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Baptist v. Ford Motor Co.

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

March 31, 2017

JAMES BAPTIST, Plaintiff,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant.

          BERKOWITZ OLIVER LLP Timothy S. Millman Timothy S. Millman N.D. Nicholas L DiVita N.D. Grand Boulevard, Suite-and-Karen Kies DeGrand, Donohue Brown Mathewson & Smyth LLC Attorneys for Defendant Ford Motor Co.

          DEFENDANT FORD MOTOR COMPANY'S MOTION (WITH SUPPORTING MEMORANDUM) FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW

          Hon. Virginia M. Kendall Judge.

         Defendant Ford Motor Company moves for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). Plaintiff has been fully heard at trial and the jury does not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for Plaintiff. Specifically, (1) Plaintiff failed to present legally sufficient evidence supporting his request for punitive damages; (2) Plaintiff failed to present legally sufficient evidence that he is entitled to lost-wages damages; (3) Plaintiff failed to present legally sufficient evidence of emotional-distress damages; and (4) Plaintiff failed to present legally sufficient evidence that Ford terminated him because he filed a workers' compensation claim.

         RELEVANT FACTS

         Plaintiff James Baptist has been fully heard at trial, and the evidence-construed in his favor-shows the following.[1] Baptist was hired as an entry-level forklift operator at Ford's Chicago Assembly Plant, and began work on February 27, 2012. The terms of his employment were governed by a Collective Bargaining Agreement between Ford and the United Auto Workers. One of those terms provided that an employee with fewer than six months could be terminated if he or she was absent without leave for three straight days.

         On April 10, 2012, while Baptist was driving his forklift at the plant, he clipped a pillar with a crate he was carrying with the forklift. Baptist testified at trial that there was no damage to the forklift, and maybe a scratch or two on the pillar. He was steering the forklift with his left hand open and flat, with the steering wheel's knob under his palm, not wrapped around the steering wheel. But he says that his hand got caught up in the wheel and was injured. Baptist testified that his hand did feel sore, but he was more shaken up than anything. Baptist did not immediately report the injury, and instead kept working, driving the forklift for another 45 minutes until the end of his shift.

         Baptist claims that he reported the injury to his supervisor by text message and went to the medical department at the plant, but there was no doctor or medical personnel present. He did not submit a formal accident report until April 18, which triggered a review by Ford's workers' compensation administrator, Jennifer Nawracaj.

         On April 24, Baptist went to his personal orthopedic surgeon, Dr. William Heller, who noted evidence of a ligament tear in Baptist's left wrist. Dr. Heller issued Baptist a wrist brace and concluded that Baptist could “continue to perform his regular work duties within the brace.” For the next two months, Baptist operated the forklift without incident while wearing his wrist brace.

         On June 24, Baptist left work early, supposedly to seek additional medical attention for his wrist. He did not actually see Dr. Heller until two days later, on June 26. Dr. Heller recommended surgery but cleared Baptist to return to work. In a form letter faxed to Ford on June 29, Dr. Heller checked boxes indicating that Baptist could “return to work with the following restrictions as of 7-2-12”: “no lifting over 5 lbs with left hand or gripping.” Dr. Heller did not check boxes for the restrictions “one handed work, R L, ” “sedentary work only, ” or “temporarily totally disabled.” Baptist, however, did not return to work. On July 23, nearly a month later, Ford suspended Baptist for a month for excessive absenteeism. When his suspension ended on August 24, Baptist reported to the plant. The plant physician, Dr. Patricia Lewis, cleared Baptist to resume his forklift position. She concluded on July 5 that Dr. Heller's five-pound lifting-or-gripping restriction would not prevent Baptist from operating a forklift. Ford informed Baptist that it did not have another work assignment for him and instructed him to return to his forklift position.

         Baptist refused and walked out of the plant. He never returned to work at his forklift position. At the time Baptist walked off, he had not worked a day at Ford since June 24, two months earlier. After Baptist was absent without leave for three more days, he was terminated. A labor representative at Ford, Quandra Speights, processed Baptist's discharge effective August 31, 2012, as a “Three-Day Quit” pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Ms. Speights relied only on Baptist's attendance records in making the decision to terminate his employment. The UAW did not file a grievance concerning Baptist's termination.

         Between his last day of work on June 24 and his termination on August 31, Baptist never provided Ford with a medical opinion that he was physically unable to operate a forklift or had any work restrictions other than a five-pound lifting-and-gripping limitation. Baptist knew not later than July 9 of Dr. Lewis's conclusion that Dr. Heller's work restrictions of June 29 did not interfere with Baptist's ability to operate the forklift. Baptist did not see Dr. Heller after June 26. Dr. Heller never issued any different or additional work restrictions after June 29.

         RULE 50(A) STANDARDS

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a)(1) provides:

(a) Judgment as a Matter of Law.
(1) In General. If a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue, the court may:
(A) resolve the issue against the party; and
(B) grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law against the party on a claim or defense that, under the controlling law, can be maintained or defeated only with ...

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