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Boltz v. United Process Controls

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division

May 16, 2017

ERIC BOLTZ, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED PROCESS CONTROLS, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          SUSAN J. DLOTT, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the Defendants' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 27). Defendants United Process Controls (“UPC”), Nitrex Metals, Inc., and Novacap, Inc. move to dismiss the disability discrimination and retaliation claims asserted by UPC's former employee, Plaintiff Eric Boltz, in Counts I and III of the Amended Complaint (Doc. 19). Defendants assert that Boltz was not qualified for his executive position at UPC following a traumatic accident because he was not able to perform the essential function of working on-site on a regular and predictable basis. Because the Court finds that genuine issues of material fact remain in dispute, the Court will DENY the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual History

         The following facts are derived from Defendants' Amended Proposed Undisputed Facts (Doc. 28) and Plaintiffs' Responses thereto (Doc. 32-2), or from the Amended Complaint (Doc. 19) and Answer (Doc. 20), except where otherwise noted.

         1. Boltz's Employment History with UPC

         Defendant UPC provides process control, flow control, and automation solutions to furnace original equipment manufacturers and customers with thermal processing equipment. Defendant Nitrex Metal, Inc. (“Nitrex”) is a Canadian corporation that wholly owns UPC.[1]Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Novacap is a Canadian private equity firm that owns a majority interest in Nitrex, but Defendants deny this allegation. (Doc. 20 at PageID 276.) UPC was Plaintiff Eric Boltz's employer for purposes of federal and Ohio disability statutes at all times relevant hereto. UPC was formed in 2008 when Nitrex purchased the assets of Marathon Sensors, Inc., a company owned by Plaintiffs Eric and Yvonne Boltz.[2] Because the pending motion primarily concerns Eric Boltz, he will be referred to herein as Eric Boltz or simply Boltz, while Yvonne Boltz always will be referred to by her full name.

         After UPC was formed, Boltz served as the Vice President for Operations (“VP Operations”) and Yvonne Boltz as the Vice President of Energy Environmental Solutions.[3]Boltz managed two facilities in the United States, one in West Chester, Ohio and one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and two facilities in China. UPC did not have a written job description for the position of VP Operations. (Oleszkiewicz Dep., Doc. 33-1 at PageID 604.)[4] Boltz regularly and consistently worked out of the West Chester facility during his sixteen-year career with UPC and its predecessor companies. UPC also assisted Boltz in maintaining an office at his home. (Boltz Dec., Doc. 32-1 at PageID 552-53.) He had a computer with multiple displays and teleconference equipment at his home office. (Id. at PageID 552.) UPC purchased Microsoft Office for Boltz's home computer and paid an annual fee for a home VPN/firewall to ensure a secure connection from his home computer to the office. (Id.) Boltz asserts that he participated in weekly management conference calls, participated in international calls, and performed technical duties from home. (Id. at PageID 553.)

         Defendants assert that Boltz's job duties required him to travel approximately thirty days per year, including to Milwaukee, to the two China facilities, and to visit customers. (Beach Dec., Doc. 27-1 at PageID 490.) Boltz responds that there was no business need for him to travel to China in late 2015 or during the first quarter of 2016. (Boltz Dec., Doc. 32-1 at PageID 553- 554; Oleszkiewicz Dep., Doc. 33-1 at PageID 588-89.)

         2. Boltz's Injury and Attempted Return to Work

         Boltz suffered an injury while bicycling on September 24, 2015 causing him to become paraplegic. (Doc. 27-1 at PageID 453.) Boltz participated in emailed discussions regarding UPC business during his hospital stay. (Oleszkiewicz Dep., Doc. 33 at PageID 611-614; Doc. 33-2 at PageID 671, 674-75, 678.) Other participants in the emailed discussions worked in Ohio, Wisconsin, Canada, China, Germany, and Poland. (Doc. 32-1 at PageID 554.)

         Boltz submitted a Disability Claim Form to UPC on or about October 16, 2015 signed by Dr. Michael Watts as his attending physician. (Doc. 27-1 at PageID 451-55.) Dr. Watts stated on that date that Boltz was “currently unable to work at all[, ]” but also opined that Boltz “eventually could return to office/managerial work” and gave an estimated return to work date of four to six months. (Id. at PageID 454.)

         On October 27, 2015, Paul Oleszkiewicz, UPC's President, sent separate letters to Eric and Yvonne Boltz notifying them that UPC was exercising its right to cancel the extensions of their employment contracts. UPC said that the cancellations were a formality to allow the company to update the contract language.[5]

         On November 4, 2015, Oleszkiewicz met with Boltz at his home to talk about the immediate future of the company. (Oleszkiewicz Dep., Doc. 33-1 at PageID 591.) Oleszkiewicz asked Boltz how he would lead the company from a wheelchair. (Id. at PageID 593.) He told Boltz that he believed it would be “difficult” for Boltz to lead the company from his wheelchair because “a leader has to do sales and be the face of the company.” (Id.) Boltz responded to Oleszkiewicz that his leadership came from his brain, not from legs. (Id.)

         By November 9, 2015, Boltz's paid leave from UPC was exhausted. He received only short-term disability in the amount of 60% of his regular compensation from that point forward. (Boltz Dec., Doc. 32-1 at PageID 554.)

         Also on November 9, 2015, Oleszkiewicz gave himself responsibility over UPC China, taking the responsibility from Boltz. (Oleszkiewicz Dep., Doc. 33-1 at PageID 597; Doc. 33-2 at PageID 657.) He told Boltz that he would return the responsibility “when the situation permit[ted].” (Oleszkiewicz Dep., Doc. 33-1 at PageID 597.)

         On November 17, 2015, UPC terminated the employment of Yvonne Boltz, purportedly for “lack of success in providing value to the company.”[6] Boltz alleges that UPC cut off his home access to the corporate computer server the same day. Oleszkiewicz does not remember the date that UPC cut off Boltz's access to the corporate server, but he stated that it was during his medical leave. (Oleszkiewicz Dep., Doc. 33-1 at PageID 601.) Written correspondence indicates that UPC might not have cut his computer access until on or about November 23, 2015. (Doc. 27-1 at PageID 461.) Oleszkiewicz testified that he did not want Boltz to “interfere with company business when he was on a sick leave.” (Doc. 33-1 at PageID 601-02.)

         On November 20, 2015, Boltz sent an email to Oleszkiewcz and Jennifer Beach, the UPC controller and a human resources manager, stating that his “primary physician ha[d] declared [him] fit for duty!” (Doc. 27-1 at PageID 457; Doc. 33-1 at PageID 603.) He further stated that he “plan[ned] on working at home . . . [as] a reasonable accommodation” and that he would “be coming in to the office for partial days as [he] work[ed him]self back to a more traditional schedule.” (Doc. 27-1 at PageID 457-58.) Boltz did not support his email with a report or release from his primary physician, so UPC requested those materials. (Id. at PageID 460-64.)

         UPC denied Boltz's request to return to work in a letter dated November 23, 2015 from Oleszkiewicz to Boltz. (Id. at PageID 460-61.) Oleszkiewicz stated that UPC could not “allow [Boltz] to return to work before [he was] safely able to do so.” (Id.) He relied on the initial opinion of Dr. Watts from October 13, 2015 that Boltz would be unable to return to work for four to six months. (Id.) He also discounted the significance of the work Boltz had done at home since his injury:

Reading occasional emails or documents at home, which your email indicates you have done to some limited extent does not of course indicate that you have by any means been functioning as the Operating officer of two or really, three distant locations of the Company under your sphere of responsibility. Among other things, the Operating Officer of UPC needs to maintain a consistent presence in the Cincinnati office and more than occasional visit to our office in Milwaukee, as well as China, as to which I have indicated to you that I do not intend to retain permanent responsibility.

(Id.) Finally, Oleszkiewicz stated that Beach was serving as the acting General Manager and that Boltz should direct all disability, medical, and related information to her. (Id.)

         On November 24, 2015, Boltz provided UPC with a Work Note from his neurosurgeon, Dr. Vincent DiNapoli, signed that same date and a Call Documentation record from his primary physician, Dr. Douglas Moody. (Id. at PageID 471-76.) Dr. DiNapoli stated in the Work Note that Boltz could “work from home with no more than 15 lbs lifting.” (Id.) The Call Documentation record from Dr. Moody stated as follows:

Pt requests that we authorize him to be able to return to work Monday, November 23rd allowing him to work from home
Dr. Moody verbally verified all of the above on Friday, November 20th 2015.

(Id. at PageID 476.)

         On November 25, 2015, Boltz contacted Michel Korwin, Nitrex's President, by email. (Doc. 33-2 at PageID 657-59.) Boltz expressed his concern that the company's actions had made it “crystal-clear” that the company did “not wish for [him] to return to work” as the VP Operations. (Id. at PageID 657.) These actions included the termination of his and Yvonne Boltz's employment contracts, Oleszkiewicz's question whether Boltz could lead the company from a wheelchair, Yvonne Boltz's termination from employment, his loss of job responsibilities, and the refusal of the company to allow him to return to work. (Id. at PageID 657-59.)

         On November 30, 2015, after the Thanksgiving holiday, Oleszkiewicz sent an email to Boltz, which he copied to Beach, “to clarify [Boltz's] status with the Company.” (Doc. 27-1 at PageID 466.) Oleszkiewicz stated that Boltz's duties “require[d his] attendance in the office, [sic] and reasonable travel” and that “the Company [did] not believe it [was] appropriate, or healthy” for Boltz to try to return to work at that time. (Id.)

         Boltz responded on December 1, 2015 that his plan was to work from home with the goal of returning to the office for full days by the end of December 2015. (Id. at PageID 467.) He also stated that he could travel by car and would be cleared to travel by air. (Id.) On December 2, 2015, Oleszkiewicz “rejected” Boltz's proposal to return to work in an email to Boltz, which was copied to Beach:

Neither working from home, nor working, essentially, part-time, meet the requirements of your position. Your email ignores that neither of your physicians released you to work in the office, and neither released you to work full-time, to my knowledge.
The Company already has rejected this offer by you.
Please keep us informed about the status of your recovery. To be clear, we are not requiring that [you] be able to work a normal work week of 45-55 hours as expected of other executives before you will be permitted to return. However, and as previously indicated, we do expect before you return, you be able to work, reliably and regularly, on a full-time or nearly full-time basis, to travel as necessary, and reasonably soon return to a full, normal UPC executive work schedule.

(Id.)

         Dr. DiNapoli issued a second Work Note on December 8, 2015 authorizing Boltz to work from home with a ...


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