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Rutherford v. Peoria Public Schools District 150

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Peoria Division

January 13, 2017




         Plaintiff Kenneth Rutherford filed suit against Defendant Peoria Public Schools District 150 ("the District"), alleging a violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA" or "the Act"). Before the Court are Plaintiffs Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, ECF No. 19, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 21.[1] For the following reasons, Plaintiffs motion is GRANTED and Defendant's motion is DENIED.


         On November 24, 2010, Kenneth Rutherford sustained injuries to his neck, back, and Achilles tendon when a painting scaffold fell and landed on him while he was working. Rutherford, then the head custodian at Lincoln Middle School in the District, reported the incident to his supervisor, Dave Meyers. Meyers instructed Rutherford to attend an evaluation at the Illinois Work Injury Resource Center ("1WLRC"), which is the District's preferred health care provider for employee medical evaluations. Pl.'s UMF ¶ 51. Dr. Hauter at IWIRC released Rutherford without restriction. Nov. 24, 2010 IWIRC Visit Note, ECF No. 35. However, Rutherford subsequently developed back pain and began to attend various chiropractic and physical therapy sessions. In January 2011, Rutherford saw Dr. Richard Kube, who found that Rutherford had degenerative changes in his spine, and prescribed an epidural injection and additional physical therapy. Pl.'s Aff ¶ 12, ECF No. 20-1.

         On March 15, 2011, Dr. Kube restricted Rutherford to sedentary activity. Mar. 15, 2011 Work Status Sheet, ECF No. 20-3 at 58. On March 29, 2011, Dr. Kube gave Rutherford a work status sheet that diagnosed Rutherford with lumbago. Mar. 29, 2011 Work Status Sheet, ECF No. 20-3 at 59. Dr. Kube checked a box indicating that Rutherford could safely perform at a "Moderate Activity" level, specifying that he could "frequently lift 35 [pounds] and limited lifting 50 [pounds], occasional overhead and floor to waist, occasional bending and twisting as well as prolonged sitting or standing." Id. Rutherford continued working normally until March 31, 2011, when he delivered Dr. Kube's note detailing these new restrictions to Meyers. Def's UMF ¶ 41. Notably, at all relevant times, Rutherford's custodial position required that he be able to lift at least 50 pounds. Custodian Qualifications, ECF No. 29 at 4; Pl.'s Resp. UMF ¶ 2. Meyers told Rutherford that he could not work for the District until he was released to work without any restrictions. Pl.'s UMF ¶ 76.

         Responsibility for handling FMLA issues belonged to the District's Human Resources department. Pl.'s UMF ¶ 33. From 2010 until June 30, 2012, Teri Dunn was the Director of Human Resources for the District. Pl.'s Resp. UMF ¶ 13. Gerilyn Hammer served as Director of Employee Services starting in 2004, and in September 2012, upon Dunn's retirement, took over the Director of Human Resources position. Id. at ¶ 12, 25. At all relevant times, Janet Ogden was one of five Human Resources Specialists supervised by Dunn, and was assigned custodians as an employee group. Id. at ¶ 19-21. Cheryl Stenstrom, of Sedgwick Claims, was a third-party administrator of Worker's Compensation Claims for the District. Id. at¶30. When Dunn's tenure began in the Human Resources department, the District did not have a system for coordinating absence notifications between an employee's supervisor or payroll, and Human Resources, for the purposes of assessing eligibility for FMLA or other alternative leave absence. Def's UMF ¶ 16. The default status was sick leave. Id. The District did not provide Rutherford with any leave designation notices or notices of fitness-for-duty requirements. Def's Resp. Requests to Admit ¶¶ 31, 33, ECF No. 20-3 at 43-44; Def's Mem. Opp. Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J 41, ECF No. 78. Both parties agree that Rutherford's FMLA leave, had it been designated, would have begun on April 1, 2011 and ended on June 23, 2011. Pl.'s Resp. UMF ¶ 51. In her deposition, Dunn stated that Rutherford's leave was treated as if it were designated as FMLA leave. Dunn Dep. 63:14-16, ECF No. 32.

         On May 31, 2011, Rutherford again met with Dr. Kube, who indicated in a separate work status sheet that Rutherford could lift "50-100 [pounds] max." May 31, 2011 Work Status Sheet, ECF No. 20-3 at 61. Rutherford had also been cleared for full duty with the ability to lift over fifty pounds in a separate Functional Capacity Evaluation on May 24, 2011. FCE Report, ECF No. 20-3 at 117-18. Rutherford represents that on June 2, 2011, he gave Dr. Kube's note to both Meyers and the District's Human Resources office-specifically, that he handed the note to Janet Ogden and Meyers' secretary and said that he was turning in his paperwork and was ready to return to work. Pl.'s Dep. 47:4-12; 47:23-48:11, ECF No. 24. The District disputes this because Ogden did not recall when she spoke with Rutherford.[3] Ogden Dep. 36:5-17, ECF No. 33. Rutherford also claims to have made numerous phone calls to the District in June and July 2011, seeking to be returned to work. Pl.'s Dep. 57-58. Additionally, Rutherford contacted his union steward to tell him that he wished to return to work. Id. 50:8-23. On July 20, 2011, Rutherford filed a union grievance directly with Meyers, expressing his desire to return to work. Grievance, ECF No. 48.

         Dunn emailed Ogden and Hammer on August 9, 2011 to direct Ogden to schedule a fitness-for-duty evaluation. ECF No. 55. Rutherford met with Dr. Dru Hauter on August 18, 2011. Aug. 18, 2011 IWIRC Report, ECF No. 56. No functional capacity test was performed, which Dr. Hauter attributed to Rutherford's "pain" on his report. Id. Dr. Hauter found that Rutherford should be limited to a fifty-pound maximum, and was "not safe to return to work" without modifications. Id. Rutherford attended a third full medical evaluation on September 8, 2011. Rutherford Aff ¶ 20. Dr. Gunnar Andersson concluded that Rutherford was "capable of working without restrictions." Dr. Andersson Independent Medical Examination, ECF No. 58.[4]Hammer received the results of Dr. Andersson's examination by email on September 29 and 30, 2011.Def.'s UMF ¶ 70.

         On June 27, 2012, Rutherford sent an email to the District's Human Resources department stating, "It has been a year since my release [from my doctor's restrictions] and I haven't received any correspondence from the district as to when I can return to work. Please let me know if there's anything you need from me as I am eagerly awaiting my return to work date." Jun. 27, 2012 Pl.'s Email to Dunn and Ogden, ECF No. 67. There is no evidence that the District ever responded to that email or Rutherford's July 17, 2012 follow-up email.

         In January 2013, Ogden noted that Rutherford stopped by the Human Resources office on January 11, 2013 and inquired about returning to work. Ogden Dep. 37:12-17; Ogden Dep. Ex. 32, ECF No. 20-2 at 614. Dunn advised Ogden not to speak to him because he had an attorney. Id. Hammer and Ogden discussed Rutherford's employment status via email on April 23, 2013. Hammer Dep. 67:22-68:10, ECF No. 31. Hammer described his status as she understood it at that point in time as "still qualified as an employee but. . . never terminated . . . with a board action." Id. at 68. She stated in her deposition that she did not know why he had not been brought back to work at that point. Id. Nor did she direct any of the human resource specialists to inquire further into why Rutherford had not returned to work. Id. at 70:22-71:8. On July 18, 2013, Rutherford sent another email to the District seeking reinstatement. Hammer Ltr to Pl., ECF No. 20-3 at 27. In a letter sent on July 30, 2013, [5] Hammer responded, "It is the District's position that you abandoned your job, because you failed to contact the District in a reasonably timely manner regarding any request to return to work." Id. Rutherford was officially released effective July 13, 2013 at the August 12, 2013 school board meeting. School Board Proceedings, ECF No. 20-4 at 82.

         Rutherford now brings the instant claim for interference under the FMLA, seeking an injunction reinstating him to his former position as well as damages, liquidated damages, prejudgment interests, costs, and attorneys' fees. Compl. ¶ 72, ECF No. 1.


         Rutherford argues that the District violated his rights under the FMLA by failing to provide required notices, failing to reinstate him to his former position as early as June 2, 2011, and forcing him to take more leave than was necessary.[6] Pl.'s Mem. Supp. 32-43. The District argues, as a threshold matter, that Rutherford's claim is untimely. Def's Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. ("Def's Mem. Supp.") 22-24, ECF No. 22. The District further argues that Rutherford was not able to perform the essential functions of his job, and was therefore not entitled to reinstatement, id. 24-30; it finally claims that Rutherford was not prejudiced by the District's failure to designate his leave as FMLA leave because of other benefits he was provided, id. 31.

         I. Legal Standard on a Motion for Summary Judgment

         At the summary judgment stage the court's function is not "to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial[- that is, whether] there is sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party for a jury to return a verdict" in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986); Patel v. Allstate Ins. Co., 105 F.3d 365, 370 (7th Cir. 1997). The court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. McCann v. Iroquois Mem'l Hosp., 622 F.3d 745, 752 (7th Cir. 2010) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255).

         When both parties file motions for summary judgment, the court must look to the burden of proof that each party would bear on the issue at trial. Santaella v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 123 F.3d 456, 461 (7th Cir. 1997). Each party must "go beyond the pleadings and affirmatively . . . establish a genuine issue of material fact." Id. Cross-motions are reviewed "construing all facts, and drawing all reasonable inferences from those facts, in favor of the non-moving party." Laskin v. Siegel, 728 F.3d 731, 734 (7th Cir. 2013) (quoting Wis. Cent, Ltd. v. Shannon, 539 F.3d 751, 756 (7th Cir. 2008)).

         I. FMLA ...

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