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Alton v. Smithgroup, Inc.

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

October 3, 2019

LESLIE ANNE ALTON, as personal representative of Julie Alton, deceased, Plaintiff,
SMITHGROUP, INC., Defendant.


          Sharon Johnson Coleman United States District Court Judge.

         Plaintiff Julie Alton, now deceased, [1] filed this lawsuit alleging violations of the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., against her former employee SmithGroup, Inc. SmithGroup filed the present motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a). For the reasons explained below, the Court denies SmithGroup's motion in its entirety. [25].


         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted. SmithGroup is a nationally-recognized design firm. Alton began working the SmithGroup's Chicago Office as an Interior Designer III in February 2017.

         On May 18, 2018, Alton sent an email to Alina Rudman, the Human Resources Manager in Chicago, requesting intermittent FMLA leave. In that email, Alton also told Rudman that she had questions concerning short-term and long-term disability insurance, which were part of the benefits provided by the SmithGroup Health & Welfare Benefit Plan. That same day, Rudman responded via email explaining that there was a formal process for FMLA leave and provided Alton with two forms that Alton and her physician would need to complete: (1) SmithGroup's Request for Leave and (2) Certification of Health Care Provider for Employee's Serious Health Condition. Three days later, on May 22, Alton sent Rudman the completed SmithGroup leave form indicating that she had a medical need for intermittent FMLA leave. Alton's medical provider sent Rudman the completed Certification of Health Care Provider form on May 29. Alton had stage IV metastatic breast cancer.

         Alton and Rudman met on May 22 to discuss her FMLA request. Rudman testified at her deposition that on that date, it was her understanding that Alton's cancer was a serious health condition under the FMLA making Alton eligible for FMLA leave. Also at the May 22 meeting, Alton asked Rudman for information regarding long-term and short-term disability benefits. That same day, Rudman emailed Ed Dodge, Vice President and Director of Human Resources at SmithGroup, explaining that Alton had a serious health condition, cancer, and that she was applying for FMLA leave because she was starting a new drug protocol. Rudman's email to Dodge also explained that Alton had questions about short-term and long-term disability insurance.

         SmithGroup terminated Alton's employment on June 1, 2018. SmithGroup explains that its leadership made a business decision in April 2018 to implement a reduction-in-force (“RIF”) and that it terminated Alton based on her limited skillset, that Alton had not expanded her skillset, and that the workload that SmithGroup had coming in did not align with her skillset. Alton counters that the Chicago Office Director who approves all terminations, Tim Tracey, testified at his deposition that he did not terminate Alton because of her performance. Alton further counters that the 2018 first quarter forecast, upon which SmithGroup's Chicago leadership relied in making its RIF determination, indicated that there was 5% understaffing and that 3.5 people should be added to the staff. Caroline Lopez, SmithGroup's Director of Operations, testified that she could not recall a situation in which the forecast indicated that there was a need for additional staff, yet the leadership decided that a RIF was necessary.

         SmithGroup also sets forth facts that it decided to terminated Alton's employment in April 2018 before Alton requested FMLA leave. Evidence in the record, however, contradicts this assertion, including evidence that SmithGroup's own forecast identified several individuals as possibilities for the RIF, and, that at some point, SmithGroup narrowed the list to two employees, including Alton.

         Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that 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); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A genuine dispute as to any material fact exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). When determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the Court must view the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Id. at 255; Palmer v. Franz, 928 F.3d 560, 563 (7th Cir. 2019). After “a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the adverse party ‘must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (quotation omitted).


         The FMLA entitles eligible employees to up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave in a year. King v. Ford Motor Co., 872 F.3d 833, 840 (7th Cir. 2017). The Act prohibits employers from interfering with and retaliating against an employee's use or attempted use of FMLA leave. Guzman v. Brown Cty., 884 F.3d 633, 638 (7th Cir. 2018). “The difference between the two theories is that a retaliation claim requires the employee to prove discriminatory or retaliatory intent while an interference claim only requires the employee to prove that the employer denied him entitlements provided by the Act.” Pagel v. TIN Inc., 695 F.3d 622, 626 (7th Cir. 2012). Alton alleges both theories of FMLA liability.

         FMLA Interference Claim

         “To establish FMLA interference, an employee must prove that: (1) she was eligible for the FMLA's protections; (2) her employer was covered by the FMLA; (3) she was entitled to leave under the FMLA; (4) she provided sufficient notice of her intent to take leave; and (5) her employer denied FMLA benefits to which she was entitled.” Riley v. City of Kokomo,909 F.3d 182, 188 (7th Cir. 2018). SmithGroup concedes that Alton has satisfied the first four elements of her FMLA interference claim. The Court thus focuses on the last element-whether a reasonable jury could conclude that Alton's exercise of her right to take FMLA leave was a motivating factor in SmithGroup terminating her employment. Shaffer v. American Med. Ass'n, 662 F.3d 439, 444 (7th Cir. 2011); see also Simpson v. Office of Chief Judge ...

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