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Fralick v. Biaggi's Inc.

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

December 20, 2017

v. CASEY FRALICK, Plaintiff, BIAGGI'S INC., an Illinois corporation, BIAGGI'S RISTORANTE ITALIANO L.L.C., an Illinois Limited Liability Company Defendants.

          ORDER & OPINION

          JOE BILLY McDADE United States Senior District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Defendants, Biaggi's Inc. and Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano L.L.C. (collectively referred to as “Biaggi's”). The motion has been fully briefed and is ready for decision. For the reasons stated below, Biaggi's' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 42) is DENIED.

         Undisputed Material Facts[1]

         Plaintiff Casey Fralick is a former server at Biaggi's in Peoria, Illinois. Biaggi's hired Fralick as a server on or about June 27, 2012. During his employment at Biaggi's, Fralick had a reputation for dishonesty, creating drama, being manipulative, spreading rumors and not being able to stay out of anyone's business. But by the accounts of Biaggi's managers and other employees, Fralick was one of the best servers. Managing Partner of Biaggi's in Peoria, Nathan Lane, had provided two very favorable letters of recommendation for Fralick, once in 2013 and once in February 2015. The 2013 and 2015 letters were identical in content.

         On March 7, 2013, Plaintiff was arrested for a DUI and missed one shift because he was in jail. Fralick also took a few days off because he had a wrist and/or arm injury from the DUI accident. At the time of his DUI, Fralick was not FMLA eligible.

         At some point in time, another Biaggi's employee, Misty Noll, [2] complained to Lane that Fralick and another employee were spreading false rumors about her, though Fralick contends that he did not start or spread any rumors about Noll. Lane counseled Fralick and the other employee about Noll's allegations and, since Noll was no longer employed by Biaggi's, told them to “just leave her alone.” Nathan Lane Dep. 173:7-10. Later on, Fralick had an incident involving another fellow server, Janelle Payne, who complained to Lane that Fralick was “too hard” on her. Casey Fralick Dep. #1 45:3-10. Lane counseled Fralick “about office gossip and creating issues with other employees, ” and told Fralick “to come to work with a smile and leave it all at the door.” Id. at 44:21-24, 45:14-18. On a third occasion, Lane had to counsel Fralick about his attitude. Fralick was stirring up drama, complaining about how servers were being cut from their shifts. On a fourth occasion, Lane again counseled Fralick about office gossip when Fralick accused Payne of not completing her work.

         On March 9, 2015, Fralick attempted to contact Biaggi's Manager, Adam Crichton, to ask if he could have the day off. Chef Partner Mike Shinall answered the phone, and Fralick told him to tell Crichton that he wanted the day off. Fralick was released from his shift that day. Later that same day, Fralick was admitted to the hospital for attempting suicide by taking prescription medication. Fralick was assessed to have an unspecified type of depression disorder. Fralick was released from all his shifts at Biaggi's from March 11 through March 15, 2015.

         On March 13, 2015, Fralick was released from the hospital without any work restrictions and was prepared to return to work. Fralick testified that he did not believe he was absent from work while hospitalized because his shifts were released. Fralick Dep. #1 77:7-12, 111:4-10; Fralick Dep. #2 53:3-7. Managers Lane and Crichton both concur with Fralick's testimony in this regard. Fralick immediately tried to get back on the schedule but was advised by Crichton that he first needed to speak with Lane. That same day, Fralick texted Lane, asking for a time when Plaintiff could speak with Lane about returning to work. Lane responded “I am in at 2 tomorrow[, March 14, 2015], off Sunday.” Fralick responded, “Ok I will be in tomorrow thanks.” Pl.'s Exh. 3.

         On March 14, Lane waited for Fralick to arrive, but Fralick never contacted him or showed up.[3] Fralick contacted Lane on Monday morning (March 16). Lane told Fralick that he was not working that day but would be working Tuesday March 17 and could meet with Fralick then. Fralick advised Lane that he could not come in until after the St. Patrick's Day parade because he was riding on a float. Lane told Clay Baxter, his supervisor, that Fralick was a no call/no show on March 14 and had scheduled a meeting with him on March 17.

         Fralick was suspected to have been involved in spreading a rumor about Biaggi's bartender Amanda Asslup-Morrow (“Morrow”) and Shinall being involved in a sexual relationship. Both Morrow and Shinall were upset about the rumor, and Morrow approached Lane about it. Baxter and Biaggi's Human Resources Director, David Morris, instructed Lane to investigate. Lane testified that, prior to meeting with Fralick on March 17, 2015, he did not know if he was going to terminate Fralick's employment, but he “had a strong suspicion that Plaintiff was heavily involved in the rumors . . . . [And, ] was worried about him and his pattern of . . . poor behavior and choices.” Lane Dep. 77:1-3, 78:6-9. Fralick denies spreading the Morrow/Shinall rumor.

         When Fralick arrived at Biaggi's on March 17, Lane spoke with Fralick alone. Lane first asked Fralick how he was doing to make sure he was doing okay. Fralick told Lane he was okay and ready to get back to work. Lane asked about Fralick's hospitalization. The parties dispute exactly what transpired during the first part of the March 17 meeting. Lane contends that he asked Fralick what happened, to which Fralick responded that “he took a pocket full of drugs and ended up in the hospital.” Lane Dep. 105:2-4, 160:22-23. Fralick provides a very different account. Fralick contends that Lane was asking him how he was “after what had happened” and that Lane said “if you ever need a place, you know, everyone here loves you, you can crash on my couch if you want to, ” and that Fralick was “family to everybody” at Biaggis. Fralick Dep. #2 77:22-78:6. Fralick contends that he and Lane discussed Fralick's well-being for a long part of the meeting. Id. at 78:6-7.

         Lane also asked what happened on March 14, to which Fralick responded that when he arrived at Biaggi's during the afternoon of March 14, he saw that the parking lot was busy and decided not to go in the restaurant. Fralick Dep. #1156:4-16. Fralick's phone died, so he went to the bar next door, Kouri's, and used someone's phone to call Lane, but he was put on hold and never connected with Lane. Fralick told Lane that he did not try to go inside Biaggi's that day because he was “[n]ot ready to be around that many people all at once” after his hospitalization. Id. at 157:24-158:1-20.

         Lane next asked Fralick about the Shinall/Morrow rumor, but Fralick denied involvement in spreading or starting the rumor. Lane believed Fralick was lying to him about the March 14 meeting and about his knowledge of the Morrow/Shinall rumor because witnesses said they heard it from Fralick. Lane Dep. 105:16-106:3. Lane told Fralick that he had been in contact with the corporate office and they concurred with Lane that it was in Biaggi's best interest to part ways with Fralick. Lane terminated Fralick's employment effective March 17, 2015.

         During the March 17 meeting, Fralick and Lane did not discuss the FMLA or whether his hospitalization was covered by the FMLA “because [Fralick] released his shifts” and Lane did not ask for a doctor's note because he “didn't need to” because “[Fralick] was ready to return to work.” Lane Dep. 160:11-15, 162:14-163:3. Fralick never filed any paperwork or raised the question of FMLA at any time with anyone at Biaggi's before or after his termination. Fralick knew that Biaggi's had granted other employees FMLA leave.

         When firing an employee, Biaggi's has an Employee Termination Form that is completed by the person terminating the employee. Def. Exh. B, Dep. Exh. 4. The form contains a list of potential reasons for terminating an employee including violation of company policy, insubordination, negligence, alcohol/drug violations, incompetence, and “other.” Id. There is a corresponding check mark line to the left of each potential reason. The form also contains a “Notes” section. On Fralick's termination document, Lane only checked the box next to “Absenteeism/Tardiness.” Id. In the “Notes” section, Lane only identified “absenteeism” as the reason for Fralick's termination. Id. The parties dispute which “absent” day(s) factored into Lane's decision. Lane testified that “absenteeism” as marked on the termination form was in relation to the March 14 meeting. Lane claims he only put one reason for termination in the paperwork because the computer system only permits one reason, not multiple. Lane Dep. 93:17-94:5. Fralick testified that Lane told him he was terminated for different absences: (1) the time he missed during his DUI in 2013; and (2) the time he missed while hospitalized for his suicide attempt. Fralick Dep. #2 76:1-77:15.

         In its Employee Handbook (the “Handbook”), Biaggi's lists the type of “Conduct Which May Result in Disciplinary Action or Termination.” Def. Exh. A, Dep. Exh. 8 at 11. Employees are informed that their employment may be terminated for “excessive absenteeism or tardiness without a valid excuse.” Id. The Handbook also provides that “[t]he attitude with which you approach your work and co-workers at Biaggi's is probably the single most important aspect of your employment.” Id. at 6. Fralick's personnel file did not contain any documentation indicating that he had been counseled or disciplined while employed at Biaggi's. Furthermore, the Handbook contains a Family and Medical Leave policy. Under the policy, “[e]mployees who meet the eligibility requirement may take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave per 12 month period” for certain approved reasons, including a “serious health condition.” Id. at 5.

         On January 12, 2016, Fralick filed the instant lawsuit wherein he alleges that “[p]rior to, during, and subsequent to, . . . [his] hospitalization, Biaggi's failed to provide and denied Plaintiff any and all benefits Plaintiff was entitled to receive pursuant to [the] FMLA” and “maliciously, wrongfully, and willfully refused to grant Plaintiff any and all benefits he was entitled to receive pursuant to the FMLA.” Pl.'s Compl. ¶¶77, 118. Fralick claims ...

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