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Jackson v. Oil-Dri Corporation of America

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

April 27, 2018

JAMES BENNY JACKSON PLAINTIFF
v.
OIL-DRI CORPORATION OF AMERICA and BLUE MOUNTAIN PRODUCTION COMPANY DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DEBRA M. BROWN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This disability discrimination action is before the Court on the motion for summary judgment of Blue Mountain Production Company. Doc. #75.

         I

         Summary Judgment Standard

         Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “[s]ummary judgment is proper only when the record demonstrates that no genuine issue of material fact exists and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Luv N' Care Ltd. v. Groupo Rimar, 844 F.3d 442, 447 (5th Cir. 2016). “A factual issue is genuine if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-moving party, and material if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action.” Burton v. Freescale Semiconductor, Inc., 798 F.3d 222, 226 (5th Cir. 2015) (quotation marks omitted). On a motion for summary judgment, a court must “consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor.” Edwards v. Cont'l Cas. Co., 841 F.3d 360, 363 (5th Cir. 2016).

         In seeking summary judgment, “[t]he moving party bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the record which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Nola Spice Designs, L.L.C. v. Haydel Enters., Inc., 783 F.3d 527, 536 (5th Cir. 2015) (quotation marks and alterations omitted). If the moving party satisfies this burden, “the non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). “Where the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof at trial, the moving party satisfies this initial burden by demonstrating an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celtic Marine Corp. v. James C. Justice Cos., Inc., 760 F.3d 477, 481 (5th Cir. 2014).

         II

         Factual Background

         A. The Parties

         James Benny Jackson was born on June 4, 1953. Doc. #102-1 at 12. He completed high school and subsequently attended Northeast Mississippi Community College and the University of Mississippi without earning a degree. Id. at 20-21.

         Blue Mountain Production Company (“BMPC”) is a clay mining and processing facility which primarily manufactures absorbent clay which is later sold as cat litter. Doc. #75-13 at ¶ 2.

         B. Jackson's Position

         In February of 2000, Jackson was hired by BMPC to work as a chemical operator. Doc. #102-1 at 23, 25. In this role, Jackson was “responsible for the material that the operators had to package. [He] had to make sure that the correct material went to the correct packing line and also had to make sure that any additives that were needed [were] put … there.” Id. at 23-34. In sum, Jackson “was responsible for the quality” of the absorbent clay produced by BMPC. Id. at 24.

         Jackson remained a chemical operator throughout his employment with BMPC. Id. at 26. However, at some point, his shift changed from the night shift, for which he was hired, to the day shift. Id. at 27. Additionally, his “duties and responsibilities changed and evolved” over time. Id. at 25-26. Specifically, Jackson occasionally was assigned to mix dye. Id. at 25. Also, starting in about 2012, Jackson was called upon to perform lab technician duties on a “daily basis.” Id. at 26-27. Jackson estimated that, on average, he spent approximately ten percent of his time in his office (a small room with control panels and a computer) and the remainder of his time on the “chemical platform” or the “packaging area.” Id. at 32-33. When called upon to mix dye, he did so in the “dye room, ” also known as the “slurry room.” Id. at 25.

         The “chemical platform” was the location where BMPC mixed sprays, dust, and chemicals, to “put the recipe together for their blend.” Doc. #77-6 at 7-8. Chemicals were also mixed in the slurry room. Id. at 16.

         C. Health Problems and Eventual Leave

         Sometime between 2007 and 2012, Jackson contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalized for eight days. Doc. #102-1 at 42-43. Sometime later, Jackson contracted pneumonia for a second time but recovered without hospitalization. Id. at 43.

         In December of 2014, Jackson began to experience “asthma-like conditions.” Id. at 44. Jackson went to see Melinda Quinn, a nurse practitioner, who treated Jackson for an upper respiratory infection. Id. at 44-45. Jackson's symptoms continued into January 2015. Id. at 45- 46.

         While at work one day in January 2015, Jackson developed a fever and chills. Id. at 46. Jackson told Tyler Cohea that he was sick and needed to go home. Id. Cohea granted this request. Id. Jackson then spoke with Quinn, who referred him to Tippah County Hospital for a chest x-ray. Id. Jackson underwent the x-ray and was subsequently diagnosed with COPD.[1] Id. Quinn then referred Jackson to Dr. Michael Wilons, a lung specialist in Memphis. Id. at 47.

         Prior to seeing Wilons, Jackson informed Rhonda Barnes, BMPC's Human Resources Coordinator, [2] that he was “very sick” and that he was concerned he would not be able to return to work. Id. at 52-53. Barnes informed Jackson that he could seek leave under the Family Medical Act and that there was a “possibility” he could retire. Id. at 53. Barnes and Jackson also discussed the potential for Jackson to work in a different area at BMPC “if [he] could come back.” Id. at 53. Specifically, Jackson asked Barnes about positions that were open, and Barnes told Jackson that “if there were positions open …he could apply.” Doc. #75-3 at 8.

         On April 16, 2015, BMPC, which maintained a posting policy for job vacancies, [3] posted two job openings for shipping/receiving clerks. Doc. #102-5. Sometime later, Barnes notified Jackson of the shipping vacancies. Doc. #75-3 at 12; Doc. #102-1 at 115. Jackson offered to take the job and Barnes replied, “I don't see how you could take that big a pay cut.” Doc. #102-1 at 115. Jackson replied that he “would be willing to take a significant pay cut if it meant me still being able to work and keep my benefits ….” Id. When Barnes asked how large a pay cut Jackson would be willing to accept, Jackson said three or four dollars an hour. Id. at 115-16. At some point during the conversation, Barnes informed Jackson that the positions would be posted. Doc. #75-3 at 9.

         Ultimately, Jackson never applied for either position. 102-1 at 65. Jackson explained that, at the time, BMPC maintained a non-demotion policy which prohibited bidding on jobs with an equal or lower paygrade, and that the shipping positions were lower paygrades than his current position.[4] Id. at 100-01. The positions were eventually filled on April 27, 2015, and June 15, 2015. Doc. #102-6.

         Also in April 2015, Wilons diagnosed Jackson with mild COPD, [5] sarcoidosis (a disease ordinarily of the lungs), [6] and asthma. Doc. #102-1 at 47. Wilons prescribed Jackson inhalers, Prednisone, Qnasl, and Symbicort, and recommended that Jackson temporarily remove himself from the environment to which he had been exposed. Id. at 48. Subsequently, Jackson requested and received leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, retroactive to April 27, 2015. Doc. #75-13 at ¶ 3.

         D. Leave and ...


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