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Platts v. Kelly Services, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Central Division

May 26, 2015



MARK W. BENNETT, District Judge.


A. Factual Background

Despite the parties' lengthy statements of facts, I find that the facts sufficient to put in context plaintiff Michael Platts's claims and the parties' arguments concerning summary judgment can be set forth rather briefly. Specific factual disputes that are or may be dispositive will be addressed in my legal analysis, below.

The parties agree that, in 1989, well before Platts's employment with defendant Kelly Services, Inc., Platts suffered a back injury. That injury required two surgeries, involving a fusion with internal fixation and implantation of a TENS unit to assist with back pain. Platts has been receiving Social Security disability benefits since 2009, because of his back problems. In 2009, Platts was diagnosed and treated for colon cancer, but that cancer is now in remission. Platts began having heart problems in 2011 and was diagnosed with a cardiomyopathy, for which he has a pacemaker. For purposes of summary judgment, defendants Kelly Services, Inc., (Kelly) and Kraft Foods Group, Inc., (Kraft) do not dispute that, at all relevant times, Platts was "disabled" within the meaning of the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA), IOWA CODE CH. 216.

Platts completed an application for employment with Kelly on January 26, 2012, and was hired shortly thereafter. The Employment Agreement at the end of the Kelly Services Employment Application, signed by Platts, includes, inter alia, the following provisions:

General Information
* * *
My employment term with Kelly is not guaranteed and is considered to be "at will." Kelly or I may end the relationship at any time with or without cause subject to applicable laws.
* * *
Employment Relationship
I understand I am not an employee of any customer to which Kelly assigns me, regardless of any customer statement, conduct, or belief. I will not be eligible to participate in or to receive benefits from any customer's benefits plans or policies. I waive and reject all rights to receive, apply for, or participate in any customer's benefits plans or policies.
* * *
Notice of Assignment End
Upon completion of each assignment, I will notify Kelly of my availability for work. I understand I am responsible for maintaining weekly contact with Kelly and failure to do so will indicate I have either voluntarily quit or am not actively seeking work. Failure to contact Kelly may affect my eligibility for unemployment benefits.

Defendants' Appendix (docket no. 26-4), 31 (Employment Application and Employment Agreement); see also Defendants' Appendix at 16 (Platts's Deposition, 76:11-25, 78:7-15).

Platts was assigned to work at Kraft, a customer of Kelly, as a part-time temporary employee working 18 hours (three 6-hour shifts) per week, which was under the hours permitted while he received Social Security disability benefits. The parties do not dispute that positions at Kraft in which Kelly placed workers were the best paid positions available. Platts acknowledged in his deposition that he understood that he was a Kelly employee and that he was never a Kraft employee. Id. at 16 (Platts's Deposition at 77:3-9). Nevertheless, he now contends that whether or not he was an employee of Kraft is a legal conclusion and that he was employed by both Kelly and Kraft.

Platts missed time from work in January and June 2013. On both occasions, the return-to-work documentation from his doctors that he provided did not indicate any restrictions. Although Platts did not have any specific work restrictions, Platts admits that Kelly accommodated his schedule for physical therapy, permitted him to be absent from work owing to issues with either his back or his heart, and allowed him to avoid working next to the baler machine because its magnets could impact the functioning of his pacemaker.

Platts alleges that, at an employee meeting, in the spring of 2013, a Kelly supervisor, Heather Wubben, announced that employees would have to be able to do all of the jobs in the Kraft plant or be terminated and that Kraft had so informed the Kelly representatives at the facility. The defendants assert, based on the testimony of Brad Jones, the Kelly operations manager at the Kraft facility, that what was actually required was that employees be trained on all of the lines at the Kraft facility, so that the lines that were operational on any given day could be staffed with trained workers. Platts also alleges that Wubben said that Kelly would no longer employ people in "light duty" positions and would no longer make "allowances" for Platts. Again, the defendants point to testimony of Jones that employees who were not trained on all lines at the Kraft facility would be placed on the "Lunchables lines, " the least strenuous positions at the Kraft facility. Platts alleges that, when he spoke up at the meeting to explain that he had a bad back and could not work around magnets, Wubben told him, "[T]hen you won't be here long." He also alleges that, when he told Wubben he was "disabled, " she said that would not make any difference. The defendants point out that, even if the statements attributed to Wubben were made, those statements were not true, and they are undermined by the fact that Platts was given "allowances" through August of 2013. There is no evidence that Wubben was actually involved in any decisions regarding Platts's employment.

Platts was forced to stop working at Kraft in August of 2013, owing to a flare-up of his heart condition. When Platts was ready to return to work in October of 2013, he provided two notes from his doctors. One note, from his heart doctor, indicated that Platts could return to work on October 22, 2013, but should avoid extreme heat, if possible, and if working with machines with magnets, "keep track in case device check shows noise, so we know what it could be from." Id. at 24 (Mason City Clinic, P.C., Certificate Of Return To Work Or School). Platts testified that his heart doctor knew that he only worked a total of 18 hours per week and that his heart doctor would not have released him to work more than 20 hours per week, but the heart doctor did not include any hours restrictions in his note. Id. at 12 (Platts's Deposition at 55:20-56:23). The other note, from Platts's family doctor, stated that Platts's work activity was restricted to "light duty." Defendants' Appendix at 26 (MC MFC Regency, Note from Dr. Garcia). Platts testified that this restriction was because of his back problems, not because of his heart, see id. at 6, 13 (Platts's Deposition at 27:25-28:4, 57:5-58:23), but the doctor's note does not indicate the reason for the restriction or the nature or extent of any specific "light duty" limitations. That doctor's note also does not include any restrictions on standing, walking, lifting, or bending. Nevertheless, Platts contends that he did have a bending restriction, in that he was supposed to bend with his back straight, not lift more than his knees and back could handle, and not engage in repetitive bending. Platts testified that the "light duty" restriction did not preclude him from doing anything that he had done before, "[b]ecause when I was hired they told me it was all light duty, which it was." Id. at 20 (Platts's Deposition at 95:13-16).

It was at this point, however, that something went amiss in the relationship between Platts and Kelly. In October 2013, Marcie Porterfield, who was the "recruiter" with Kelly responsible for interviewing and hiring applicants and managing and counseling temporary employees, met with Platts and reviewed his return-to-work documents. Platts asserts that Porterfield saw the "light duty" restriction and told him that there were no "light duty" positions at the Kraft facility. He points out that, in contrast, Porterfield later testified that "Kraft is very light duty, I mean light duty, light industrial, " Plaintiff's Appendix (docket no. 27-3), 38 (Porterfield's Deposition, 57:22-23), and that the "light industrial" jobs at Kraft in which Kelly had placed its employees were "as light as you can get." Id. at 39 (Porterfield's Deposition at 66:17-20). When Porterfield was asked why she had not asked Platts or his doctor for more information about Platts's "light duty" limitations, Porterfield responded,

Because he was doing that position prior and then the doctor put him on light duty. He was performing every position just fine. I mean we didn't have any issues. With his disability he was performing it without an accommodation. When he came back he had restrictions, so I-I felt that he could not perform that position because the doctor put him on light duty. And so I didn't go through each position like that. [Platts] [ha]s worked all those positions. He knows what they are.

Defendants' Appendix at 44 (Porterfield's Deposition at 28:4-15).

Porterfield did offer Platts a position on one of the "Lunchables lines, " which the parties agree were the least strenuous line jobs on the 7 to 10 lines in operation at Kraft at the time. The "Lunchables lines" were the lines to which Kelly assigned workers, including disabled workers, who could not rotate through all the positions on the other lines. Platts turned down that position, however, because he understood that it required standing in one position for the entire 6-hour shift, which he told Porterfield that he could not do or that he would have difficulty doing. The parties now agree, however, that, as a safety measure, the "Lunchables lines, " like the other lines at the Kraft facility, required "rotation" among positions, some of which required more movement than others, every two hours, with two 10-minute breaks per shift. Thus, the "Lunchables lines" did not require standing in one place for 6 hours. Instead of taking a position on a "Lunchables line, " Platts asked to be put on the "Hamba line, " where he had worked before with only the restriction from working near the baler machine. Platts told Porterfield that he could still rotate through all of the other positions on that line in the course of a shift. Platts contends that Porterfield told him that if he could not work a "Lunchables line, " then he was "done, " because there was no job that he could perform at Kraft.

Platts admits that, after he was advised that he could no longer work at the Kraft facility in October 2013, he knew that he could still apply for other jobs with Kelly and that Porterfield never told him that he was terminated from Kelly. He also admits that, since that time, he has never contacted the Kelly office looking for other employment. He has, however, applied for employment elsewhere.

B. Procedural Background

Platts filed a Petition At Law in the Iowa District Court for Cerro Gordo County on April 8, 2014, initiating this lawsuit against Kelly and Kraft.[1] In his Petition, Platts alleges that the defendants discriminated against him because of his disabilities in violation of IOWA CODE § 216.6, culminating in the termination of his employment. Petition At Law (refiled in federal court as docket no. 3), ¶ 19. He also alleges that the defendants terminated his employment because they regarded him as too disabled to work in violation of IOWA CODE § 216.6, and in violation of the public policy of the State of Iowa, which prohibits such unfounded stereotypes of disabled citizens. Id. at ¶ 20. Kraft removed this action to this federal court, with the consent and joinder of Kelly, on the basis of diversity of citizenship. See Notice Of Removal To Federal Court (docket no. 2). The defendants then filed separate Answers, Kelly's on May 14, 2014 (docket no. 6), and Kraft's on May 27, 2014 (docket no. 12). A jury trial in this matter is currently set to begin on September 28, 2015. See Order Setting Trial (docket no. 21).

The defendants filed their Motion For Summary Judgment (docket no. 26), now before me, on April 6, 2015. Platts filed his Brief In Opposition To Summary Judgment (docket no. 27), with supporting materials, on April 30, 2015. The defendants filed their Reply (docket no. 29) on May 11, 2015. On May 6, 2015, the defendants filed their Motion To Strike Plaintiff's Entry On Errata Sheet Dated March 25, 2015 (docket no. 28), which is also now before me, challenging a "correction" by Platts to his February 16, 2015, deposition testimony. Platts filed a Response To Motion To Strike (docket no. 30) on May 14, 2015.

None of the parties requested oral arguments on either of the pending motions in the manner required by applicable local rules. My crowded schedule does not allow for the timely scheduling of any such oral arguments, and I find that the parties' written submissions are sufficient to resolve the motions. Therefore, I ...

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