meadowbrook was Irma Almanza de Perez, a CNA who did not request or receive light duty for any non-work related injury or for pregnancy.
Employees who have restrictions or a non-work related injury may take one or more of the types of leave Meadowbrook offers, if they are eligible. Meadowbrook provides for disability, personal, or Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leaves if the employee has worked there for more than one year. Pregnant employees who are permitted to work without restrictions continue working at Meadowbrook as scheduled throughout their pregnancies. Soppi identified seven other pregnant employees in her declaration who were not restricted by doctor's notes during their pregnancies and worked during those pregnancies until they decided to take some form of leave.
Cadenas visited her physician, Dr. Dawn Collier, on or around May 7, 2012. Collier wrote a letter dated May 7, 2012, stating that Cadenas was 14 weeks pregnant, that she had an estimated delivery date of November 4, 2012, and that activity was restricted as follows: "no lifting, pushing, pulling over 20 lbs." Cadenas delivered the letter to Soppi either on, or in the days after May 7, 2012,  and first learned of Meadowbrook's light duty policy at that time. Soppi testified that she considered this letter to be a voluntary resignation, even though Cadenas did not write the letter herself or say anything about leaving her job. Nevertheless, Cadenas continued to work until at least May 13, 2012, although the parties dispute whether Soppi was aware of this, and she was also scheduled to work on May 15, 2012.(It is disputed whether Cadenas' absence from work for a doctor's appointment on that date was excused, but Meadowbrook does not contend that this absence was the reason for termination, so the dispute is not material).
Despite the her testimony that she considered the first letter a resignation, Soppi left a voicemail for Cadenas on May 11, 2012, in which she stated that if Cadenas did not provide a note lifting the medical restrictions, the first letter would be considered "a resignation letter because [Meadowbrook doesn't] put people on light duty who are pregnant."
Cadenas returned to her and obtained a second note, which stated that the activity restrictions would not take effect until roughly five weeks later, beginning in the 20th week of her pregnancy. Cadenas returned to work on May 17, 2012, and saw that her name had been removed from the schedule. Cadenas approached Soppi about the issue and gave Soppi the second letter. On May 17, 2012, Cadenas was able to perform all CNA job duties without restrictions.But Soppi told Cadenas that because of the restrictions stated in the second letter, she would not be able to continue working, but that she could return to work after her baby was born. Soppi did not send Cadenas any notice of her termination or resignation. A document titled "Personnel Change of Status" and dated May 17, 2012, listed "Resign" as Cadenas' termination type and also indicated that she was eligible for rehire. The document also stated "cannot work full duty CNA position due to pregnancy with doctor note restrictions." Cadenas did not sign this form, although there is a space provided for the employee's signature. Cadenas had been employed for approximately eight months at the time and so did not qualify for FMLA, disability, or personal leave.
Cadenas gave birth on November 3, 2012, and did not request to return to work at Meadowbrook in the months that followed. Soppi wrote Cadenas a letter on December 12, 2012, offering to return Cadenas to her CNA position. Cadenas declined the offer.
Meadowbrook has moved for summary judgment, arguing that Cadenas cannot show that she was terminated because she was pregnant rather than because she could not perform required duties of her job. Summary judgment is appropriate where "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 court must grant a motion for summary judgment against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Bio v. Federal Express Corp., 424 F.3d 593, 596 (7th Cir. 2005). When considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court "must construe all facts and draw all ...