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Olinger v. Renville County Hospital & Clinics

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

November 12, 2019

Douglas C. Olinger, Plaintiff,
v.
Renville County Hospital & Clinics; and Nathan Blad, individually and in his capacity as CEO of Renville County Hospital & Clinics, Defendants.

          Markus C. Yira, Yira Law Office, Ltd, Hutchinson, MN; and Julie W. Hanjani, Law Office of Julie Wacker Hanjani, Hutchinson, MN for Plaintiff Douglas C. Olinger.

          Patrick J. Larkin and Michael T. Burke, Lind Jensen Sullivan & Peterson, PA, Minneapolis, MN for Defendants Renville County Hospital & Clinics and Nathan Blad.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Eric C. Tostrud United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Douglas Olinger alleges that Defendants Renville County Hospital & Clinics and its CEO, Nathan Blad, violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) by downgrading the duties of his position after he returned from an FMLA leave and by later terminating his employment for exercising his right to FMLA leave. Olinger also alleges that these same adverse actions violated Minnesota's Whistleblower Act because they occurred in retaliation for his exercise of reporting rights protected under the Act. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on all of Olinger's claims, and that motion will be granted. Olinger's FMLA entitlement claim based on the alleged downgrading of his position fails because, as a matter of law, the duties of his position when he returned from FMLA leave were not sufficiently different from the duties of the position before his leave. Even if there were a legally sufficient difference, Defendants have shown that the changes to Olinger's duties would have occurred regardless of his FMLA leave. Olinger's FMLA discrimination claim based on his termination does not survive because Olinger has not identified evidence from which a juror reasonably could infer a causal connection between his exercise of FMLA rights and his termination. Olinger's claim under Minnesota's Whistleblower Act fails because he did not report a violation of the law-i.e., he never blew the whistle-as the Act requires.

         I[1]

         Olinger began working for Renville County Hospital & Clinics (the “Hospital”) in November 2000. Burke Decl., Ex. 1 (“Olinger Dep.”) at 19 [ECF No. 38-1]; Compl. ¶ 9 [ECF No. 1]. He was employed initially as a maintenance engineer. Olinger Dep. at 31. From the day he started until about October 2007, Olinger reported to the Hospital's maintenance director, David Lofgren. Id. at 31-33. Lofgren retired at that time, and Olinger applied unsuccessfully for the director of maintenance position. Id. at 32-33. Olinger continued working as a maintenance engineer for several years, and in April 2014-with encouragement from the Hospital-Olinger accepted the position of housekeeping and laundry supervisor. Id. at 33-34. As the housekeeping and laundry supervisor, Olinger oversaw the staff of the housekeeping and laundry departments and reported to the Hospital's CFO. Burke Decl., Ex. 2 (“Position Description”) at 1. Olinger's duties in this position included supervising staff and performing housekeeping work. See generally Id. at 1-2. Olinger spent about fifty percent of his time on “office” or supervisory work and about fifty percent on the “floor” personally performing housekeeping duties. Olinger Dep. at 46-47.

         Olinger requested and was granted FMLA leave on multiple occasions during his employment with the Hospital. In May 2014, shortly after beginning work as the housekeeping and laundry supervisor, Olinger requested and was granted FMLA leave to care for his son in connection with a surgery. Id. at 38. Olinger returned from this leave the following month, in June. Id. Olinger requested and was granted a second FMLA leave to care for his son beginning August 21, 2014. Id. at 39. He returned from this leave in mid-September. Id. at 39-40. At some point during October through December 2014, Olinger took a third FMLA leave to care for his son. Id. at 41-42. Olinger identifies no complaints with any of these three FMLA leaves. He acknowledges that these leave requests were approved with no issues and that he encountered no problems on his return to work from any of these leaves. Id. at 38-42.

         Olinger twice applied for open maintenance engineer positions during 2015, but he was not successful on either occasion. In May 2015, Olinger applied and interviewed for the position, but another individual named Bruce Jacques was hired. Id. at 49-50; 73. Jacques subsequently was promoted to environmental services director. Id. at 73-74. His promotion created the second open maintenance engineer position for which Olinger applied; Olinger was scheduled to be interviewed for the position in September 2015. Id. at 74-75. Concerns with the Hospital's hiring process for these positions prompted Olinger to contact then-Renville County Administrator Sara Folstad prior to this interview. Id. at 77-91. Olinger asked Folstad what could be done “about the hiring process about - - if they were going to hire - - if they didn't hire the most qualified person.” Id. at 86. Folstad told Olinger that he should follow the Hospital's grievance policy. Id. Olinger asked what he could do if he didn't “feel comfortable or if at this time I'm not sure if that's capable of going through that chain, ” and Folstad repeated that Olinger should follow the Hospital's grievance policy. Id. Olinger asked Folstad to keep their conversation confidential and said “if [he] thought something changed or it didn't look like it was above board, [he] would then follow up with her.” Id. Olinger “never did have to call back and talk to her after that.” Id. Olinger subsequently was interviewed for the open maintenance engineer position, but another individual was hired. Id. at 74-75.

         Olinger requested and was granted a fourth FMLA leave from September 29, 2015 until mid-February 2016 to undergo treatment for a neck condition. Id. at 51-54. Two events following Olinger's return from this leave form the basis for his FMLA claims in this case. First, Olinger says that after he returned from this leave the duties of his position shifted away from being supervisory and that he “just became a floor worker.” Id. at 54. Second, Olinger's employment was terminated on April 4, 2016. Burke Decl., Ex. 8. In a letter, the Hospital explained that Olinger was “being laid off from [his] position as Housekeeping Manager effective immediately.” Id., Ex. 7. The letter cited efficiencies gained from the Hospital's construction of and move to a “new building and anticipated future cuts in reimbursements” as justifications for the layoff and described that the layoff was “indefinite in duration and should be considered permanent.” Id.

         II

         Summary judgment is warranted “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 over a fact is “material” only if its resolution might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute over a fact is “genuine” only if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. “The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Id. at 255.

         A

         1

         Olinger alleges that Defendants engaged in acts prohibited by the FMLA, and 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a) provides ...


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