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Lindstrom v. Bingham County

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 15, 2018

RICK LINDSTROM, Plaintiff,
v.
BINGHAM COUNTY, IDAHO, a political subdivision of the State of Idaho, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          David C. Nye U.S. District Court Judge

         I. OVERVIEW

         Pending before the Court is Defendant Bingham County's Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. 27. After the Motion was fully briefed, the Court held oral arguments and took the matter under advisement. For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES the Motion.

         II. BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff Rick Lindstrom filed this suit alleging that Bingham County (“the County”) failed to reinstate him to his position in violation of the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), and discriminated against him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Idaho Human Rights Act (“IHRA”), by failing to accommodate his disability and terminating his employment.

         Bingham County employed Rick Lindstrom at Rattlesnake Landfill (“Rattlesnake”), located outside of Shelley, Idaho, as the Landfill Manager from July 26, 2004, until March 10, 2015. This was a full time position. Lindstrom's duties generally included operating the scale house when customers arrived, operating heavy machinery throughout the landfill, and supervising other employees.

         Sometime during 2007, Lindstrom began to experience pain in his feet. This situation gradually got worse. When Lindstrom's foot pain became a problem, he would rotate tasks with other landfill employees in order to have an opportunity to do a seated task. During 2013 and 2014, Lindstrom spent most of his time in the scale house or in vehicles to limit the time he spent standing. The scale house and all landfill vehicles had heaters, which helped his feet, especially during colder weather.

         On September 16, 2014, a co-worker took Lindstrom to the hospital because he was ill. Subsequent visits with doctors revealed multiple health issues including blurry vision and low blood sugar. Because of these health issues, one doctor excused Lindstrom from operating heavy equipment for a time and another suggested taking time off work to address his health concerns.

         On September 30, 2014, Lindstrom signed a Request for Family Medical Leave. The form noted that Lindstrom's FMLA leave started September 24, 2014, and would last for 12 weeks, ending on December 16, 2014. During his leave, Lindstrom took medications and was able to improve his vision and level out his blood sugar. The conditions with his feet, caused by diabetes, did not get better or worse.

         During November and December of 2014, Lindstrom stayed in contact with the County's Human Resources director, Nathan Satterthwaite, and discussed various work options for him upon his return. Lindstrom indicated that he wanted to try to do some work at Rattlesnake to see how it went; however, this never took place. Lindstrom's intent was to work mainly in the scale house-as he had done previously when his feet were causing him pain.

         Lindstrom did not have a doctor's note immediately available upon completion of his FMLA leave and did not show up for work on December 17, 2014. Thereafter, the County continued his time off as a paid leave of absence.

         On December 31, 2014, Lindstrom received a note from his doctor and provided it to the County on January 2, 2015. The County asked Lindstrom to work with his medical providers to determine the details of any work limitations and to fill out a Fitness for Duty form. Lindstrom complied and provided two Fitness for Duty forms-one on January 8, and one on January 13-from his two doctors. With some variations, both doctors recommended that Lindstrom not stand or walk for long periods because of the conditions with his feet along with other minor restrictions and suggestions.

         As a result of these Fitness for Duty forms, the County determined that Rattlesnake was not a good fit for Lindstrom and instead offered him a position at the Central Transfer Station (“CTS”) located in Blackfoot, Idaho. The County gave Lindstrom few details about the job at CTS, but said that he would have a stool to sit on.

         Lindstrom initially agreed to attempt this position at CTS, however, when the day for him to start at CTS arrived, he left a message with his supervisor indicating that he would not be able to make it for medical reasons. Lindstrom later indicated that he was not comfortable driving the significantly greater distance to CTS, as opposed to his usual 3-4 mile commute to Rattlesnake. After meeting with his doctors, they advised against driving longer distances and confirmed that a slower paced job close to home- essentially a position at Rattlesnake-would be best for Lindstrom at that time.

         On March 5, 2015, the Board of Bingham County Commissioners passed a resolution reducing the hours of operation at Rattlesnake for financial reasons. In light of these reduced hours of operation, on March 10, 2015, the Board implemented a reduction in force and terminated Lindstrom and another part-time employee. The same day, the County notified Lindstrom of his termination.

         Lindstrom exhausted his administrative remedies and filed the instant case on January 13, 2017. The County filed a motion seeking to dismiss Lindstrom's FMLA claim early on in the litigation (Dkt. 3, 9), which the Court denied (Dkt. 22). The County now moves for summary judgment on all claims.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows 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). This Court's role at summary judgment is not “to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Zetwick v. Cty. of Yolo, 850 F.3d 436, 441 (9th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted). In considering a motion for summary judgment, this Court must “view[] the facts in the non-moving party's favor.” Id. To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the respondent need only present evidence upon which “a reasonable juror drawing all inferences in favor of the respondent could return a verdict in [his or her] favor.” Id. (citation omitted). Accordingly, this Court must enter summary judgment if a party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The respondent cannot simply rely on an unsworn affidavit or the pleadings to defeat a motion for summary judgment; rather the respondent must set forth the “specific facts, ” supported by evidence, with “reasonable particularity” that precludes summary judgment. Far Out Productions, Inc. v. Oskar, 247 F.3d 986, 997 (9th Cir. 2001).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. FMLA Claim

         Under the FMLA, “an eligible employee shall be entitled to a total of 12 workweeks of leave . . . Because of a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position of such employee.” 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D). On return from such leave, an employer must restore the employee to their prior job or an equivalent position. 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(1)(A)-(B).

         The County alleges that summary judgment is proper on Lindstrom's FLMA claim because (1) he was unable to perform the essential duties of his job as required- therefore the County was not required to restore him to his prior job, and (2) he failed to timely provide a Fitness for Duty form-therefore he waived his rights to reinstatement.

         1. Essential Duties

         Under FMLA, if an employee is “unable to perform an essential function of the position because of a physical or mental condition” he is not entitled to restoration of his job upon return, although he may have rights under the ADA. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.216 (c).

         Simply put, this is the single biggest disagreement between the parties in this case. This topic of “essential duties” bears upon all three claims for various reasons.

         The County contends that operating heavy machinery and working outdoors (i.e. “fieldwork”) were essential duties of the Landfill Manager at Rattlesnake. In fact, all employees who worked at Rattlesnake had to perform, at various times, all of these duties. The County postures that because (1) Lindstrom's doctors advised against him operating heavy machinery and (2) Lindstrom's preferred accommodation entailed mostly sitting in the scale house, he could not perform the essential duties of his former job. As a result, Lindstrom was not entitled to reinstatement, and since he rejected the “equivalent position” at CTS, his FMLA claim holds no water.

         Both sides spend a great deal of time discussing what is or is not an essential duty, where and how these duties are defined, and how fieldwork was allocated at Rattlesnake. These discrepancies alone give rise to disputed facts, but on top of that, the County has not pointed to anything in the ...


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