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Stranghoner v. Gates Corp.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 10, 2019

JOHN STRANGHONER, Plaintiff,
v.
GATES CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Kathryn H. Vratil, Judge.

         John Stranghoner brings suit against his former employer, Gates Corporation, for retaliatory discharge and wrongful termination of a whistleblower in violation of public policy under Kansas law. This matter is before the Court on Defendant Gates Corporation's Motion For Summary Judgment (Doc. #42) filed September 4, 2018 and Plaintiff's Response To The Court's February 25, 2019 Show Cause Order (Doc. #50) filed March 4, 2019. For reasons stated below, the Court overrules defendant's motion for summary judgment.

         Legal Standards

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986); Vitkus v. Beatrice Co., 11 F.3d 1535, 1538-39 (10th Cir. 1993). A factual dispute is “material” only if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248. A “genuine” factual dispute requires more than a mere scintilla of evidence. Id. at 252.

         The moving party bears the initial burden of showing the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Hicks v. City of Watonga, 942 F.2d 737, 743 (10th Cir. 1991). Once the moving party meets its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate that genuine issues remain for trial as to those dispositive matters for which it carries the burden of proof. Applied Genetics Int'l, Inc. v. First Affiliated Sec., Inc., 912 F.2d 1238, 1241 (10th Cir. 1990); see Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986); Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991). The nonmoving party may not rest on its pleadings but must set forth specific facts. Applied Genetics, 912 F.2d at 1241.

         The Court views the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Deepwater Invs., Ltd. v. Jackson Hole Ski Corp., 938 F.2d 1105, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991). It may grant summary judgment if the nonmoving party's evidence is merely colorable or is not significantly probative. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249-50. In response to a motion for summary judgment, a party cannot rely on ignorance of facts, on speculation or on suspicion, and may not escape summary judgment in the mere hope that something will turn up at trial. Conaway v. Smith, 853 F.2d 789, 794 (10th Cir. 1988). Essentially, the inquiry is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 251-52.

         Facts

         The following facts are uncontroverted, deemed admitted or, where controverted, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the nonmovant.

         Defendant is an industrial manufacturer. From 1994 through March of 2017, defendant employed plaintiff as a braider in its plant in Iola, Kansas. In this role, plaintiff operated machinery which manufactures rubber hoses reinforced by internal braiding. Memorandum In Support Of Defendant Gates Corporation's Motion For Summary Judgment (Doc. #43) filed September 4, 2018 at 3. During the relevant period, defendant employed Teri Porter as human resources manager, Jamey Fulton as a team lead, Scott Strycker as plant manager, Kevin Shinn as plant operations manager, Kate Grover as health and safety manager, and Jay Stogsdill, George Taylor and Ronald Jacobs as supervisors.

         I. Plaintiff's Workplace Injuries

         A. Defendant's Injury Reporting Policies

         Defendant has several policies which require employees to immediately report workplace injuries to their supervisors or team leads. Defendant's employee handbook requires that employees “[r]eport all injuries, no matter how slight, to management as soon as possible” and states that claims must be filed promptly. The employee handbook further warns that “[f]ailure to follow Company procedures may affect [the employee's] ability to receive Workers Compensation benefits.” Defendant's Code of Business Conduct requires employees to report incidents, injuries or unsafe working conditions or physically or emotionally abusive situations. Defendant's Life Safety Rules also require employees to immediately report injuries to their supervisors or team leads.

         In December of 2012 and January of 2015, employees - including plaintiff - received written reminders of these policies. The policy reminders detailed defendant's internal procedures for responding to workplace injuries, including notifying the safety team, preparing investigative reports, photographing incident sites and locking out, taking offline or taking out of service any machines involved. Defendant advised employees that failing to report an incident could result in defendant's workers' compensation insurer denying the claim and refusing to cover medical costs.

         B. Plaintiff's Workers' Compensation Claims

         In 2015 and 2016, plaintiff reported three workplace injuries - numbness in two fingers on his left hand, a shoulder injury and a knee injury.

         1. Finger Numbness And Workers' Compensation Claim Dated November 12, 2015

         On or about October 1, 2015, plaintiff began experiencing numbness in two fingers on his left hand. On or about November 12, 2015, nearly a month and a half after the injury occurred, plaintiff reported the finger numbness to defendant. On January 13, 2016, before he had seen a doctor, plaintiff received notice that Gallagher Bassett, defendant's third-party claims administrator, had denied workers' compensation benefits for this injury. The record reflects that Gallagher Bassett denied the claim because he did not immediately report the injury and failed to include in his report a specific event which occurred at work. See Exhibit 14 to Plaintiff's Memorandum In Opposition To Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment (Doc. #46) filed October 9, 2018.

         2. Shoulder Injury And Workers' Compensation Claim Dated January 18, 2016

         On or about January 18, 2016, plaintiff sustained and immediately reported a shoulder injury. See Deposition Of John Stranghoner at 154-155, Exhibit A to Memorandum In Support Of Summary Judgment (Doc. #43). Gallagher Bassett denied plaintiff workers' compensation benefits for his shoulder injury. Plaintiff does not recall receiving information regarding why Gallagher Bassett denied this claim. Deposition of John Stranghoner at 160, Exhibit 1 to Plaintiff's Response To The Court's February 25, 2019 Show Cause Order (Doc. #50) filed March 4, 2019.

         On January 29, 2016, defendant sent plaintiff to a doctor who provided the following work restrictions regarding his shoulder: a 20-pound weight limit and no over-shoulder lifting. Work Release, Exhibit 15 to Memorandum In Opposition To Summary Judgment (Doc. #46). This work restriction did not have an expiration date. Id.

         3. Knee Injury And Workers' Compensation Claim Dated May 4, 2016

         On or about April 26, 2016, plaintiff injured his knee while working. He reported the injury on or about May 4, 2016. Although he waited nearly a week after the injury occurred, plaintiff reported it immediately after he realized that it was not just a strain or sprain. That same day, defendant provided plaintiff an accommodation - a “Joe's Mule” - designed to help him move heavy reels while his knee was recovering. Plaintiff refused to use the Joe's Mule because it did not help with his assigned tasks. Defendant also scheduled a doctor's appointment for plaintiff for May 17, 2016 and gave him the option to either work or go home during the period before the appointment. Plaintiff attempted to work but aggravated his knee injury. Plaintiff also sought out medical treatment on his own.

         On May 17, 2016, defendant's doctor concluded that plaintiff's knee injury was work-related, and he received workers' compensation benefits for it. Plaintiff asserts that despite the doctor's conclusion, defendant did not believe his knee injury was work-related. For example, on May 17, 2016, defendant's Health Safety and Environment Regional Manager directed an email to a subordinate which stated: “Conduct your investigation and build a case as why you don't think [the knee injury] is work related. Just because we are accepting it as WC doesn't mean we have to accept it as recordable.”[1] Pretrial Order (Doc. #41) filed August 20, 2018 at 6.

         On or about June 13, 2016, plaintiff had knee surgery. Thereafter, defendant placed him on light duty and required him to do his work while seated. During this time, plaintiff remained on light duty for his shoulder injury as well. Memorandum In Opposition To Summary Judgment (Doc. #46) at 30.

         C. Plaintiff's Work Restrictions

         As noted, plaintiff received work restrictions for his shoulder and knee injuries, as well as for an injury to his left arm.[2] Specifically, between January of 2016 and February of 2017, he received the following restrictions:

Date

Nature

Dates of Restriction

Condition

1/20/2016

Rest shoulder for two weeks

Two weeks

Rt. shoulder

1/26/2016

No lifting over shoulder

To tolerance

Rt. shoulder

1/29/2016

20 lb. limit - No lifting over shoulder

No date

Rt. shoulder

5/17/2016

No kneeling, squatting, twisting, climbing ladders & 30 lb. limit

Date of surgery to first post-op

Lt. knee

5/17/2016

Sit down job only

May return to work

Lt. knee

6/13/2016

Weight bearing as tolerated

6 weeks

Lt. knee

6/24/2016

No kneeling, squatting, no excessive bending or twisting. No prolonged standing or walking. No pushing, pulling or lifting over 25 lbs. No stairs.

6 weeks

Lt. knee

8/9/2016

No kneeling, squatting, no excessive bending or twisting. No pushing over 30 lbs. May sit down every two hours during work day.

6 weeks

Lt. knee

8/30/2016

No kneeling, squatting, no excessive bending or twisting. May sit down every two hours during work day.

No date

Lt. knee

11/28/2016

No lifting over 15 lbs, no pushing, pulling or vibratory power tools.

Until next appt.

Lt. arm

12/14/2016

No lifting over 15 lbs, no pushing, pulling or vibratory power tools.

Until next appt.

Lt. arm

12/20/2016

Surgery scheduled 1/19/17. May return to work on 1/21/2017 with no lifting over 5lbs., pushing, pulling, or vibratory power tools.

No date

Lt. arm

2/1/2017

Keep him on his 15 lb. lifting restriction with no pushing, pulling or vibratory tools.

4 weeks

Lt. arm

         Plaintiff's Responses To Gates Corporation's First Set Of Interrogatories To Plaintiff at 8-9, Exhibit 10 to Memorandum In Opposition To Summary Judgment (Doc. #46). On March 16, 2017, a doctor released plaintiff from his left arm work restrictions. The doctor's note stated that plaintiff's work status was “full duties, ” but did not mention any other injuries or restrictions or whether plaintiff was released from them. Work Release, Exhibit 24 to Memorandum In Opposition To Summary Judgment (Doc. #46).

         D. Disagreement Over Work Restrictions

         On more than one occasion, plaintiff and defendant disagreed over whether a task violated his injury-related restrictions. Plaintiff states that defendant assigned him tasks which pushed the limits or potentially violated the limits of his work restrictions. Plaintiff further asserts that when he complained that an assigned duty aggravated his injuries, defendant would threaten him with write-ups or send him home.

         For example, on August 9, 2016, plaintiff presented the following work restrictions: “No kneeling, squatting, no excessive bending or twisting. No. pushing over 30 lbs. May sit down every two hours during the work day.” George Taylor, a supervisor, saw plaintiff standing and insisted that he stay seated for two hours without standing. The restrictions, however, did not mandate that plaintiff stay seated but merely permitted him to sit down every two hours if necessary. Defendant asserts that regardless of whether plaintiff was required to stay seated, it had directed him to perform a seated task and he had violated his supervisor's instruction by standing.

         On August 15, 2016, plaintiff met with Porter, the human resources manager, and Stogsdill, a supervisor, to discuss his refusal to perform a light duty task which he believed violated his work restrictions. Plaintiff asserts that the task required him to twist his knee and aggravated his injury. Stogsdill told plaintiff that it was possible to perform the task without twisting and that it did not violate plaintiff's restrictions. Plaintiff, however, claimed that the activity could not be completed without twisting his knee. Defendant then recorded a video of plaintiff performing the task and sent it to plaintiff's doctor to determine whether the task violated his restrictions. The doctor determined that nothing in the video violated the restrictions. Plaintiff nevertheless maintained that the task required him to twist his knee.

         The next day, August 16, 2016, plaintiff informed defendant that his assigned task was hurting his knee. In response, defendant threatened to send plaintiff home or write him up. Defendant ultimately did send him home that day and told him to come back the next day if he could do the job that caused his knee to hurt.

         Plaintiff also asserts that despite his work restriction which prohibited above-the-shoulder lifting, defendant assigned him to a task which typically requires lifting above the shoulder. Rather than assigning him to another task, defendant sent Fulton, a team lead, to show him a technique for maneuvering the machinery which would not require above-the-shoulder lifting. This technique, however, still hurt plaintiff's shoulder.

         II. Timecard And Attendance Disputes

         A. Defendant's Attendance And Leave Policies

         Defendant requires all employees to maintain an attendance rate of 98.5%. An employee whose attendance falls below this rate can face disciplinary action, ranging from a required attendance commitment to termination of employment. In December of 2012 and January of 2015, plaintiff received written reminders of defendant's attendance policy.

         In addition, when an employee files a workers' compensation claim, defendant requires the employee to either take personal time, vacation time, sick leave, leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C.§ 2611 et seq. or short-term disability leave prior to the time he or she receives approval of the workers' compensation claim. Aetna, defendant's third-party administrator, approves requests for sick leave, leaves of absence, FMLA leave or short-term disability leave, but does not approve missed time that workers' compensation benefits cover. In other words, for defendant to excuse an injured employee's absences prior to approval of his or her workers' compensation benefits, the employee must either use his or her own vacation or personal time or contact Aetna. An employee's failure to submit the appropriate documentation to Aetna results in unexcused absences which count against his or her mandatory attendance rate.

         On January 28, 2016, plaintiff received defendant's Employee Leave of Absence Packet and acknowledged that he was responsible for contacting Aetna regarding leave.

         B. Plaintiff's FMLA And Short-Term Disability Claims With Aetna

         Porter submitted claims for FMLA and short-term disability on plaintiff's behalf. In a letter dated January 27, 2017, she informed him that Aetna had not approved some of plaintiff's pending claims because he had failed to submit the required medical documentation. Specifically, Porter's letter stated as follows:

Your attendance is at 88.3% which falls below the Gates attendance goal of 98.5%.
The following claims have not been approved by Aetna.
Claim #13678819 2016 May 12, 16-19, 25 June 2, 13-16 & 20-23 Invalid Supporting Documentation. HR called this claim in for you because you had failed to contact Aetna, to certify your days missed and upcoming absence as it related to your knee. Per Aetna, a Denial Letter was sent to you on June 30, 2016 as they had not received any of the required paperwork or supporting documentation that had been sent to your home address. The supporting documentation must be submitted within 15 days to Aetna.
Claim #14426121 2016 September 29 Absence Sept 27 & 28 & Oct 1- 13 Medical information was not received. Aetna placed auto calls to you on September 29 & October 1 indicating supporting documents were not received. October 6 Aetna called to inform you your claim was suspended as medical information was still needed to process your claim. On October 27, 2016, Aetna sent a Denial letter to you as they had not received information or response from you or your doctor. On November 1, 2016, HR sent a note to you indicating your claim was denied and to contact Aetna to follow up on status. November 10 Aetna sent a letter to your home address that the claim was closed as needed medical information had not been received. The supporting documentation must be submitted within 15 days to Aetna.
Starting in January 2017, you have continued to miss work and utilize additional sick time; missed days are January 12th, 18th & 19th (10 hrs each day) and January 23rd (8 hrs). Aetna has not received any requests or information to certify these days.
It's important you contact Aetna within 15 days (Friday, February 17, 2017) and work with them to complete the above claims and certify any further time missed in a timely manner to avoid attendance disciplinary actions.

Letter To John Stranghoner Dated January 27, 2017 at 1, Exhibit AA to Memorandum In Support Of Summary Judgment (Doc. #43).

         After plaintiff received Porter's letter, he called Aetna to submit the required documentation but it was too late for him to file the requested information and he does not recall whether he submitted any additional documentation. He also asserts that some of the absences noted in Porter's ...


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