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Smith v. Concentra, Inc.

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

March 1, 2017



          SHARON JOHNSON COLEMAN United States District Court Judge

         Plaintiff, Timika Smith, brought this action against her employer, Concentra Health Services, Inc., and Concentra, Inc. (hereinafter “Concentra”), alleging that she was discriminated against based on her religion, that she was discriminated against based on her disability, and that Concentra violated the Family Medical Leave Act. Concentra now moves this Court to grant summary judgment on all counts. For the reasons set forth herein, that motion [35] is granted in part and denied in part.


         The following facts are undisputed except where otherwise noted. Smith was employed as a Front Office Specialist by Concentra Health Services, Inc. at its Ashland Avenue facility in Chicago. As a Front Office Specialist, Smith was responsible for greeting patients and visitors, admitting and checking out patients, obtaining authorizations to process patients for needed services, answering the telephones, faxing documents, filing paperwork, and maintaining office inventory. Smith also assisted in performing patient drug screens, which involved processing paperwork, collecting the specimen from the patient, and securing, packaging, and storing the specimen.

         Concentra also employed medical assistants, who were responsible for taking patient's vital signs, performing ancillary medical tests, assisting doctors during examinations and treatments, operating sterilization equipment, performing drug screens, dispensing medications, and performing front office duties as required. In order to become a Medical Assistant with Concentra, an individual must have completed a medical assistant degree or certificate program as well as Concentra's month-long internal certification program. Medical Assistants can perform all of the duties of Front Office Specialists, but Front Office Specialists can only perform a limited number of Medical Assistant duties.

         Smith graduated from Olympia College's medical assistant program. Concentra hired Smith as a Front Office Specialist, and accordingly did not provide Smith with the internal training necessary to work as a Medical Assistant. When Smith began working for Concentra, she worked from Monday through Friday from 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Two Medical Assistants also began work at 7:00 AM, but Smith was the only Front Office Specialist whose shift started at 7:00 AM.

         Smith is Muslim and is a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America. As part of her membership in the Moorish Science Temple of America, Smith was expected to participate in daily religious programs that began between 4:00 PM and 6:00 PM. On some occasions, Smith would pick up her daughter from school before going to the program. The parties dispute whether Smith's original work schedule was set in order to accommodate her religious practices or whether it was simply the time slot that needed to be filled when she was hired. Either way, the parties agree that Smith preferred her assigned shift because it allowed her to pick her daughter up from school and to attend her religious programming.

         In January 2014 Carla Lowe became the Center Operations Director at the Ashland facility. In February, Lowe met with Smith to inform her that she would be changing to a 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM shift. This decision was based on Concentra's determination that it was unnecessary to have a dedicated Front Office Specialist prior to 9:00 AM because the Medical Assistants on the 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM shift could perform the front office functions until 9:00 AM and that it would be preferential to have more staff members available later in the day when the center tended to be busier. It is disputed whether these motivations were contemporaneously related to Smith. Smith informed Lowe that she could not work past 4:00 PM, because she needed to be at her temple prior to 6:00 PM each day and she sometimes needed to pick up her daughter before going to the temple. Smith subsequently met with Lowe and Ms. Gross, the Area Operations Director. After offering to let Smith take a break to fulfill her prayer accommodations, Gross ultimately offered to accommodate Smith's religious schedule by allowing her to work from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, which would allow her to keep her full time benefits but would mean that she could only work 30 hours per week (the Ashland Avenue facility was not open on the weekend). Smith asked if she could work as a Medical Assistant on the 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM shift, but was told that she could not because she had been hired as a Front Office Specialist and was not certified to act as a Medical Assistant. There is no evidence to suggest that there was a vacant Medical Assistant position on the 7:00 AM - 4:00 PM shift.

         Smith's attorney subsequently sent Concentra a letter requesting that Concentra permit Smith to retain her current schedule in light of her religious obligations. Concentra replied that Smith's shift had changed because the volume at the center dictated that an employee who was qualified to work both in the front and back offices work the 7:00 AM - 4:00PM shift. Concentra further explained that Smith was not qualified to work as a Medical Assistant on that shift, and that if Smith continued to start work at 7:00 AM the center would be overstaffed or would risk being unable to meet patient needs. Finally, Concentra noted that it had offered to let Smith leave at 5:30 PM to attend her religious services, but that Smith had rejected this offer because she would not have time to pick up her daughter and take her home before the services. On March 17, 2014, Smith began working the 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM shift that Concentra had offered her as an accommodation. She continued to do so for the remainder of her employment with Concentra.

         On September 8, 2014, Smith was involved in a car accident that caused injury to her cervical spine, left wrist, and hand. When Smith returned to work on September 15, 2014, she provided Lowe with her hospital discharge papers and a note from her primary care physician indicating that she did not have any work restrictions. Smith subsequently informed Lowe that she did not want to do drug screens because the wrist brace that she was wearing on her left wrist interfered with her ability to unscrew specimen cap lids, and was informed that she would need to provide a doctor's note to that effect.

         On September 26, 2014, Smith presented Lowe with a doctor's note stating “Certify above patient is under my care for sprain of left wrist and unable to use left hand. Has limited use of left hand. Unable to use writing or screwing bottles.” Lowe read this note as stating that Smith could not use her left hand in any capacity. The doctor who wrote the note testified that he had intended the note to convey that Smith could not do anything with her left hand. Based on the restriction contained in the note, Lowe concluded that Smith could not check patients in, check patients out, process paperwork, perform drug screens, or perform blood alcohol tests. Lowe also observed that Smith was in fact performing her duties with the use of both hands in contravention of her medical restriction, but that she was working at a slower rate, leading to patient backups and unfinished work at the end of Smith's shift. Smith maintains that she could perform all of her duties aside from drug screenings using both her left hand and right hand. Smith alternatively maintains that she could have kept up with all of her duties except drug screenings without using her injured left hand at all.

         On October 1, 2014, Smith met with Lowe, the Ashland Center's Medical Director, and Ms. Morrissey, a Concentra Human Resources consultant. Smith was instructed to take FMLA leave because she was in pain while working. Smith expressed her desire to keep working and asked the defendants to accommodate her with something that did not require her to twist her left wrist. After this meeting, Smith's attorney asked for a written explanation detailing how Smith's physical restrictions prevented her from carrying out the duties of her position with or without a reasonable accommodation. The response noted that Smith was not performing core functions of her job with the limited use of her left arm and that Smith had indicated that she was in pain when she attempted to perform her duties. The letter further enumerated that Smith was unable to perform the majority of her duties, and had expressly acknowledged that she could not perform her medical support duties such as drug screening.

         On the same date Smith called Liberty Mutual and started the FMLA leave application process. The chronology of events that followed becomes quite confusing. From the outset, Liberty Mutual informed Smith that her leave would begin on October 1, 2014 and end on November 1, 2014. On October 3, 2014, Liberty Mutual informed plaintiff that she was required to complete a Certification of Healthcare Provider form within 17 days or her leave would be denied. Smith failed to provide that form, and on October 20, 2014 Liberty Mutual informed Smith that her FMLA request had been denied. Smith subsequently contacted Liberty Mutual and submitted her certification form.

         On November 3, 2014, Liberty Mutual sent Smith a letter stating that her leave from October 1, 2014 to November 1, 2014 had been approved. The letter further provided that Smith should contact her employer two days prior to the end of her leave to schedule her return for work. Smith also received a letter from Liberty Mutual, dated November 3, 2014, informing her that her leave had closed two days earlier on November 1st and that she was no longer eligible for leave. Smith subsequently attempted to contact Lowe. Smith and Lowe attempted to reach each other by telephone on multiple occasions, but ultimately were unable to do so. Smith stopped attempting to call Lowe after November 11. Lowe, in turn, was instructed to temporarily refrain from making further attempts to contact Smith on November 12, 2014 while Morrissey consulted with counsel. On November 19, 2014, Morrissey sent Smith a letter instructing her to call Morrissey by November 24, 2014 to discuss her employment status, and stating that if Smith did not do so she would be considered to have voluntarily resigned her employment. Smith, however, maintains that she no longer lived at the address that Morrissey sent the letter to. Smith asserts that ...

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