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Hodnett v. Chardam Gear Company, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

December 28, 2017

TOBY HODNETT, Plaintiff,

          Mona K. Majzoub United States Magistrate Judge



         Plaintiff Toby Hodnett worked as a machinist for Defendant Chardam Gear Company, Inc. (“Chardam”) until he was fired on November 7, 2014. Plaintiff alleges he was on medical leave when he was fired on the basis of injuries he sustained in a car accident the previous August. Plaintiff brought this action against Defendant in the Macomb County Circuit Court on November 6, 2015, and Defendant timely removed it to this Court on February 19, 2016. Plaintiff asserts two claims: one under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a), and one under the Michigan Persons With Disabilities Civil Rights Act (“PWDCRA”), Mich. Comp. Laws § 37.1201 et seq.

         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. The Court heard argument on August 7, 2017. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant Defendant's Motion as to both claims.

         I. Background

         A. Undisputed Facts

         1. Plaintiffs employment with Defendant

         Plaintiff had worked as a machinist for Defendant for nine and a half years when Defendant terminated his employment on November 7, 2014. (ECF No. 18, Def.'s Mot. Ex. 26, March 24, 2016 Deposition of Toby Hodnett (“2016 Hodnett Deposition”)[1] at 29:5-6, 38:10-11; Ex. 15.)

         On August 21, 2014, Plaintiff was involved in a verbal altercation with his superior, plant manager Erik Schmidt. The altercation was memorialized in a document with the heading “Internal Employee Correspondence” that same day by Jennifer Taylor, another employee of Defendant. (Def.'s Mot. Ex. 1.) In that document, Taylor wrote: “8/21/14 . . . Toby was ranting about Erik the plant manager telling him if he couldn't do his job to go home. . . . Toby told me this would probably be the last time I would see him.” (Id.)

         In a deposition conducted on June 27, 2017, [2] in a third lawsuit filed by Plaintiff Hodnett, Schmidt testified that the altercation was over Plaintiff's complaint about having to lift a particular piece of equipment:

We had, I would say, a huge disagreement that day on what Toby should be working on. And, according to him, this part . . . was too heavy for him to pick up. This part weighs four pounds. And that's when, you know, that was kind of final issue that I had, "If you can't handle this, I can't have you here." And at that time, I don't know of any medical restrictions or anything else. But that's all I can say about that.
. . .
He said it had to do something with his shoulder. But, my biggest issue was I wanted him to train someone else how to do this operation. And he was unwilling to even hear of -- hear of it that day. He did not want to work with this other person.
. . .
I told him he needs to go home if he can't, you know, handle [a] four-pound part. We cut metal.

(Schmidt Dep. 12:11-19, 13:14-18, 35:15-18.) Schmidt testified that this altercation was the last time he and Plaintiff spoke. (Schmidt Dep. 35:23-24.)

         2. Plaintiff's car accident (August 21, 2014) and subsequent events

         As Plaintiff was driving after leaving work later that same day, his car was rear-ended by another vehicle. The collision pushed Plaintiff's car into the vehicle in front of it. (Def.'s Mot. Ex. 2 at Pg ID 290-92.) That evening, Plaintiff went to the emergency department of the Henry Ford Health System's hospital in Clinton Township, Michigan. Plaintiff testified that the hospital staff ordered “a CAT scan, I believe an x-ray and . . . some prescriptions for pain pills, ” told him that “nothing was broken, ” and released him after a few hours. (2016 Hodnett Dep. 32:20-33:5.) Plaintiff was also given a note from a physician stating that he had been treated on August 21, 2014, and should be excused from work on August 22. (Def.'s Mot. Ex. 3.)

         Plaintiff notified Defendant on Friday, August 22 that he would not be at work that day or on Saturday, August 23 because of the car accident. (Def.'s Mot. Ex. 4.) Thereafter, Plaintiff was absent from work on Monday, August 25 and Tuesday, August 26. An “Internal [Chardam] Employee Correspondence” dated August 25 lists Plaintiff's name and what appears to be his employee number, and reads “won't be in . . . no ride.” (Def.'s Mot. Ex. 5.) A similar record dated August 26 simply reads “will not be in today” (Def.'s Mot. Ex. 6), and Defendant represents that Plaintiff called in on that date to relay that message (see Def.'s Mot. at 2, Pg ID 261). No reason was provided for that absence. Defendant then asserts that on Friday, August 29, Plaintiff “requested a vacation day for September 2, 2014 (which was the day after Labor Day), ” and supports this assertion with another “Internal Employee Correspondence, ” dated August 29, which contains Plaintiff's name and employee number, and which simply reads “vacation day for 9-2-14.” (Def.'s Mot. at 2, Pg ID 261; Ex. 7.) Unlike the other “Internal Employee Correspondence” documents, this one bears Plaintiff's signature. Plaintiff did not return to work after August 29, 2014.

         3. Plaintiff's purported leave period and termination (September 2014 - November 2014)

         In an affidavit dated June 15, 2017, Plaintiff avers that after his initial treatment at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital, he “kept hoping that [his] neck and back would heal and feel better, but instead the pain continued and worsened.” (Pl.'s Resp. Ex. 1, Affidavit of Toby Hodnett at ¶ 3.) Plaintiff sought continuing treatment at Michigan Spine & Joint Center, PC (“MSJC”), and was treated principally by Dr. Adebowale Adegbenro. (Hodnett Aff. ¶ 9.)

         On October 1, 2014, Plaintiff submitted an application for benefits under an insurance policy that he held with non-party Auto-Owners Insurance Company (“Auto-Owners”). On that application, Plaintiff provided information about the August 21, 2014 accident and the treatment he received at the hospital, characterizing his injury as “Neck (Whiplash) and Arm Pain” and indicating that he expected to receive additional medical treatment for it. (Def.'s Mot. Ex. 10 at Pg ID 309-10.) In the section of the application entitled “wage loss, ” Plaintiff represented that he was not “on the job working” when the accident occurred. (Id. at Pg ID 310.) Plaintiff wrote “8-21-14” in the section called “Date Disability from Work Began, ” and wrote “10-17-14” in the section called “Date Returned or Anticipate Returning to Work.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff successfully applied for lost-wage compensation benefits from Auto-Owners, and in a letter dated October 16, 2014, Auto-Owners notified Plaintiff that in order to continue receiving those benefits past October 17, 2014, he would have to submit a “disability slip from your treating physician . . . [which] should include your current restrictions and the duration of time you will require reimbursement for lost wages.” (Def.'s Mot. Ex. 11.)

         On October 18, 2014, Plaintiff was examined by Dr. Adegbenro at MSJC. Dr. Adegbenro's report regarding that visit stated that Plaintiff “was advised by this office . . . not to report for work” from October 18, 2014 to November 18, 2014. (Def.'s Mot. Ex. 12.) Dr. Adegbenro also indicated in the report that Plaintiff “states he is not [allowed] to work [with] restrictions (i.e. sedentary work/light work).”[3](Id.) Defendant acknowledges that it received Dr. Adegbenro's report on or around October 18, 2014. (See Def.'s Mot. at 12-13, Pg ID 271-72.)

         Five days later, on October 23, 2014, MSJC faxed a form called “Recommended Work Restrictions” to Auto-Owners. (Def.'s Mot. Ex. 13.) On that form, Dr. Adegbenro stated that Plaintiff would require a work restriction of “[n]o lifting over 15-20 lbs.” (Id. at Pg ID 317.) Dr. Adegbenro also wrote that Plaintiff's ability to return to full duty would be determined after his next reevaluation, but that he could return to limited duty as of October 18, 2014 “with restrictions if [this] can be accommoDated: work.” (Id.) Lastly, Dr. Adegbenro reiterated that “[p]atient states he will not be allowed to work with restrictions.” (Id.) Relevantly to this, Plaintiff later testified as follows:

Q. Was there a specific reason [the MSJC treating physicians] might have told you during your visits why you couldn't perform whatever jobs that you had had before?
A. Just that I might reinjure myself.
Q. Was there anything specific about your condition they said prevented you from doing those tasks?
A. I'm not sure, a hundred percent sure.
Q. Did you ever try to return to work and ask for accommodations maybe within a different position at Chardam or any other company where you might have been able to get different responsibilities that wouldn't have been so physically demanding as your job was before?
A. No.

(Def.'s Mot. Ex. 14, February 10, 2017 Deposition of Toby Hodnett (“2017 Hodnett Deposition”)[4] at 61:4-17 (emphasis added).)

         On November 7, 2014, “[h]aving had no contact with Plaintiff since August 29, 2014” (as Defendant contends), Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment via a letter written by company president Mike Brzoska. The body of the letter read as follows:

As of today, November 7, 2014, Chardam Gear Co has terminated your employment.
Please contact Erik Schmidt (Plant Manager) to make arrangements to pick up any personal items and to return any property of Chardam Gear.
Per the policies of Chardam Gear your Insurance benefits will cancel on 11/30/2014. At that time, Basic Cobra Administration will contact you directly with regards to the Cobra program.

(Def.'s Mot. Ex. 15.)

         Plaintiff responded in a letter dated November 13, 2014, but faxed to ...

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