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Sims v. Stillwater Mining Co.

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

August 30, 2019

JOSEF SIMS, Plaintiff,
v.
STILLWATER MINING COMPANY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TIMOTHY J. CAVAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Josef Sims brings this action under 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a) against Stillwater Mining Company (“Stillwater”), alleging Stillwater violated his rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). Pending is Stillwater’s Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 24.) As discussed below, Stillwater’s motion is DENIED.

         I. Background

         Stillwater owns and operates the East Boulder Mine near McLeod, Montana. Stillwater employed Sims as an operator from 2007 until August 13, 2015. (Doc. 29 at ¶¶ 1, 49.) On August 13, 2015, Stillwater terminated Sims’ employment based on an allegedly unexcused absence. Id. at ¶ 3.

         Sims suffered from joint problems and pain in his right shoulder. On July 20, 2015, his doctor gave him a cortisone shot for his symptoms, and the following day he experienced an adverse reaction. Id. at ¶¶ 6-7. The complication did not immediately cause Sims to miss work, but by July 23, 2015 Sims realized he would not be able to work his next scheduled shift on July 24. Id. at ¶¶ 8-10. Sims contacted Stillwater’s human resources department to request FMLA leave, and the human resources department provided him with the necessary FMLA paperwork. Id. at ¶ 11. Sims’ doctor also faxed Stillwater a FMLA “Certification of Healthcare Provider,” indicating Sims had a serious health condition that would require him to be absent from work from July 20th until August 1st. Id. at ¶ 13.

         Sims returned to work on August 1, 2015 but planned to request additional time off from August 2nd through 4th using his vacation time. Id. at ¶ 17. Nevertheless, Sims ended up working August 2nd and 3rd. During his August 3rd shift, however, he spoke to his supervisor about the need for additional time off due to his shoulder injury, and he submitted a vacation request form for August 4th. Id. at ¶ 19. Sims included a comment on the request form stating, “for Doctor Apt Regarding FMLA follow up.” Id. at ¶ 20.

         Sims thought he had vacation days remaining when he submitted his leave request form for August 4th, and his supervisors approved his requested leave. Id. at ¶¶ 39, 40. Stillwater later took the position, however, that Sims did not have any vacation days remaining. Therefore, on August 12, 2019, Sims’ supervisor, a union representative, and Stillwater’s human resources representative met with Sims to determine the circumstances of his August 4th absence. Id. at ¶¶ 42, 45. After discussing Sims’ absence, Stillwater concluded Sims violated the terms of his Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) with the company by using a vacation day he did not have and terminated his employment. Id. at ¶¶ 46-49.

         After his termination, Sims returned to his doctor’s office to determine whether his shoulder injury could be work-related. Id. at ¶ 50. Either his doctor or a nurse revised the FMLA certification originally faxed to Stillwater to indicate that Sims’ injury prevented him from working through August 4, 2015, rather than August 1, 2015. Id. at ¶ 54. Sims’ doctor also provided him with a notice indicating Sims was off work on August 4,2015 due to “shoulder pain, Extended FMLA.” Id. at ¶ 55. Sims thereafter submitted the revised FMLA paperwork to Stillwater as part of his grievance of his termination. Id. at ¶ 58. His grievance was not successful.

         Sims alleges in Count I of his Complaint that Stillwater denied and interfered with his FMLA rights, and in Count II that Stillwater retaliated against him for the exercise of those rights. (See generally Doc. 1). Sims claims the interference and retaliation resulted in his termination, which caused him to suffer damages, including: (1) loss of wages and benefits; (2) liquidated damages; and (3) attorneys’ fees and costs. Id. at ¶ 20-22. Sims also seeks equitable relief as may be appropriate. Id. at ¶ 22.

         II. Parties’ Arguments

         Stillwater moves for summary judgment on both counts of the complaint. (Doc. 24.) First, Stillwater argues Sims’ interference claim fails as a matter of law because FMLA protections are not triggered by merely referencing a potentially qualifying reason for taking a day off. Specifically, Stillwater maintains Sims affirmatively elected to take vacation rather than FMLA leave, and therefore Stillwater acted appropriately by treating August 4, 2015 as a vacation day. (Doc. 27 at 6-7.)

         Stillwater also contends it is entitled to summary judgment on Sims’ FMLA retaliation claim. As to this claim, Stillwater argues Sims’ allegation that he was wrongfully terminated because of his use of FMLA leave constitutes an interference claim rather than a retaliation claim. Retaliation under FMLA, Stillwater contends, is implicated only if an employee is punished for opposing an unlawful practice of his employer. In the absence of any such allegation by Sims, Stillwater claims it is entitled to summary judgment. Id. at 7.

         In response, Sims argues genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment. Specifically, Sims argues it is disputed whether the verbal and written notice he provided to Stillwater regarding his medical condition and need for leave constituted sufficient notice of his intent to take FMLA leave. Additionally, Sims argues the Court should consider his retaliation claim as an interference claim rather than grant Stillwater summary judgment. (Doc. 28 at 6.)

         In reply, Stillwater argues it is irrelevant whether Stillwater should have known Sims’ absence was potentially FMLA-qualifying because Stillwater had previously provided Sims with the required “FMLA paperwork” for his July 24th through July 27th absences concerning the same injury. Stillwater therefore ...


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