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King v. Ford Motor Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

October 2, 2017

LaWanda King, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Ford Motor Company, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued March 27, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 13 C 7967 - John Z. Lee, Judge.

          Before Bauer and Easterbrook, Circuit Judges, and DeGuilio, District Judge. [*]

          DeGuilio, District Judge.

         LaWanda King worked for many years as an assembler in Ford Motor Company's vehicle assembly plants. After transferring to its Chicago plant in 2010, though, she claims that she was sexually harassed by a supervisor, after which she began getting reassigned to less desirable tasks, missing out on overtime, and receiving unwarranted discipline. Ultimately, she was fired in 2013 after missing several weeks of work for medical reasons that Ford claims she didn't properly document. In this suit, King asserts claims for sexual harassment and FMLA interference, and also asserts that Ford retaliated against her for her complaints of sexual harassment and her taking of FMLA leave. Due to a series of procedural missteps and substantive shortcomings, all of her claims fell at summary judgment. King appeals, and we affirm.

         I. Background

         LaWanda King began working for Ford Motor Company in its vehicle assembly plants in 1992, initially at an Ohio plant. King was a union employee and worked in the Chassis Department as a headlight aimer. The events underlying this suit began after King transferred to Ford's Chicago plant in 2010. King states that, in December 2011, her supervisor made inappropriate, sexually charged comments over a period of several days. King complained to a labor relations representative and also made calls to Ford's national harassment hotline to report the harassment. King asserts that after she began complaining of harassment, she began getting reassigned to different, less-desirable tasks, and was denied overtime opportunities. On March 20, 2012, King filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging among other claims that she had been sexually harassed and retaliated against. The EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter on that charge on August 31, 2012. However, King had moved without advising the EEOC of her change of address, so she did not receive the letter.

         King claims that her employment remained turbulent over the ensuing months. She was disciplined on a number of occasions and claims that she was not paid for certain hours that she worked, though she offers few specific examples of any of these incidents. She was also disciplined in January 2013 for having eight absences over the previous eighteen months, for which Ford's attendance policy called for a two-week suspension. King returned from that suspension in February, but was then diagnosed with a medical condition that required her to take time off work. On March 7, 2013, she called Ford's third-party benefits administrator and requested a medical leave. That call triggered a conditional medical leave, but King was required to submit documentation justifying her need for leave. King's doctor submitted a form describing King's need for leave, but Ford's medical department deemed the form insufficient, as it lacked certain details.

         Because King's conditional leave expired and her doctor's note was found insufficient, King's continued absence from work triggered Ford's 5-Day Quit Process. Under that process, which is set forth in the collective bargaining agreement, a notice is issued to the employee advising that the employee has five working days to either return to work or justify their continued absence. The notice is automatically initiated by Ford's medical records system. Employees who fail to comply with the notice will be fired and lose their seniority.

         A 5-Day Quit notice was issued to King on March 21, 2013, and was mailed the following day. The notice advised King that her continued absence had not been approved, and that she had five working days to report for work or give a satisfactory reason for her continued absence. On April 1-five working days after the notice was mailed-King called several employees in Ford's labor relations department, including Aaron Wynn, a labor relations representative. She did not reach any of those individuals, so she left voicemails, but does not indicate what she said. There is no evidence that Wynn received any of those messages before the following day. King also spoke to two other employees. One unidentified employee stated that King's doctor needed to submit documentation or King would be fired, and a clerk in the medical department stated that King's paperwork was acceptable through March 28 (which had already passed), but that her doctor needed to submit paperwork to extend her leave beyond then.

         On April 2, having not received any documentation justifying King's continued absence, Wynn processed King's termination, stating that her leave had expired and that she failed to respond to the 5-Day Quit notice. At that time, Ford's records showed that King had worked 970 hours in the preceding 12 months, which would not be enough to be covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). Around this same time, King filed two more charges of discrimination with the EEOC. On March 27, King filed a charge alleging that Ford retaliated against her for her previous charge and her other complaints of harassment by reassigning her, denying her overtime, failing to pay her for hours that she worked, and unfairly disciplining her. Ford did not receive notice of that charge until after it terminated King's employment. King filed another charge the following month, alleging that her termination was in retaliation for her first charge.

         The EEOC issued right-to-sue letters on those charges in August 2013, after which King filed her complaint in this case on November 6, 2013. Her complaint asserted claims for sexual harassment and retaliation under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2, -3; for interference with her rights under the FMLA and retaliation for her taking of FMLA leave, 29 U.S.C. § 2615; and for a violation of the Illinois Whistleblower's Act. After the close of discovery, Ford moved for summary judgment on all counts. In her response, King relied heavily on a declaration from Grant Morton, a union chairman at the plant. Ford argued that the declaration should be stricken because King never disclosed Morton as a witness. In ruling on the motion, the district court agreed and struck Morton's declaration. On the substance of the claims, the court held that King's sexual harassment claim was time-barred, that her FMLA interference claim failed because she had not worked enough hours to be eligible for FMLA leave at the time of her firing, and that she had not provided evidence sufficient to support an inference of retaliation. Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment as to the federal claims and relinquished supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claim. King filed a motion for reconsideration, but the district court denied that motion, so King appealed.

         II. Discussion

         We review a district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Estate of Simpson v. Gorbett,863 F.3d 740, 745 (7th Cir. 2017). We construe all facts and draw all reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine dispute of material ...

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