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Miller v. Northwest Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, Eighth Circuit

August 19, 2013

Idonna Jean Miller, Plaintiff,
v.
Northwest Airlines, Inc.; Delta Air Lines, Inc., as Successor in Interest; Kathleen A. Swanson; Pamela M. Hegstrom; Chris E. Talbert; and Francelle L. Slocum, Defendants.

Idonna Jean Miller, 4259 Amber Court, Eagan, MN 55122, pro se Plaintiff.

Gregory J. Stenmoe and Britt M. Gilbertson, Briggs and Morgan, P.A., 2200 IDS Center, 80 South 8th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402, for Defendants.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

ARTHUR J. BOYLAN, Chief Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court, United States Chief Magistrate Judge Arthur J. Boylan, on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 95.) The matter has been referred to the magistrate judge for report and recommendation to the district court under 28 U.S.C. § 636 and Local Rule 72.1(b). A hearing was held on the motion on April 10, 2013 at the U.S. Courthouse, 300 South Fourth Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Plaintiff appeared pro se. Britt Gilbertson and Gregory Stenmoe appeared on behalf of Defendants.

Plaintiff asserts claims of interference and retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). For the reasons discussed below, the Court recommends that Defendants' motion for summary judgment be granted.

BACKGROUND

I. THE PARTIES

Plaintiff Idonna Miller is a former employee of Defendant Northwest Airlines, Inc. ("Northwest").[1] Miller commenced employment with Northwest on February 23, 1987, when she was hired as an Intermediate Revenue Clerk. (Docket No. 98, Affidavit of Britt M. Gilbertson, Ex. 7.[2]) During the relevant period, Miller held the position of Cargo Customer Service Representative. (Ex. 1, Deposition of Idonna Jean Miller ("Miller Dep.") 77.) On July 24, 2008, Northwest terminated Miller's employment. (Ex. 44.)

As a Cargo Customer Service Representative, Miller worked in Northwest's Cargo Call Center and was responsible for taking and responding to phone calls from Cargo customers relating to shipping and tracking freight. (Miller Dep. 77, 79-80.) During the relevant period, Miller's supervisors were Defendants Pamela Hegstrom and Chris Talbert, who were assistant managers in the Cargo Call Center. (Ex. 2, Deposition of Pamela Hegstrom ("Hegstrom Dep.") 8; Ex. 3, Deposition of Chris Talbert ("Talbert Dep.") 10.) Hegstrom and Talbert reported to Defendant Kathleen Swanson, who was the manager of the Cargo Call Center. (Ex. 5, Deposition of Kathleen Swanson ("Swanson Dep.") 8-9.) Defendant Francelle Slocum was a human resources manager who worked with the Cargo department. (Ex. 6, Deposition of Francelle Slocum ("Slocum Dep.") 7-8.)

II. MILLER'S REQUESTS FOR FMLA LEAVE

During her employment at Northwest, Miller requested and received leave pursuant to the FMLA on numerous occasions. Between 2004 and 2008, Northwest approved at least eight requests for FMLA leave from Miller. ( See Exs. 10-12.) Several of these requests were related to chronic neck and back muscle strain dating from a September 1996 injury and were supported by medical certifications completed by Dr. Ronald Bateman. ( See id. at Ex. 10.)

On October 25, 2007, Miller suffered an injury to her leg. ( See Compl. ¶ 21.) She requested FMLA leave for time off associated with the leg injury, which request was assigned "Case No. 511" by Northwest. ( Id. ) On November 6, 2007, Chris Talbert informed Miller that her request for FMLA leave was denied and gave her the "Family Medical Leave (FML) Response" form denying her request on the basis of "medical certification was not adequate and/or does not support that the requested leave is FML-qualifying." ( Id. ) When Miller questioned the denial, Talbert informed her that the request had been denied because Miller had not been absent for three days. ( Id. )

On April 29, 2008, Miller submitted a request for FMLA leave for chronic neck and back pain relating to the 1996 injury and supported by a medical certification completed by Dr. Bateman, similar to multiple previous requests by Miller. ( See Exs. 20-21.) Northwest assigned Miller's request "Case No. 602." (Ex. 20.) The medical certification provided for Miller's absence up to 20 hours per week due to inability to work. (Ex. 21.) While most of Dr. Bateman's previous medical certifications listed the probable duration of Miller's serious health condition as either six months or one year, Case No. 602 listed the probable duration as "permanent/indefinite." ( See Exs. 10-11, 21.)[3] The probable duration of Miller's present inability to work was listed as "periodic." ( Id. )

Northwest's Director of Labor Relations, Michael Cvengros, reviewed Miller's Case No. 602 request and believed Dr. Bateman's FMLA certification form providing for Miller's 20 hours per week intermittent leave was conflicting with a statement by him that she could work full time. (Ex. 22.) Northwest decided to seek a second opinion regarding Miller's need for FMLA leave for chronic neck and back pain and on May 2, 2008, Talbert informed Miller that her request for FMLA leave was under review and a determination would be made pending receipt of additional medical information from an outside health care provider. ( See Ex. 23.) Northwest's FMLA policy provides that "[w]here the Company has reason to doubt the validity of the information provided on a medical certification, the Company may require that the employee...take part in a second opinion at the Company's expense. The Company is permitted to designate the health care provider to furnish a second opinion." (Ex. 9.) Miller was scheduled for an independent medical examination with Dr. Brad Helms on May 22, 2008. (Ex. 24.) While Miller's Case No. 602 was under review, Northwest granted another request by Miller for FMLA leave, relating to ACL reconstruction, on June 25, 2008. ( See Ex. 12.)

Northwest received Dr. Helms' report on Miller's independent medical examination on July 2, 2008. (Exs. 30, 31.) Dr. Helms found no objective findings to correlate with Miller's subjective complaints of back and neck pain and noted that Miller's multiple previous medical providers had also found no objective findings on examination. (Ex. 30.) Dr. Helms noted only mild subjective complaints and concluded that Miller's 1996 injury had healed and resolved. ( Id. ) Dr. Helms found that no additional treatment of any kind was medically necessary and concluded that "further passive care or treatment by Dr. Bateman is not indicated, medically reasonable or appropriate, and within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, not adequately supported by medical records." ( Id. ) Dr. Helms found that Miller had no physical limitations or restrictions on work duties or normal activities of daily living and that the only medication necessary or indicated would be the occasional use of Tylenol. ( Id. )

After Northwest received the medical report from Dr. Helms, it decided to deny Miller's Case No. 602 request for FMLA leave. ( See Exs. 32-33.) FMLA decisions at Northwest were made by Family Medical Leave ("FML") Specialists in the FML Department. (Talbert Dep. 160-61; Slocum Dep. 9.) Northwest's FML Specialist Hazel Taylor initially drafted a letter for Talbert's signature informing Miller that Case No. 602 was denied. (Swanson Dep. 227-228; Ex. 32.) Talbert requested revisions to the draft letter, which had contained a description of Dr. Helms' medical findings that Talbert did not understand. (Talbert Dep. 168-69; Ex. 32.) Talbert's supervisor Swanson circulated a revised letter, which Taylor approved. (Ex. 33.) Managers and assistant managers like Talbert and Swanson played an administrative role in Northwest's FMLA request claim processing, such as providing employees with certification paperwork when the employee requests FMLA leave and communicating leave decisions to employees, but played no role in approving or denying the requests for leave like Miller's. (Talbert Dep. 12-16, 160-61; Swanson Dep. 78-80, 222-223; Hegstrom Dep. 22; Slocum Dep. 9.) Swanson gave Miller the revised letter on July 3, 2008, which advised Miller:

Based on the information provided by Dr. Bradley Helms, MD., your request for Family Medical Leave has been denied. It is Dr. Helms' findings you do not have any physical limitations or restrictions on work duties or normal activities of daily living, and that no further treatment is warranted.
Your FML request has been denied due to the following reason:
1. The information provided by the Health Care Provider does not support leave due to a Serious Health Condition.

(Ex. 34.)

Northwest did not seek a third medical opinion regarding Miller's Case No. 602 request. (Miller Dep. 107.) Northwest's FMLA policy provides that [w]here the opinions of the employee's...health care provider and the Company's designated health care provider differ, the Company may require a third medical opinion, again at the Company's expense. A third health care provider, if required by the Company will be approved jointly by the Company and the employee...and the opinion of this health care provider will be considered final and binding." (Ex. 9; see also Slocum Dep. 12.)

III. EVENTS RELATING TO MILLER'S STAMP BUSINESS

Apart from her work at Northwest, Miller also worked as an independent demonstrator for a business called Stampin' Up, a home-based business in which independent demonstrators sell rubber stamps, paper products, and other materials used in creating homemade greeting cards and scrapbooks. (Miller Dep. 45-47; Ex. 18.)

In April 2007, Miller informed her supervisor Hegstrom that she needed to leave early to take intermittent FMLA leave, then logged off the Northwest system but stayed at her computer and printed order forms for Stampin' Up. (Ex. 15.) Hegstrom told Miller that if Miller needed to leave for purposes relating to the FMLA, she should do so, but that she should not be conducting outside work. ( Id. )

Miller's supervisor Talbert also observed Miller's work with Stampin' Up. Miller's work for Stampin' Up came to Talbert's attention when Talbert observed Stampin' Up posters displayed in Miller's cubicle. (Talbert Dep. 97.) Talbert also observed Miller using company printers to print materials relating to Stampin' Up. ( Id. at 150-51.) At the time Talbert became aware of Miller's work for Stampin' Up, Talbert informed Miller of Northwest's policies that may be implicated by her involvement with ...


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