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O'Dell v. Citgo Petroleum Corporation

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

October 7, 2019

PATRICK O'DELL, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Patrick O'Dell suffered an injury while working for Defendant Citgo Petroleum Corporation (“Citgo”), for which he filed a workers' compensation claim. After an extended absence, Citgo terminated O'Dell's employment pursuant to a loss of seniority provision in the collective bargaining agreement. O'Dell filed this suit against Citgo, alleging a common law claim that Citgo wrongfully terminated him in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. Citgo now moves for summary judgment. Although the Court does not find that § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”), 29 U.S.C. § 185, preempts O'Dell's retaliatory discharge claim, the Court nonetheless finds summary judgment appropriate for Citgo because the evidence would not allow a reasonable jury to conclude that Citgo terminated O'Dell because he filed a workers' compensation claim.


         I. O'Dell's Employment with Citgo

         Citgo, a refiner, transporter, and marketer of transportation fuels, lubricants, petrochemicals, and other products, operates a refinery in Lemont, Illinois. O'Dell began working at Citgo's Lemont refinery on January 10, 2005. On April 1, 2013, Citgo promoted O'Dell to an Operations Technician A position on the Number One Cat Reformer. In this position, O'Dell engaged in physically intense and safety sensitive work to apply heat and pressure to crude oil. Citgo classifies this position as having heavy physical demands and requiring frequent walking, standing, pushing, pulling, and lifting or carrying of objects between fifty and 100 pounds. Operations Technicians must validate the required level of competence to perform their work. This validation requires Operations Technicians to demonstrate understanding of the position and duties and may include a physical component. Operations Technicians also have to complete a series of computer-based training programs called PRISM every year.

         II. Policies Applicable to O'Dell's Employment

         Citgo has a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) with Lemont Local No. 7-517 of the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union (the “Union”), which governed O'Dell's employment.[2] In Article IV, Section 7, titled “Loss of Seniority, ” the CBA provides:

Plant seniority will be broken and lost in the following cases: . . .
D. Any absence from work for more than eighteen (18) consecutive months. Time missed while on Family Medical Leave, Funeral Leave, and Jury Duty will not be counted toward the eighteen (18) month period.

Doc. 65-3 at 10; Doc. 65-4 at 10. The Loss of Seniority provision does not specify whether a return to work on transitional duty-also known as restricted, modified, or light duty-amounts to an absence or does not get counted in the eighteen-month period. Additionally, in Article IX, Section 10, the CBA provides that Citgo may suspend, discharge, or otherwise discipline employees only for just cause.

         The CBA includes a mandatory grievance and arbitration process for “differences . . . as to the meaning and application of the provisions of” the CBA. Doc. 65-4 at 22. The CBA outlines the steps in the grievance process as follows: (1) discussing the grievance with the employee's supervisor and, if not settled, reducing the grievance to writing; (2) having the grievance reviewed and potentially settled by the workmen's committee and the department head; (3) if not settled, appealing the decision of the department head to the Lemont refinery's vice president; and (4) referring any grievance not satisfactorily resolved under Step Three to arbitration. To the extent the grievance procedure resulted in a finding that Citgo unjustly discharged an employee, Citgo agreed to reinstate that employee without loss of seniority and with reimbursement for lost compensation.

         Citgo has a transitional duty assignments policy intended to “assist employees whose recovery from injuries and/or illnesses may be enhanced by an early return to a working environment.” Doc. 65-1 at 2. It provides for transitional duty subject to the determination of the employee's treating physician, Citgo's health services department, and the employee's supervisor and the “availability of safe, meaningful, and productive job duties (as determined by management) that are within the limits of the medical recommendations.” Id. In order to qualify for transitional duty, the employee must have a temporary disability, reflected in a medical assessment that “indicate[s] a strong probability that [the employee] will be fully recovered and be able to perform the full scope of his/her regular work assignment, without restrictions, in the near future.” Transitional duty could last up to six months, with an initial transitional duty assignment lasting up to four weeks, and subsequent evaluations of the continued propriety of transitional duty occurring every one to four weeks thereafter.

         III. O'Dell's Injury, Treatment, and Work Restrictions

         On March 3, 2014, O'Dell claims to have injured his right shoulder while moving a steam hose at work. Michael Siron, a Citgo area manager and to whom O'Dell reported the accident, had some concerns that the accident, as O'Dell described it, could not have caused O'Dell's shoulder injury. O'Dell began a leave of absence on March 4, without a return to work date established. He filed a workers' compensation claim on March 19, 2014. ESIS, an independent third party that administers Citgo's workers' compensation claims, handled O'Dell's claim. The parties reached a settlement to pay O'Dell's claim, with O'Dell and ESIS executing a ...

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