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Ransel v. Crst Lincoln Sales, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

March 24, 2014

J. RICHARD RANSEL, Trustee of the Bankruptcy Estate of JOHN KAUFMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CRST LINCOLN SALES, INC., Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

JON E. DEGUILIO, District Judge.

This is an employment action arising out of the termination of John Kaufman's employment as a driver with Defendant CRST Lincoln Sales, Inc., d/b/a CRST Dedicated Services. Now before the Court is Defendant CRST's Motion for Summary Judgment filed on June 10, 2013. [DE 61]. J. Richard Ransel, Trustee of the Bankruptcy Estate of John Kaufman, having been substituted as the plaintiff in this matter [DE 58], filed a response to the motion on July 26, 2013, [67] and Defendant replied on August 16, 2013. [71]. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

I. Factual Background

John Kaufman ("Kaufman") began working with CRST Dedicated Services, Inc., (hereinafter "CRST") driving a semi tractor-trailer on August 26, 2008. [DE 68-6 p. 2; DE 68-10]. Kaufman drove a flat-bed truck out of Burns Harbor, Indiana, and would make multiple stops each day picking up and delivering loads around the Chicago area. [DE 68-1 p. 13]. Kaufman's immediate supervisor and dispatcher was Curtis Bogard, the fleet manager, and Kaufman also reported to Steve Eichler, the terminal and account manager. [DE 68-1 p. 15]. Kaufman had good attendance, was on time for work, and received no write-ups or progressive discipline at CRST. [DE 68-2 pp. 33-34; DE 68-3 p. 18].

On May 20, 2010 Kaufman was involved in an accident while driving southbound on I-294 in Hinsdale, Illinois. [DE 68-5, -6]. The truck in front of him stopped abruptly when another car entered its lane and struck it, causing Kaufman to run into the back of the truck. [ Id. ]. The front of Kaufman's tractor was "smashed up, " and the tractor lost all of its coolant fluid and had to be towed from the scene. [ Id.; DE 68-1 p. 54] The Illinois State Police did not issue Kaufman a citation, but Kaufman called Mr. Eichler shortly after the accident and said that he had been driving at 65 miles per hour in a 55 zone, with his cruise control set, and that he had been following a second and a half behind the truck in front of him, which is less than the seven seconds mandated by CRST policy. [DE 68-1 pp. 69-70; DE 68-2 p. 16; DE 68-3 p. 22].

Kaufman suffered an injury to his back from the accident. Although he did not seek treatment at the time of his accident, he immediately notified CRST of his injury, consistent with CRST's workers' compensation policy that directs drivers to report any injury to its Workers' Compensation Department with 24 hours. [DE 68-1 p. 44; DE 68-4 p. 7]. CRST completed a "First Report of Injury" form documenting Kaufman's involvement in the accident and the injury to his middle and lower back. [DE 68-6]. On May 22, 2010, two days after the accident, Kaufman visited the emergency room at St. Joseph Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a strain or sprain and was prescribed medication. [DE 68-1 p. 45; DE 68-6 p. 2]. CRST's First Report of Injury form contains a notation dated May 22, 2010 that reflects Kaufman's visit to the hospital and his treatment. [DE 68-6 p. 2].

CRST's disciplinary policy states that certain conduct "may result in termination without prior warning, " including a driver's involvement in a "Major DOT preventable accident." [DE 68-4 p. 4]. Mr. Eichler and his boss, Scott Knudsen, generally make the decision whether to terminate drivers at the Burns Harbor location, but CRST's safety department is involved as well when drivers are involved in accidents. [DE 68-2 p. 9]. At the time of Kaufman's accident, CRST's safety director was Randy Kopecky. [ Id. ]. A couple days after the accident, Kaufman spoke in person with Mr. Eichler, who told him, "We'll have you back to work in a couple days. We need to get this log review done, and we'll have you back to work. Your record is impeccable." [DE 68-1 p. 30; 68-2 p. 17].

Only two days later, however, on May 25, 2010, Mr. Eichler called Kaufman to a meeting, and with Mr. Kopecky on speaker phone, informed Kaufman that his employment was being terminated due to his involvement in the accident. [DE 68-1 pp. 32-33; DE 68-2 pp. 28-29]. Mr. Eichler also handed Kaufman a typed letter explaining that CRST's investigation determined that the accident was preventable, and that Kaufman's driving did "not demonstrate the professional driving ability required by CRST." [DE 68-7]. CRST asserts that Mr. Kopecky made the ultimate decision, though Mr. Eichler testified that he and Mr. Knudsen had input into the decision as well. [DE 68-2 pp. 17, 33].

At some point prior to his accident and termination, Kaufman had informed Mr. Eichler that he would need some time off in July 2010 to care for his wife. [DE 68-1 pp. 24-26]. Kaufman's wife suffered from COPD, Crohn's disease, and degenerative disk disease, and was also diagnosed with cancer in 2010. [DE 68-1 p. 10]. Kaufman kept Mr. Eichler up to date on those health issues, and he had previously taken days off of work to care for his wife, without incident or repercussion. [ Id. pp. 21-25]. Kaufman's wife was scheduled to visit the Mayo Clinic in July 2010 for surgery and treatment of her cancer, Crohn's disease and degenerative disk disease. [ Id. pp. 24-26]. Kaufman was unsure exactly how long they would be there, but expected that it would be for at least a week. [ Id. ]. He therefore requested Family Medical Leave Act paperwork from Mr. Eichler, but he did not receive it prior to his discharge. [ Id. pp. 24-26, 69, 73]. Kaufman and his wife were insured through CRST's health insurance plan. [DE 68-1 pp. 40-41]. They therefore lost their insurance coverage when Kaufman was discharged, but they continued to participate in CRST's plan by electing COBRA coverage. [DE 68-1 pp. 60-61].

Kaufman also applied for unemployment benefits following his discharge. He initially applied in Indiana, where he was based out of, but later learned that he needed to apply in Illinois, where CRST paid its unemployment tax. [DE 68-1 p. 58]. CRST contested Kaufman's claim, and the Illinois Department of Employment Security sent Kaufman a letter indicating that CRST had fired him "because he was absent." [DE 68-11]. Kaufman ultimately prevailed and received his unemployment benefits, but suffered financial hardship in the interim. [DE 68-1 pp. 58, 74].

II. Summary Judgment Standard of Review

On summary judgment, the burden is on the moving party to demonstrate 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). That means that the Court must construe all facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, making every legitimate inference and resolving every doubt in its favor. Kerri v. Bd. of Trustees of Purdue Univ., 458 F.3d 620, 628 (7th Cir. 2006). A "material" fact is one identified by the substantive law as affecting the outcome of the suit. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A "genuine issue" exists with respect to any such material fact, and summary judgment is therefore inappropriate, when "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. On the other hand, where a factual record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citing Bank of Ariz. v. Cities Servs. Co., 391 U.S. 253, 289 (1968)).

In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, this Court must construe all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, as well as draw all reasonable and justifiable inferences in its favor. King v. Preferred Technical Grp., 166 F.3d 887, 890 (7th Cir. 1999). Thus, in responding to Defendants' motion for summary judgment, the Court must credit Plaintiff's version of the facts. In so doing, the Court does not vouch for the truth of those facts, but merely uses them to determine whether a genuine issue for trial exists. See Herzog v. Vill. of Winnetka, 309 F.3d 1041, 1044-45 (7th Cir. 2002).

However, the non-moving party cannot simply rest on the allegations or denials contained in its pleadings, but must present sufficient evidence to show the existence of each element of its case on which it will bear the burden at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Robin v. Espo Eng'g Corp., 200 F.3d 1081, 1088 (7th Cir. 2000). Finally, the fact that the parties have cross-filed for summary judgment does not change the standard of review. M.O. v. Ind. Dep't of Educ., 635 F.Supp.2d 847, 850 (N.D. Ind. 2009). Cross-motions ...


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