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Morris v. Ashland, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

August 15, 2014

WILLARD MORRIS, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
ASHLAND, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JAMES B. ZAGEL, District Judge.

Plaintiff Willard Morris, Jr. brings this action against Ashland, Inc. pursuant to Illinois state law tort claims of retaliatory discharge and violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act, 740 ILCS 174/1. Defendant now moves for summary judgment against Plaintiff on both counts. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is granted.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was employed by Defendant as a truck driver from October 2006 until March 4, 2010. Def.'s SOF ¶ 2. Plaintiff is a member of Teamsters, Local 705 Union. Compl. ¶ 11. When Plaintiff began his employment with Defendant, he signed documents indicating that he was familiar with, and would abide by Defendant's "Business Responsibilities" policy. This general policy included policies against employee dishonesty, as well as Defendant's "Zero Incident Culture" policy, which provided guidelines for reporting employee safety issues. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 4-6.

Defendant's alleged harassment and Plaintiff's alleged performance issues

Plaintiff claims that on December 23, 2009, he was instructed by Mark Dwenger, Ashland's package dispatcher, to haul a load of hazardous waste that was four thousand pounds over the allowable gross weight, and six thousand pounds over the allowable weight for the rear tandem of the trailer under the Illinois Vehicle Code. Pl.'s Add'l SOF ¶¶ 4, 5; 625 ILCS 5/15/-111. Plaintiff claims that Dwenger instructed him to deliver the load, and that he would pay any fine incurred. Id. at ¶ 6. Another supervisor told Plaintiff not to haul the load, and he was given a different trailer. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 18, 19.

Plaintiff filed a near miss report on December 31, 2009 referencing the December 23 incident. Id. at 17. Approximately 45 minutes after filing the report, Plaintiff met with Anthony Kuk, Ashland's plant manager, who stated to Plaintiff that another employee had allegedly overheard Plaintiff claim on December 30 that he was going to file a false workers' compensation claim to "teach Mark [Dwenger] a lesson." Id. at ¶ 20. Defendant claims Kuk was not aware of Plaintiff's near miss report at that time. Id. at ¶ 22. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant was aware of the report, and denies making any statement regarding filing a false workers' compensation claim. Pl.'s Opp. to Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 14, 22.

Defendant claims that Plaintiff had performance issues, and that it began monitoring Plaintiff's productivity in November 2009. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 10-12. Defendant alleges that in January 2010, Kuk spoke to Greg Engleking, Plaintiff's union steward, regarding Plaintiff's performance. Id. at ¶ 23.

January 22 incident

On January 22, Plaintiff met with Kuk, Engleking, and Okera Hollis, a bulk dispatcher, in Kuk's office. Def.'s SOF ¶ 25; Pl.'s Add'l SOF ¶ 15. Defendant alleges that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss Morris's performance issues. Def.'s SOF ¶ 25. Plaintiff claims that the purpose of the meeting was to object to harassment he was subjected to from Kuk. Pl.'s Opp. to Def.'s SOF ¶ 25; Pl.'s Add'l SOF ¶ 14. During the meeting, Plaintiff produced driver trip reports that he had manually completed at home, to counter the company's position that Plaintiff was less productive than other drivers. Def.'s SOF ¶ 27. The forms were apparently used by the company before the company switched to electronic tracking. Def.'s SOF ¶ 28.

Kuk became angry upon seeing the reports, and stated to Plaintiff that they were company property, and that he could not take them with him. Pl.'s Add'l SOF ¶ 17; Def.'s SOF ¶ 28. Plaintiff attempted to leave the room, at which time Kuk moved to prevent Plaintiff from leaving. Pl.'s Add'l SOF ¶ 18; Def.'s SOF ¶ 29. Plaintiff claims that Kuk hit his shoulder and arm, causing him to fall and hit his face against the edge of the door. Pl.'s Add'l SOF ¶ 17; Def.'s SOF ¶ 18. Kuk told Hollis to call the police, and initially refused to let Plaintiff leave Kuk's office. Def.'s SOF ¶ 29; Pl.'s Add'l SOF ¶ 19. The police arrived and investigated the alleged assault. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 30, 31. They concluded that there were no obvious signs of injury to substantiate a battery charge against Kuk. Id.

Plaintiff left Ashland's facility and drove to a nearby hospital, where he was diagnosed with a head injury, a concussion, and facial contusions. Pl.'s Add'l SOF ¶¶ 22, 23. Plaintiff filed a workers' compensation claim around February 19, for injuries sustained on January 22. Id. at ¶ 24. Defendant was aware of the workers' compensation claim. Id. at ¶ 26. On February 24, Plaintiff returned to his physician, and was further diagnosed with a nasal fracture and deviated septum that were initially missed January 22, and required surgery at a later date. Id. at ¶ 25.

Reports, investigation, and termination

Between January 23 and 24, emails were sent from Plaintiff's email account to Casey Jones, Ashland's Manager of Occupational Medicine, as well as executives at Ashland's parent company, alleging that Kuk had physically assaulted him. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 36, 37. Plaintiff did not recall sending the emails. Id. at ¶ 38. Plaintiff called 1-800-ASHLAND, the company's hotline for reporting safety concerns, reporting ...


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