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Vanderberg v. Rexam Beverage Can Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

February 7, 2017




         Presently before the court is the defendant's motion for summary judgment. Upon due consideration of the motion, response, exhibits, and supporting and opposing authority, the court is ready to rule.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The plaintiff, Steven Vanderberg, brings this action against his former employer, Rexam Beverage Can Company, alleging violations under 29 U.S.C. § 621 for claims arising under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). He further alleges violations under 42 U.S.C. § 12101 for claims arising under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (“ADAA”), as well as violations under 42 U.S.C. § 2601 for claims arising under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

         Vanderberg contends that were it not for his age, sixty-one at the time, or his alleged disability, suffering from migraine headaches, Rexam would not have terminated his employment. He further asserts that his termination was act of retaliation for his discussion with Rexam about the possible need for FMLA leave on account of his migraines.

         Vanderberg began working for Rexam as a Spray Room Operator in July of 1988. In November of 2003, he was promoted to the position of Front End Maintainer. One of Vanderberg's primary responsibilities as front end maintainer was to perform preventative maintenance. Preventative maintenance consisted of performing daily checks of the five “body- maker” machines assigned to him, whereby he was to check and record the pressure readings of the machines' main twenty-five gauges, and to report any defective or broken gauges.

         Rexam required that he document this information in what it refers to as a Preventative Maintenance Sheet (“PM sheet”), and then submit these forms to his maintenance supervisor for review and safe-keeping. Accurate documentation is critical and necessary to alert Rexam to any mechanical problems so that equipment damage and resultant monetary loss can be prevented.

         On January 8, 2015, following the plaintiff's 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, Maintenance Supervisor Jeff Schmidt discovered a stack of one hundred and fifty (150) photocopies of partially completed PM sheets that had been left on the copy machine. The pressure readings of the twenty-five main gauges had been prefilled in and the readings on all copies were identical. Additionally, the photocopies were left undated and unsigned.

         Schmidt immediately set out to determine who had made the copies. After comparing them with recently submitted PM sheets, Schmidt realized that the copies were identical to the PM sheets submitted by Vanderberg. Schmidt's investigation also revealed that Vanderberg had been submitting these pre-filled photocopied PM sheets since at least December 5, 2014.

         Schmidt then directed another mechanic, Barry Richmond, to perform a check of Vanderberg's assigned machines and record his findings in a PM sheet. The readings for the gauges submitted by Richmond differed, and in some instances differed greatly, from those submitted by Vanderberg earlier that same day. Moreover, Richmond reported multiple broken or defective gauges while the PM sheet submitted by Vanderberg contained no such report.

         Soon after, Schmidt communicated this information to the plant manager, Jason Hurst, and Rexam's Human Resources Manager, Rose Doyle. On January 15, 2015, Schmidt, Hurst and Doyle met with Vanderberg to discuss what Schmidt had found. Vanderberg initially denied making the copies but, when pressed on the issue, he admitted to making them, contending he had only done so in error. Eventually he confessed that he had been submitting pre-filled photocopied PM sheets for approximately two months.

         In attempting to explain his actions, Vanderberg claimed he had only created these copies as a means to make his job more efficient. He further asserted that if the actual pressure readings differed from the numbers he had prefilled in, he would scratch them out and change them accordingly. Management responded by pointing out that, since December 5, 2014, every PM sheet he had submitted contained the same readings each day, and that none had been scratched out or changed. Vanderberg failed to provide an explanation on this point. It is also undisputed that these numbers fluctuate daily and thus are not typically identical over an extended period of time.

         On January 21, 2015, Rexam terminated Vanderberg's employment. Rexam informed Vanderberg he was being fired for falsifying company documents by submitting photocopied, pre-filled PM sheets, and because, based on the stack of copies found, the evidence indicated that he intended to continue to falsify company documents had his actions not been discovered.

         Vanderberg alleges that he has suffered from migraines since 1996, but that in recent years they have become more frequent and more severe. According to Vanderberg, severe migraines leave him totally incapacitated and unable to work. In addition, on two occasions, once in 2004 and again in 2014, Vanderberg was transported from work to the hospital because of a migraine.

         On September 24, 2014, Vanderberg contacted Doyle about the possible need for FMLA leave on account of his migraines. Doyle immediately sent him the requisite FMLA paperwork with an accompanying due date of October 8, 2014. Doyle, however, did not receive Vanderberg's FMLA forms until December 14, 2014. While the medical certification form was completed and signed by Vanderberg's doctor, it was not done so until December 11, 2014, as indicated by the doctor's dated signature. Moreover, the paperwork that Vanderberg was responsible for filling out was not only submitted two months late, it was incomplete and unsigned. Vanderberg never asked for an extension of time to complete the paperwork, never inquired further about FMLA leave, and never actually requested any time off.

         Despite Rexam's articulated reason for his termination, Vanderberg believes he was terminated because of his age, his migraines, and his inquiry about the possible need for FMLA leave. Accordingly, he filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on September 24, 2015, and, after exhausting his administrative remedies, filed the instant suit. Rexam now moves for summary ...

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