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Njaim v. FCA U.S. LLC

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

July 31, 2018

Nick Njaim, Plaintiff
v.
FCA U.S. LLC, Defendant

          ORDER

          James G. Carr Sr. U.S. District Judge

         This is an employment-discrimination case under the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq. (FMLA), and Ohio law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a disability, O.R.C. § 4112.02.

         Plaintiff Nick Njaim worked at defendant FCA U.S. LLC's (FCA) assembly plant in Toledo, Ohio. During his tenure, Njaim sought, and FCA granted, periods of paid leave and unpaid FMLA leave to address his opioid addiction and attendant mental-health issues. When Njaim was not on leave, however, he was often late or absent from work. After FCA assessed Njaim seven “occurrence” points for these absences, FCA fired him.

         Njaim then brought this suit, alleging that FCA interfered with his FMLA rights and fired him in retaliation for exercising those rights. He also alleged the company fired him because he was disabled and refused to accommodate his disabilities. Finally, Njaim brought a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, which he has since withdrawn. (Doc. 30 at 38 n.174).

         Jurisdiction is proper under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367(a).

         Pending is FCA's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 28). For the following reasons, I grant the motion.

         Background

         In August, 2012, Njaim applied to work for FCA. The company hired him as a logistics worker at the Toledo plant in July, 2013. (Doc. 23-2; Doc. 23-1 at 10, 12).

         A. Attendance Policy

         As an FCA employee, Njaim was subject to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between FCA and the United Auto Workers (UAW), which represented plant workers.

         The CBA contained a “no fault” attendance policy that required employees to “‘call in' any absence or tardy at least thirty (30) minutes prior to the start of” the employee's shift. (Doc. 23-3 at 1) (internal capitalizations omitted). “Failure to ‘call in' any unscheduled absence or tardy” within that timeframe resulted in “the lost time being considered an occurrence[.]” (Id.) (internal emphasis supplied).

         An unexcused absence counted as one “occurrence, ” whereas a tardy counted as a “half-occurrence.” (Doc. 23-4 at 1). If an employee was tardy four times in a twelve-month period, all further tardies would count as one occurrence. (Id.). Seven occurrences subjected an employee to dismissal. (Id.) (“The 7th Occurrence will result in dismissal.”).

         B. Njaim at Work: 2014

         Njaim apparently worked without incident at the Toledo plant until April 17, 2014, when he was late for work and incurred a half-occurrence. (Doc. 23-11 at 3).

         Three months later, FCA shut down operations at the Toledo plant from July 14 until July 21. (Id. at 9). When the plant reopened, Njaim did not return to work. Because he was absent and called in late on July 21, July 22, and July 24, he earned three full occurrences, bringing his total to 3.5 occurrences. (Doc. 23-11 at 8). FCA's attendance records do show, however, that Njaim worked on both July 23 and July 28. (Doc. 23-11 at 8; Doc. 31-2 at 1).

         1. First “Sickness and Accident” Leave

         Around the time of the July plant closure, Njaim testified, he was using heroin, cocaine, and “pills.” (Doc. 23-1 at 18). Due to these substance-abuse issues, Njaim, on August 4, entered a rehabilitation program at Arrowhead Behavioral Health in Maumee, Ohio. (Doc. 23-8 at 2). Before he entered that program, Njaim was not seeing a physician or receiving treatment for his addiction and mental-health issues. (Doc. 23-1 at 19-20).

         In connection with his stay at Arrowhead, Njaim requested that FCA place him on a paid medical leave of absence. (Id. at 22).

         Covered employees like Njaim are entitled to a form of paid sick leave known as “Sickness & Accident benefits.” That type of leave is available when “an employee is totally disabled and unable to perform all the duties of the relevant occupation.” (Doc. 27-1 at 2, ¶¶3- 4). If an employee requested Sickness and Accident leave, the CBA forbade FCA to “designate S&A leave as FMLA leave unless the employee expressly requested FMLA leave.” (Id. at 2, ¶6).

         According to Chris Capaldo, a Human Resources generalist at the Toledo plant, this “leave program allows [FCA] employees to obtain significantly more available leave time than the FMLA allows and is a highly desired benefit by employees.” (Id.).

         The administrator of FCA's leave program, Sedgwick CMS, approved Njaim's request. (Doc. 23-7). Njaim therefore received paid benefits from July 28 through August 22. (Id.). An Arrowhead psychiatrist, Dr. Bhandari, cleared Njaim to return to work on August 23.

         2. Return to Work

         When an employee returns from a medical leave, FCA requires that “he present [himself] to the Employment Office during regularly scheduled office hours with Required Medical Documentation.” (Doc. 23-3 at 2) (internal emphasis omitted). If the employee works the second or third shift, as Njaim did, he must “report to HR for reinstatement processing in time to start [his] shift.” (Id.). The CBA cautions that, “[i]f an employee does not complete the reinstatement process from leave as required and is not ready and available at the start of the shift . . . then he/she will be sent home and the day counts as an occurrence[.]” (Id.).

         Njaim returned to the Toledo plant on August 23 with the paperwork needed to substantiate his leave. It included a note from Dr. Bhandari stating that Njaim was “temporarily disabled and unable to work” as of on July 21 (Doc. 23-8 at 2), even though Njaim had in fact worked on July 23 and 28. Nevertheless, Njaim earned a half-occurrence on August 23 because he did not arrive early enough to complete the reinstatement process and start his shift on time. (Doc. 27-1 at 2, ¶7). This brought his occurrence tally to four.

         FCA's attendance records show that Njaim was late for work on August 26 and that he was late and did not call in on August 27 and September 3 through September 6. (Id. at 2-3, ¶7). Njaim now had ten occurrences on his record, enough to warrant his dismissal. (Id.).

         Njaim testified that he could not remember “that whole period of time” in late August because he was taking as much as “a gram of heroin by IV daily[.]” (Doc. 23-1 at 26).

         3. Second “Sickness and Accident” Leave

         On September 7, 2014, a representative of the UAW's Employee Assistance Program referred Njaim to Glenbeigh Hospital for treatment of his opioid addiction. (Id. at 26, 28). Njaim requested Sickness and Accident leave in connection with this treatment, and Sedgwick approved a paid leave period through January 5, 2015. (Id. at 29).

         C. Njaim at Work: 2015

         Njaim returned to the Toledo plant on January 6, 2015. His medical documents substantiated his absence from September 7, 2014 through January 5, 2015, but there was no substantiation for his absences in late August and early September, 2014. (Doc. 23-10 at 1-3). Capaldo - the HR generalist who knew that “Njaim had incurred more than seven occurrences” and was therefore subject to dismissal (Doc. 27-1 at 4, ¶11) - discussed Njaim's absenteeism with the UAW. These discussions produced an agreement on FCA's part to waive some of Njaim's occurrences and reinstate him “at a sixth attendance occurrence level[.]” (Id.).

         1. Request for Intermittent FMLA Leave

         In November, 2014, Njaim had asked Sedgwick to initiate a claim for FMLA leave. (Doc. 26-2 at 2; Doc. 30-5 at 4). He told Sedgwick that he did not want to open the claim until 2015 because he would be on Sickness and Accident leave through 2014. (Doc. 26-2 at 2). Sedgwick approved the claim and authorized intermittent FMLA leave from January 8, 2015 through ...


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