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Searle v. The Salvation Army

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

February 27, 2019

KAREN SEARLE, Plaintiff,
v.
THE SALVATION ARMY, Defendant.

          ENTRY ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          TANYA WALTON PRATT, JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Filing No. 57). After being terminated from her employment with The Salvation Army (“TSA”), Plaintiff Karen Searle (“Searle”) filed this action alleging discrimination in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and interference and retaliation in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). (Filing No. 1.) The parties stipulated to dismissal with prejudice of Searle's ADA claim. (Filing No. 56.) TSA now moves for summary judgment on Searle's two remaining FMLA claims, arguing they fail as a matter of law. For the reasons discussed below, TSA's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are not necessarily objectively true, but as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, the facts are presented in the light most favorable to Searle as the non-moving party. See Zerante v. DeLuca, 555 F.3d 582, 584 (7th Cir. 2009); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986).

         A. Searle's Employment at The Salvation Army

         The Salvation Army, a denomination of the Christian church, is a non-profit organization engaged in providing services to the homeless, addicted, poor, or other vulnerable members of the population. Searle's employment with the organization began in October 2007, when she was hired as a Human Resource Specialist at the Harbor Light Center (“Harbor Light”) located in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Filing No. 58-2 at 9-10.) Shortly thereafter, her title was changed to Human Resource Manager. Id. at 11. Searle reported to Harbor Light's Executive Director, Lieutenant Esteban Pommier (“Pommier”). She also frequently worked with David Loyd (“Loyd”), the Divisional Director of Human Resources at the Indiana Division Headquarters. Id. at 15-18.

         Searle's duties at TSA included managing employee time and attendance, tracking and approving employee sick time requests, and managing FMLA compliance for other TSA employees. Id. at 21-25. This last duty required her to consult TSA's Central Territory Employee Handbook, which contained TSA's FMLA policy as well as other company policies on things like sick leave, paid time off, and disability accommodation. Id.; Filing No. 58-4. When an employee at Harbor Light needed FMLA leave, Searle's role was to guide the employee through the process and answer any questions the employee had. (Filing No. 58-2 at 25-26.)

         During her employment, Searle had taken two FMLA leaves, in January 2015 and again in May 2015, in relation to rotator cuff surgery. Id. at 26-29. In February 2016, Searle told Loyd she was “ill” and asked him to keep the information to himself. Id. at 30. Loyd replied, he was “sorry to hear that” and Searle should let him know if there was anything he could do for her. Id. at 31. At some point after that, Searle also notified Divisional Secretary of Business Major Dan Hull (“Hull”) that she had precancerous polyps of the colon. Id. at 52. Hull replied that Loyd had already notified him of Searle's medical situation. Id. at 53. On or about April 4, 2016, Searle submitted a Time Off Request Form indicating she needed time off for testing at the hospital. (Filing No. 59-7.) Pommier approved and signed off on the Request on April 5, 2016. Id.

         On August 18, 2016, Searle sent Loyd an email notifying him that she was going to receive treatment in the form of an MRI on August 29, 2016, a colonoscopy on September 19, 2016, and surgery on her liver which had not yet been scheduled at the time she sent the email. (Filing No. 59-8.) Loyd responded that same day: “Thank you Karen. I hope everything goes well.” (Filing No. 58-7.) Searle did not request FMLA leave at this time, nor at any other time in 2016, instead opting to use her available paid time off to cover any time she missed for doctor's appointments. (Filing No. 58-2 at 29.)

         B. Searle's Termination

         On September 15, 2016, Loyd, Pommier, and Major Beth Petrie (“Petrie”) notified Searle that her position was being eliminated and that she would be terminated effective October 15, 2016. Id. at 35. That meeting occurred just 28 days after Searle had alerted Loyd to her ongoing medical issues and upcoming doctor's appointments. Following her termination notice, on October 5, 2016, Searle's counsel sent TSA a letter complaining of FMLA violations. (Filing No. 59-3 at 39.) Loyd received the letter and discussed it with Pommier, Hull, and Petrie. Id. at 40.

         TSA attributes the elimination of Searle's position to budget reduction. In July 2016, TSA had a budget shortfall of approximately $675, 000.00, which Hull asked for help from management to reduce. (Filing No. 58-8 at 18-19; Filing No. 58-9.) In late spring or early summer 2016, Hull inquired of Loyd regarding which position from Human Resources (“HR”) could be eliminated if the need arose. (Filing No. 58-8 at 32; Filing No. 58-10 at 15-17.) Loyd said that he did not want to lose anyone in his department, but if a position had to be eliminated, he would recommend Searle's position which oversaw employees only at Harbor Light, whereas all the other positions in the HR department served the entire Indiana Division. (Filing No. 58-10 at 16.)

         The Divisional Finance Board ultimately accepted Loyd's recommendation and, on August 11, 2016, made the decision to eliminate Searle's position. (Filing No. 58-8 at 25-26.) TSA determined that some of the clerical duties Searle had performed could be done by a newly created part-time HR Clerk position at Harbor Light that would be paid a much lower rate than Searle had been paid. Id. at 34-36; Filing No. 58-10 at 22. Loyd would absorb the remainder of Searle's workload. Id.

         C. Post Notification

         When Loyd and other TSA staff members informed Searle that her position was being eliminated, they also informed her of the new, part-time HR position that would be available. (Filing No. 58-2 at 36-37.) But Searle chose not to apply for that position because she needed a full-time position with health benefits. Id. at 37-38. TSA staff encouraged Searle to apply for an open full-time administrative assistant position at Harbor Light, which Searle did, despite feeling overqualified for it. Id. at 38-39. Searle applied for the administrative assistant position by letter, which was addressed to Pommier and dated October 14, 2016. (Filing No. 59-10.) In her letter, Searle explained that she was well-suited for the position, having done many of the tasks required by the position in her prior role when the administrative assistant was out of the office. Id. She also explained that because of her experience at Harbor Light she would need very little training to learn the new job. Id.

         Pommier interviewed four or five candidates for the position, including Searle. (Filing No. 58-13 at 20.) Searle's initial interview with Pommier was attended by Loyd, who expressed to Pommier that Searle was completely qualified for the position. (Filing No. 59-3 at 33.) Loyd only attended Searle's interview because she was an internal candidate; he did not attend any of the other interviews for the position. Id. at 32-33. Two applicants-Searle and Alana Hodges (“Hodges”)-were asked to come in for a second interview. (Filing No. 58-13 at 30.)

         As part of this second interview, both applicants were given ten minutes to reproduce a written memorandum as accurately as possible to test their word processing skills. (Filing No. 58-2 at 65-67; Filing No. 58-14; Filing No. 58-15; Filing No. 58-16.) Harbor Light had never previously required applicants to take this kind of test for any other job selection process. (Filing No. 58-13 at 29-30.) Hodges' reproduction bore a closer resemblance to the sample memorandum than Searle's did. (Filing No. 58-15; Filing No. 58-16.) Pommier testified in his deposition that he had the impression before this interview that Searle was not a skilled user of Microsoft Word and Excel, but that limitation had not prevented her from doing her job as Human Resource Manager. (Filing No. 58-13 at 26-33.) Searle attributes her poor performance on the test to the fact that she was rushed during her second interview because it was scheduled between two doctor's appointments. Id. at 37-38.

         Pommier recommended to the Divisional Finance Board that TSA hire Hodges because he thought she demonstrated a greater level of professionalism in the interview process, he believed she wanted the job more than Searle did, and he thought Hodges outperformed Searle on the typing test. Id. at 29-47. Hodges was offered the job and because Searle had not applied to any other positions at TSA, her employment ended on November 3, 2016.[1] (Filing No. 58-2 at 39.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The purpose of summary judgment is to “pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that summary judgment is appropriate if “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions of file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Hemsworth v. Quotesmith.com, Inc., 476 F.3d 487, 489-90 (7th Cir. 2007). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court reviews “the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw[s] all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.” Zerante, 555 F.3d at 584 (citation omitted). “However, inferences that are supported by only speculation or conjecture will not defeat a summary judgment motion.” Dorsey v. Morgan Stanley, 507 F.3d 624, 627 (7th Cir. 2007) (citation and quotation marks omitted). Additionally, “[a] party who bears the burden of proof on a particular issue may not rest on its pleadings, but must affirmatively demonstrate, by specific factual allegations, that there is a genuine issue of material fact that requires trial.” Hemsworth, 476 F.3d at 490 (citation omitted). “The opposing party cannot meet this burden with conclusory statements or speculation but only with appropriate citations to relevant admissible evidence.” Sink v. Knox Cnty. Hosp., 900 F.Supp. 1065, 1072 (S.D. Ind. 1995) (citations omitted).

         “In much the same way that a court is not required to scour the record in search of evidence to defeat a motion for summary judgment, nor is it permitted to conduct a paper trial on the merits of the claim.” Ritchie v. Glidden Co., 242 F.3d 713, 723 (7th Cir. 2001) (citations and quotation marks omitted). “[N]either the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties nor the existence of some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts is sufficient to defeat a motion ...


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