United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
DELBERT E. HUDSON, Plaintiff,
TYSON FRESH MEATS, INC., Defendant.
LINDA R. READE, Chief District Judge.
The matter before the court is Defendant Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc.'s ("Tyson") Motion for Summary Judgment ("Motion") (docket no. 12).
II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On October 9, 2012, Plaintiff Delbert E. Hudson filed a one-count Petition ("Complaint") (docket no. 3) in the Iowa District Court for Black Hawk County, Case No. LACV 120148, alleging that Tyson violated his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") by interfering with his exercise of his FMLA rights and by terminating his employment in direct retaliation to him applying for and taking FMLA leave. On November 6, 2012, Tyson removed the action to this court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction. Notice of Removal (docket no. 2). On November 15, 2013, Tyson filed the Motion. On December 16, 2013, Hudson filed a Resistance (docket no. 15). On December 24, 2013, Tyson filed a Reply (docket no. 18). Neither party has requested oral argument and the court finds that oral argument is unnecessary. The Motion is fully submitted and ready for decision.
III. SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION
The court has federal question jurisdiction over Hudson's claim that Tyson violated Hudson's rights under the FMLA. See 28 U.S.C. § 1331 ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.").
IV. SUMMARY JUDGMENT 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). "A dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that it could cause a reasonable jury to return a verdict for either party; a fact is material if its resolution affects the outcome of the case." Amini v. City of Minneapolis, 643 F.3d 1068, 1074 (8th Cir. 2011) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 252 (1986)), cert. denied, 132 S.Ct. 1144 (2012). "[S]elf-serving allegations and denials are insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact." Anuforo v. Comm'r, 614 F.3d 799, 807 (8th Cir. 2010). "To survive a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must substantiate [its] allegations with sufficient probative evidence [that] would permit a finding in [its] favor based on more than mere speculation, conjecture, or fantasy." Barber v. C1 Truck Driver Training, LLC, 656 F.3d 782, 801 (8th Cir. 2011) (second alteration in original) (quoting Putman v. Unity Health Sys., 348 F.3d 732, 733-34 (8th Cir. 2003)) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court must view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and afford it all reasonable inferences. See Schmidt v. Des Moines Pub. Sch., 655 F.3d 811, 819 (8th Cir. 2011).
V. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Hudson and affording him all reasonable inferences, the material facts are these:
Hudson is a resident of Waterloo, Iowa, who began working as a supervisor on the kill floor, or hot side, of Tyson's meat-packing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, in November 2010.
Tyson operates a meat-packing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, and in other locations throughout the state and country.
B. Hudson's Employment at Tyson Prior to the Dispute at Issue
Hudson was a supervisor on the hot side at Tyson from November 1, 2010 to March 20, 2011. On March 20, 2011, Tyson transferred Hudson to a supervisor position on the cut floor, or cold side, of Tyson's Waterloo, Iowa, plant.
While working on the hot side at Tyson, Hudson had sporadic health-related absences. Whenever he requested time off from his supervisor, Hamdija Beganovic, he was given it, provided that he gave appropriate notice. In March 2011, Hudson informed the superintendent of the hot side, Don Brophy, that he did not feel like he was being treated fairly on the hot side and that he was yelled at for things beyond his control. Hudson told Brophy that he would leave if things did not change. Hudson then quit his job on the hot side. Tyson offered Hudson a position on the cold side away from the department manager who Hudson alleges mistreated him, and Hudson began working on the cold side on March 20, 2011. Hudson performed adequately and met the expectations of his employer before the incident that led to his termination.
C. Disciplinary Action and Absences from Work
On December 27, 2011, Tom Hart, a night manager at Tyson's Waterloo plant, disciplined Hudson for not talking to one of his team members about a work injury and for not letting the team member go to the clinic. Hudson was upset and frustrated by this disciplinary action.
On December 28, 2011, Hudson realized that "it would likely be some time before [he] would be able to return to work" because of his "existing state of health." Hudson Affidavit, Hudson App'x at 50. He told his then-girlfriend, Rambo, who worked and continues to work for Tyson, to tell Beganovic the following day that he "may be out for a few days." Hudson Deposition, Tyson App'x at 18. During the relevant period, Hudson did not know whether Rambo conveyed this message to Beganovic. However, the record indicates that Rambo did pass on a message from Hudson to Beganovic indicating that Hudson would either be late or that he would not be in on December 28, 2011. On December 28, 2011, thirty minutes before his shift was scheduled to begin, Hudson also sent a text message to Beganovic indicating that he was having health issues, that he would not be at work for a few days and that he was trying to get in to see a doctor. While employed at Tyson, Hudson frequently communicated with Beganovic by text message, and the text messages went both ways. On at least one occasion prior to December 28, 2011, Hudson sent Beganovic a text message indicating that he would be absent from work, and the text was considered an acceptable notification. However, in May 2011, seven months prior to when Hudson sent the text message that is a subject of this dispute to Beganovic, Hudson signed a form that indicated that "[a]ll Management Team Members are expected to personally call their direct supervisor to report an unplanned absence or to report that they will be late." Attendance Expectations Memo, Tyson App'x at 77.
Hudson did not come to work on December 28, December 29 or December 30, 2011. Apart from the text message he sent to Beganovic on December 28, 2011, and the oral message he told Rambo to give to Beganovic, Hudson did not inform any of his supervisors that he would be absent on those days in any way, including via phone call. Hudson was not scheduled to work on December 31, 2011 or January 1, 2012, and the plant was closed in observance of New Year's day on January 2, 2012.
D. January 2, 2012 Doctor Visit
On December 28, 2011, Hudson attempted to see his doctor, Dr. Matthew Kettman, M.D., but he was unsuccessful in doing so because his doctor's office was closed for the holidays. Hudson was not able to see his doctor until the following Monday, January 2, 2012. In Dr. Kettman's notes, he stated that Hudson was in for a follow up for lower left-sided back pain that radiated down his left leg. Dr. Kettman also noted that Hudson was having weakness and tingling in his left leg, as well as a bulging disc. Prior to seeing Dr. Kettman, Hudson received three back injections that did not help his pain. Hudson reported that his pain was an 8-10 on the 1-10 scale and that it prevented him from sitting or laying down comfortably. Hudson also reported that he had weakness in his arms and that he was starting to have headaches and nausea and decreased appetite and sleep. Dr. Kettman noted that Hudson may be depressed and was unable to work. Additionally, Dr. Kettman reported that Hudson had a kidney nodule. During the appointment, Dr. Kettman performed an EKG-which he told Hudson he was performing to rule out that he was having a heart attack-that returned no abnormalities, and Dr. Kettman also noted that he did not think that Hudson's arm pain was a variation of coronary artery disease.
In summary, Dr. Kettman noted that Hudson's active problems included abdominal pain, backache, calcification of the lungs, kidney mass, depression, fatigue, flank pain, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, muscle aches, peripheral neuropathy, recent weight loss and smoking. Dr. Kettman diagnosed Hudson with back pain, diffuse pain, depression-for which he prescribed medication-lung nodules and bilateral arm pain. Notably, Dr. Kettman did not diagnose Hudson as having had a heart attack nor did Dr. Kettman take Hudson off work for any heart-related conditions between December 28, 2011 and January 12, 2012, the day Tyson terminated Hudson's employment. After his visit, Dr. Kettman signed a work release that stated the following:
Patient Delburt [sic] Hudson has been under my care [from] 12/28/11 to 1/7/12 for illness [and] was unable to work[.]
January 2, 2012 Work Release, Tyson App'x at 32.
E. Hudson's Application for Leave
On January 3, 2012, Hudson returned to Tyson and went directly to health services, where all leave documentation at Tyson is processed. Hudson knew that FMLA leave was available for employees with serious health conditions, and he intended to take FMLA leave. At the time, Hudson had been employed by Tyson for more than twelve months and had worked in excess of 1250 hours in the preceding twelve-month period. Moreover, Hudson had not used any FMLA leave in the previous twelve months. Tyson also employed over fifty employees within seventy-five miles of the work site, making it a covered employer under the FMLA.
When Hudson went to health services, he gave a nurse the work release from Dr. Kettman, but he does not recall discussing with the nurse any of the specifics of his health issues. Hudson also did not tell the nurse whether he was seeking FMLA or non-FMLA leave. The nurse gave Hudson a "Leave of Absence Application." On the application, there were options for different types of leave, including a "Medical (Non FMLA)" box, which had both work related and non-work related options, and an "FMLA" box. Leave of Absence Application, Tyson App'x at 33. Hudson signed and dated the application prior to the application being filled out, but later someone else checked the "Medical (Non FMLA)" box and indicated that Hudson would return to work on January 7, 2012.
After leaving health services, Hudson encountered assistant plant manager Brent McElroy in the building. Prior to speaking with McElroy that day, Hudson had never spoken with McElroy about any of his health conditions. Hudson told McElroy that Dr. Kettman "was taking [him] out of work because [Dr. Kettman] thought that [he] might have had a mild heart attack and was going to put [him] in the hospital to run some test[s]." Answers to Defendant's Interrogatories, Tyson App'x at 2. According to Hudson, McElroy told him to "go see what was going on and get it taken care of." Hudson Deposition, Tyson App'x at 10. McElroy was not involved in processing or approving Hudson's leave application. After speaking with McElroy, Hudson left the plant.
On January 4, 2012, Jim Hook, Tyson's night shift human resources manager, approved Hudson's request for leave. Although there was space on the form for Hudson's supervisor, Beganovic, to approve the leave, Beganovic typically does not sign the forms.
F. Return to Work
Hudson was not scheduled to work on January 7 or January 8, 2012, but he was scheduled to work on January 9, 2012. On the morning of January 9, 2012, Hudson called Dr. Kettman's office and indicated that he did not feel like he could return to work that day because he was still having pain. The ...