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Cooper v. Beelman Truck Co.

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

January 3, 2020

MARK COOPER, Plaintiff,
v.
BEELMAN TRUCK CO., Defendant.

          OPINION

          RICHARD MILLS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Plaintiff alleges the Defendant interfered with his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. Pending are motions for summary judgment filed by both parties.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         (A)

         Plaintiff Mark Cooper was employed by Defendant Beelman Truck Co. from March 2014 through October 5, 2016. Beelman is a Delaware corporation that does business in Illinois providing dry bulk commodity transportation services (i.e., commercial trucking) with facilities throughout the Midwest. Cooper worked out of Beelman's Springfield, Illinois location. In 2015, approximately 90 employees worked for Beelman out of Springfield. After January 1, 2016 through Cooper's termination, Beelman employed approximately 78 drivers in Springfield.

         At the start of his employment, Cooper was given a copy of Beelman's Employee Handbook, which included the company's written policies regarding sick leave, FMLA leave, call-out procedures and progressive discipline. Cooper signed to indicate he had read and understood the handbook. Beelman has a poster describing the FMLA in the break room of its Springfield facility.

         Mick Butler has worked for Beelman from 2011 through the present. Throughout his employment with Beelman, Butler has held the position of Terminal Manager at the Springfield location. Butler hired Cooper and was Cooper's direct supervisor during his employment. Cooper did not have any other boss or supervisor in Springfield. Throughout 2015 and 2016, Cooper worked approximately 50 hours per week.

         Cooper alleges he suffered a herniated disc approximately 15 years before joining Beelman and continued to have flare-ups of acute back pain intermittently over the years. The flare-ups would occur suddenly and unpredictably. Beelman disputes Cooper's assertion and claims no objective medical evidence supports it. The records show mild degenerative disc disease at the L5-S1 level.

         On February 17, 2015, Cooper reinjured his back while at work. Cooper reported that he had increased pain when leaning forward and his pain increased when he was driving his truck at work due to bouncing that would occur. At the emergency room, Cooper was diagnosed as having low back pain and back muscle spasms. He was prescribed Flexeril, Ibuprofen and home exercises. On February 19, 2015, the doctor wrote a note stating: “Please stay home from work tomorrow to rest back.” Cooper was discharged from the hospital on February 19, 2015.

         Cooper was absent from work due to his back injury from February 23 through February 26, 2015 and was treated for his back pain. Beelman disputes that Butler knew Cooper had injured his back in February of 2015, except that he was aware Cooper had those days off and said it was because of his back. Cooper returned to work without pain or restrictions.

         Cooper testified he aggravated his back in May of 2016. He did not report the injury to Beelman and did not seek medical treatment. Cooper testified that he called Mick Butler and told him he was going to take a few days off because his back was hurting from shoveling ash. Cooper did not report any specific incident to Beelman's safety department. He testified that he did not feel like it was that bad.

         Cooper did not work from September 4, 2016 through September 6, 2016, in order to have a colonoscopy. He returned to work on September 7, 2016. On that same day, Cooper was hauling a load of pumpkins from Southern Illinois to Morton, Illinois. Cooper alleges that, during the drive, he drove his truck over bumpy roads, which resulted in him experiencing back pain that evening. Beelman disputes the allegation on the basis that Mick Butler asked if he had injured his back and Cooper responded, “not that he was aware of.”

         On the morning of September 8, 2016, Cooper called Butler to inform him that his back was bothering him and he would not be coming to work. Cooper did not tell Butler how long he would be out. Butler informed Cooper that he needed to bring a doctor's excuse stating he could come to work without any restrictions in order to return to work. Beelman contends the notice Cooper provided that he was not coming into work did not comply with Beelman's call-in procedures. Cooper disputes the allegation, alleging the record fails to establish what time he called off work on September 8, 2016, or what time he was scheduled to work that day.

         The same day, Cooper went to the Memorial Hospital Emergency Room due to what he says was severe back pain. Beelman claims that the records do not support his assertion that he went for “severe back pain.” The hospital records state:

The patient presents with back pain and had severe back pain 20 years ago that resolved after steroid injections. He had severe back pain 2 years ago that also resolved. The back pain started yesterday while driving a semi truck over bumpy country roads. Feels similar, no new injury.

         The doctor reported the following “Impression: low back pain.” Cooper was discharged to home with his condition improved.

         Cooper was given prescriptions for medications which included hydrocodone-acetaminophen, hydromorphone and Flexeril, which he was instructed to take from September 8, 2016 through September 11, 2016. He was also prescribed prednisone which he was instructed to take from September 8, 2016 through September 15, 2016. Cooper was also prescribed an injection of Dilaudid. The prescription orders given to Cooper for the hydrocodone-acetaminophen stated, “DO NOT OPERATE MACHINERY OR DRIVE.”

         Cooper took the medications as prescribed. When discharged, Cooper was instructed to follow up with a physician if his symptoms continued or worsened. On September 12, 2016, Cooper saw his physician, Dr. Akshra Verma, at SIU School of Medicine as a follow up to his hospital visit and for further treatment of his back pain. Cooper claims that he had continued to experience back pain since his visit to the emergency room despite taking his prescribed medications. Dr. Verma diagnosed the Plaintiff as having lumbar back pain.

         Cooper alleges that, from September 8, 2016 through September 14, 2016, his back pain made it nearly impossible for him to drive. He struggled to get out of bed without help, had trouble bending over and had difficulty getting dressed. Beelman disputes these allegations and claims that Cooper merely told Butler his back was bothering him. Moreover, the medical records do not reflect or support this statement.

         Dr. Verma prescribed Flexeril and Norco to take for his back pain as needed. Cooper took the medications as prescribed. He was still taking the prednisone that was prescribed at the emergency room. Dr. Verma also gave Cooper a note stating only that he could return to full duties at work as of September 15, 2016. Beelman claims the letter lacks details and neither supports the contention that Cooper had a serious medical condition nor does it provide notice to Beelman that implicated the FMLA. The letter does not state the reason why Cooper should be off work, the date his problems began and what treatment, if any, Cooper was provided.

         Cooper gave Butler his doctor's note. Butler did not ask Cooper for any additional information. Cooper returned to work on September 15, 2016. He did not experience any additional back flare-ups between September 15, 2016 and October 5, 2016.

         On September 28, 2016 Cooper's dispatcher, Pat Sadler, asked for volunteers to work over the weekend of October 1-2, 2016. Cooper said he could not work because he would be out of town.

         Cooper was absent from work on October 3 and 4, 2016, because he had the flu. On October 3, 2016, Cooper emailed Sadler at 9:11 a.m. to inform her he would not make it in because he was sick. Sadler responded by telling Cooper to come back with a doctor's note before returning to work. Cooper replied, “im not spending money to go to the doctors. i just got some medicine from the store.” Cooper refused to provide a doctor's note.

         On October 4, 2016, Cooper did not inform Sadler that he would not be at work due to illness. If Cooper contacted Butler to tell him he was not coming in on October 4, 2016, he would have given this notice around 7:00 a.m. During this ...


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