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Puhr v. Univar, Inc.

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

July 7, 2015

GARY PUHR, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVAR, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

HARRY D. LEINENWEBER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Gary Puhr ("Puhr") claims that his former employer, Defendant Univar Inc. ("Univar"), wrongfully terminated him in retaliation for exercising his rights under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act ("IWCA"). Before the Court is Univar's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 12]. For the reasons stated herein, the Motion is granted.

I. BACKGROUND

The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted. Univar is a chemical distribution company with facilities across the United States, including one in Plainfield, Illinois, where Puhr was employed as a bulk delivery specialist. George "Jay" Boby ("Boby") is Operations Manager at the Plainfield facility.

As a bulk delivery specialist, Puhr drove tanker trucks loaded with hazardous chemicals to various client sites. Given the nature of the chemical products, safety is particularly important. According to Univar, all employees receive safety training and are required to use personal protective equipment ("PPE") when loading, unloading, or otherwise handling corrosive materials. Univar contends that PPE includes rubber "over-boots" which are worn over steel-toed work boots. Puhr, however, testified that he never received over-boots with his mandatory PPE, and that they were never mentioned during safety training.

On December 31, 2013, approximately six months in to Puhr's employment, Puhr was assigned to deliver a truck of sodium hydroxide to PQ Corporation, a Univar client in Joliet, Illinois. Sometime later, Puhr contacted Univar dispatch from PQ's containment area, reporting trouble with the truck's air lines, which may have been frozen. The next time Puhr contacted dispatch, he reported that he had gotten chemical burns on the top of his feet while attempting to thaw the truck's lines. Puhr was taken to a nearby emergency room for treatment. Puhr told Boby, who visited him later that day, that he had not been wearing over-boots. Sometime after his release from the hospital on January 2 or 3, Puhr filed for and began receiving workers' compensation benefits.

Univar conducted an investigation of the incident. Although Univar could not determine whether Puhr's injury had been caused by the product in the truck, or by another chemical already in the PQ containment area, Univar concluded that Puhr could have prevented his injury by wearing rubber over-boots. On January 3, 2014, Boby emailed Univar's HR director, Jason O'Neal ("O'Neal"), stating that he and Mike Lewis ("Lewis"), a general manager, had determined that Puhr should be terminated for failing to wear PPE. According to Boby's deposition, O'Neal responded that Puhr would be terminated upon his return to work. In the interim, Puhr would continue to receive his pay and medical benefits. Puhr contends that the decision to terminate him was not made immediately after the incident, but sometime later.

Months passed, and Puhr was not cleared for a full-time return to work until June 9, 2014. On June 10, 2014, Puhr received a notice stating that he was being terminated for not wearing his required PPE. Later that month, Puhr filed his complaint in the Circuit Court of Cook County alleging that Univar discharged him in retaliation for exercising his rights under the IWCA. On July 30, 2014, the case was removed to federal court.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate when "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). Material facts are those that affect the outcome of the lawsuit. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A genuine dispute exists "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. The moving party may meet its burden by showing "there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). If the moving party satisfies its initial burden, the non-moving party must demonstrate with evidence "that a triable issue of fact remains on issues for which [it] bears the burden of proof." Knight v. Wiseman, 590 F.3d 458, 463-64 (7th Cir. 2009).

The judge's role at summary judgment is not to make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Washington v. Haupert, 481 F.3d 543, 550 (7th Cir. 2007). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the Court construes all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Bellaver v. Quanex Corp., 200 F.3d 485, 491-92 (7th Cir. 2000).

III. ANALYSIS

Where, as here, a retaliatory discharge case brought under Illinois law is litigated in federal court, "the federal court must apply the standard of the state law to a motion for summary judgment, and not the federal standard." Gacek v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 614 F.3d 298, 303 (7th Cir. 2010). To establish retaliatory discharge in the workers' compensation context, Puhr must show that (1) he was employed by Univar before his termination occurred, (2) he exercised a right granted under the IWCA, and (3) his discharge was causally related to his filing a workers' compensation claim. Carter v. Tennant Co., No. 02 C 1925, 2003 WL 21418231, at *4 (N.D. Ill. June 16, 2003) (citation omitted), aff'd, 383 F.3d 673 (7th Cir. 2004). Only the third element of Puhr's claim is contested.

"With respect to causation, the ultimate issue to be decided is the employer's motive in discharging the employee.'" Goode v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 741 F.Supp.2d 877, 891 (N.D. Ill. 2010) (quoting Hartlein v. Ill. Power Co., 601 N.E.2d 720, 730 (Ill. 1992)). A plaintiff may show an improper motive through direct or circumstantial evidence. See, Jackson v. Bunge Corp., 40 F.3d 239, 242 (7th Cir. 1994). Direct evidence proves a fact "without reliance on inference or presumption." Lalvani v. Ill. Human Rights Comm'n, 755 N.E.2d 51, 65 (Ill.App.Ct. 2001). Circumstantial evidence consists of "proof of facts and circumstances from which the jury ...


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