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Harris v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division

November 26, 2014



LINDA R. READE, District Judge.


The matter before the court is Defendant CRST Van Expedited, Inc.'s ("CRST") Motion for Summary Judgment ("Motion") (docket no. 15).


On September 27, 2013, Plaintiff Arthur Harris ("Harris") filed a two-count Petition (docket no. 2) in the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Case No. LACV 79505, alleging interference with Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") rights and wrongful discharge in violation of Iowa public policy. On October 30, 2013, CRST removed the action to this court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction. Notice of Removal (docket no. 1). On June 17, 2014, Harris filed an Amended Complaint ("Complaint") (docket no. 10), alleging four claims against CRST: (1) interference with FMLA rights under 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq. (1) (Count I); (2) wrongful discharge in violation of public policy under Iowa common law (Count II); (3) disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") (Count III); and (4) disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act ("ICRA") (Count IV). On June 30, 2014, CRST filed an Answer and gave notice of affirmative defenses (docket no. 11). On September 2, 2014, CRST filed the Motion. On October 1, 2014, Harris filed a Partial Resistance (docket no. 20).[1] On October 13, 2014, CRST filed a Reply (docket no. 26).

In the Partial Resistance, Harris requests oral argument. The court finds that oral argument is unnecessary. The Motion is fully submitted and ready for decision.


The court has federal question jurisdiction over Harris's claim arising under the FMLA, codified in pertinent part at 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1), and the ADA, codified in pertinent part at 42 U.S.C. §§ 12112(a) and 12203(a). 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."). The court has supplemental jurisdiction over Harris's state law wrongful discharge claim and Iowa Civil Rights Act claims because these claims are so related to the federal claims that they "form part of the same case or controversy under Article III of the United States Constitution." 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a) ("[T]he district courts shall have supplemental jurisdiction over all other claims that are so related to claims in the action within such original jurisdiction that they form part of the same case or controversy under Article III of the United States Constitution.").


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).

The moving party bears the "initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record which show a lack of a genuine issue." Hartnagel v. Norman, 953 F.2d 394, 395 (8th Cir. 1992) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). Once the moving party has successfully carried its burden under Rule 56(c), the nonmoving party must "set forth specific facts, by affidavit, deposition, or other evidence, showing a genuine issue for trial." Baum v. Helget Gas Prods., Inc., 440 F.3d 1019, 1022 (8th Cir. 2006). The nonmoving party must offer proof "such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.


Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Harris and affording him all reasonable inferences, the uncontested material facts are as follows:

Plaintiff is a resident of Gilbert, Maricopa County, Arizona. CRST is a domestic for-profit corporation with its principal place of business in Cedar Rapids, Linn County, Iowa.

On February 3, 2011, Harris began working for CRST as an over-the-road truck driver. Prior to beginning work with CRST, Harris received a Medical Examiner's Certificate certifying that he was physically qualified to drive without restriction. Upon hiring, Harris was provided a copy of CRST's Driver Handbook and policies. Harris acknowledged receiving and understanding CRST's policies. CRST maintains a policy regarding family and medical leaves of absence that requires drivers to contact CRST's human resources department regarding leave requests. CRST also maintains a policy prohibiting discrimination based on physical disability. Under the policy, drivers who believe that they have been subjected to discrimination are directed to notify the human resources department. In addition, CRST maintains a home time policy for its drivers, providing that drivers are authorized one day of home time for each week on the road, or a maximum of four days at a time. The policy further provides that any home time longer than four consecutive days may result in the tractor being reassigned. During his employment, Harris's supervisors at CRST had problems with Harris, including excessive home time requests, getting in touch with him while he was on home time and late returns from home time.

On January 18, 2013, Harris visited a doctor for a required Department of Transportation ("DOT") physical. The physician would not certify Harris for driving at that time because his blood pressure was too high. On January 19, 2013, Harris went to the emergency room because his blood pressure was high. The emergency room physician assessed Harris as having pneumonia and hypertension and prescribed hypertension medication and an inhaler. Harris was released from the emergency room that same day and did not have to stay overnight. Harris returned to the doctor for his DOT physical on January 21, 2013, and received his DOT medical certification. Harris continued to work and went back on the road to drive for CRST on January 23, 2013.

On January 29, 2013, Harris's co-driver requested home time due to a family emergency. To accommodate this request, CRST routed Harris and his co-driver to Phoenix, Arizona. Harris was physically able to drive the truck from January 29, 2013 through February 4, 2013, but he elected to wait for his co-driver with the idle truck.

Harris went to the doctor on Monday, February 4, 2013 because he started experiencing chest pains and the back of his eyes were hurting. Before going to the doctor on February 4, 2013, Harris contacted his fleet manager, Joe Anthony, and said he was not feeling well and was going to the doctor. The doctor's notes from Harris's visit provide:

He feels short of breath much of the time. He feels he cannot get enough air. He has to concentrate to take a deep breath.
He went to the emergency room with this at least once. He was given [medication] for blood pressure, doxycycline... and [an] albuterol inhaler. He had high blood pressure, asthma, and pneumonia as diagnoses. He feels hot at times. He feels panicky. He feels like he cannot get enough air. The inhaler does not seem to help him much. He sat a few minutes and his first blood pressure was 130/85. His next blood pressure was 120/80. He will remain on [blood pressure medication] and those meds were renewed.... He does not feel well enough to return to driving. He is feeling anxious. I [prescribed Xanax]. I asked him to come back on Friday for a [follow-up] and to finish a physical.

February 4, 2013 Doctor's Notes, Harris Resistance Appendix ("Harris App'x") (docket no. 20-3) at 39. Harris's doctor provided him with a work excuse on February 4, 2013, stating that the "[p]atient [was] seen [and is] unable to work due to chest problems. He will remain off work indefinitely [and] be seen again for re-evaluation" on Friday, February 8, 2013. Work Excuse, Harris App'x (docket no. 20-3) at 46.

Sometime after the appointment on February 4, 2013, Harris informed Anthony that he was experiencing chest pains, hypertension and pneumonia.[2] During this phone call, Anthony stated that he did not believe Harris and inquired as to when Harris would be able to return to work. Harris informed Anthony that he needed the reasonable accommodation of a few days' medical leave, see Harris's Response to CRST's Statement of Undisputed Facts (docket no. 20-2) ¶ 39, and that he was off work at least until his medical re-evaluation on February 8, 2013, when he would return to work if released that day.

Anthony asked Harris to send a fax of the work excuse obtained from the doctor's appointment. At some point thereafter, Anthony told CRST Operations Manager, Marcus Schneider, that he was expecting to receive a work excuse from Harris. Harris and his then-girlfriend sent a fax to Anthony on February 5, 2013.[3] The cover sheet of the fax read, "attached is a copy of Arthur's doctor note, excusing him from work until his next scheduled appointment on 2/8/2013." February 5, 2013 Fax, Harris App'x (docket no. 20-3) at 44. However, instead of sending a fax of the work excuse, Harris inadvertently sent a fax of his Medical Examiner's Certificate. Harris Deposition, Harris App'x (docket no. 20-3) at 26; February 5, 2013 Fax, Harris App'x (docket no. 20-3) at 44-45. Harris informed Anthony that he had sent the fax after doing so. Anthony received the fax at his work e-mail address on February 5, 2013. The last time Anthony spoke to Harris, Harris "had said that he needed extra time off because of his health." Anthony Deposition, Harris App'x (docket no. 20-3) at 15. No one from CRST ever told Harris that he should fill out an FMLA application or have his doctor complete a certification form.

CRST periodically reassigns or "reseats" trucks to different drivers when they have been idle for too long. Schneider called Harris on February 7, 2013 and left a voicemail message informing him that his truck was being reassigned and that he needed to remove his personal belongings from the truck so that they did not get lost. Schneider, who had authority to terminate employees, did not terminate Harris's employment through this voicemail. After receiving the voicemail on February 7, 2013, Harris returned Schneider's call at about 10:00 a.m. that same date and informed Schneider that he was on medical leave until his medical re-evaluation the next day, February 8, 2013. During this phone call, Schneider told Harris that he had to terminate his employment.

Harris returned to the doctor on February 8, 2013, for his scheduled re-evaluation. Harris's doctor's notes from that visit provide:

In for general physical and has developed a 2-3 day respiratory illness since the last visit. He has found Xanax helpful.... He is remaining on [blood pressure medication] and that should be continued.... He has been off work this week and unable to drive due to his previous illness. He is now unable to drive due to his respiratory illness. He was given a note that he will return to work when he is not contagious and the fever is gone.

February 8, 2013 Doctor's Notes, Harris App'x (docket no. 20-3) at 39. Harris's doctor also prescribed antibiotics at this appointment. Id.

On February 8, 2013, Harris applied for employment as a truck driver with Greco & Sons of Arizona ("Greco & Sons"). Harris noted on his job application that he was still employed by CRST but was available for work that day. Harris was hired by Greco & Sons and underwent a medical examination to obtain his Medical Examiner's Certificate. On the health history portion of his medical examination report, Harris indicated that he did not have high blood pressure or any other medical condition.[4] Harris was issued a medical certification to drive on February 20, 2013.


A. FMLA Entitlement Claim

"The FMLA was enacted in the wake of increasing struggle between work and family life." Hatchett v. Philander Smith Coll., 251 F.3d 670, 676 (8th Cir. 2001). It "provides job security to employees who must miss work because of their own illnesses, to care for family members, or to care for new babies." Stallings v. Hussmann Corp., 447 F.3d 1041, 1050 (8th Cir. 2006) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(A)-(D)). "To help ease the growing tension between work and family, the FMLA establishes a right to unpaid family and medical leave for [eligible] employees...." Hatchett, 251 F.3d at 676. Specifically, "[t]he FMLA provides employees with twelve work-weeks of leave during any twelve-month period if they have a serious health condition that makes them unable to perform the functions of their position." Ballato v. Comcast Corp., 676 F.3d 768, 772 (8th Cir. 2012) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D)).

As a preliminary matter, the court notes that the parties have framed Harris's FMLA claim as an "interference" claim arising under 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1). The Eighth Circuit recently articulated that an interference claim under 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1) may more appropriately be described "as an entitlement' claim-[where] an employee claims the denial of a benefit to which he [or she] is entitled under the statute." Pulczinski v. Trinity Structural Towers, Inc., 691 F.3d 996, 1005 (8th Cir. 2012). The court agrees that Harris's claim arises under § 2615(a)(1), but, as suggested by the Eighth Circuit in Pulczinski, the court will discuss ...

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