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Phillips v. United Trailers Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

March 20, 2019

BRANDI LUTES, Personal Representative of the Estate of BUDDY F. PHILLIPS, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED TRAILER INC., UNITED TRAILER EXPORTING, INC., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT L. MILLER, JR., UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         On July 3, 2015, Buddy Phillips (now deceased, with Ms. Lutes acting as estate representative) injured his rib while playing with his grandchildren. Mr. Phillips went to Elkhart General Hospital a day after his injury, where an x-ray confirmed that he had suffered a rib fracture. Because of Mr. Phillips's injury, he missed work from July 6-23, 2015. Until July 17, Mr. Phillips reported his absences to United Trailers. After July 17, however, Mr. Phillips didn't report his absences, resulting in his termination under United Trailer's attendance policy. Mr. Phillips now sues United Trailers for interference with his rights under the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. and for unlawful retaliation under the FLMA when United Trailers terminated Mr. Phillips' employment. United Trailers moves for summary judgment with respect to all claims. The court heard argument on February 20, and now grants the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. General Background

         United Trailers manufactures steel-framed enclosed trailers for personal and commercial cargo, vehicles, and food and craft vending. Mr. Phillips worked for a predecessor company of United Trailers from 1995 until he was excused in 1999 due to poor attendance. He was reinstated but was later deemed to have “resigned” by missing three days consecutive days of work in late summer 1999 without reporting his absences per company policy. In 2003 United Trailers rehired Mr. Phillips as a metal department trimmer, a job that required him to install fenders, lights, and metal trim to the trailers. Mr. Phillips's employment at United Trailers was typical of the average worker there. All United Trailers production employees work a 5:00 a.m. through a 1:00-3:00 p.m. shift, depending on production needs. Mr. Phillips worked as a metal department trimmer up until his employment was terminated in the summer of 2015 for failing to report in his absence over four consecutive days.

         B. Attendance Policy

         Each United Trailer employee is given a handbook with the company's policies including attendance policies. The policy provides for a mandatory and specific call-in procedure for reporting work absences. The relevant portion of the policy states: Employees must call an official hotline no later than 15 minutes before the start of their 5:00 a.m. shift and that “THIS IS THE ONLY ACCEPTABLE MEANS OF CALLING IN.” (bold and capitalized in original). The policy also states that calling a supervisor or co-worker is unacceptable and that employees must leave a voice-mail message on the hotline - calling the hotline without leaving a message isn't adequate notice of absence.

         United Trailers operates on an absence point system - an employee who accrues 13 or more points is terminated. Employees get three points for an unexcused absence as long as they call into the hotline and five points if they don't call in. Ten accrued points results in a reduction in pay. Employment is also terminated if the employee doesn't call in for three consecutive days.

         United Trailers has several exceptions to this policy. Holidays and vacations don't count toward point accrual. The company acknowledges specific personal, bereavement, jury, and military absences. United Trailers recognizes both FMLA leave and leave directed by a doctor through doctor notes. During his time at United Trailers, Mr. Phillips made consistent use of the company's doctor note policy. All of these policies are in the handbook provided to Mr. Phillips, who signed acknowledgments on three separate occasions during his tenure at United Trailers that he had received and read the policies. Mr. Phillip's wife acknowledged in her deposition that she knew about the call-in and doctor note policies.

         C. Rib Injury

         On July 3, 2015 Mr. Phillips injured his ribs while playing with his grandchildren. On July 4 Mr. Phillips went to Elkhart General Hospital where an x-ray revealed that he had suffered a rib fracture. The physician's release after Mr. Phillip's visit to the hospital said he could engage in “activity as tolerated” but didn't explicitly restrict him from work. The hospital also instructed Mr. Phillips to follow up with his primary care physician three to five days after he had visited the hospital. On July 16, Mr. Phillips followed up with his primary care physician, Dr. Borelli, who wrote a brief note excusing Mr. Phillips from work throughout the month.

         Mr. Phillips or his wife called the United Trailers hotline on July 6, 7, 8, 14, 16, and 17, 2015 to report his absence. No. further calls were placed to the hotline after July 17 in accordance with the company's absence policy. United Trailer's Director of Human Resources, in consultation with the plant manager Randy Snyder, decided to terminate Mr. Phillip's employment on July 23 because Mr. Phillips had more than 13 absence points under the company policy and because he had missed three or more consecutive days without calling the company's hotline. After United Trailers notified Mr. Phillips of his termination, he returned to work to collect his belongings.

         On June 30, 2017 Mr. Phillips filed a complaint against United Trailers alleging FLMA interference and retaliation relating to his ...


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