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Eck v. Whirley Industries

January 28, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: McLAUGHLIN, Sean J., J.


Pending before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by the Defendant. ECF No. 23. For the reasons that follow, that motion will be granted.


Defendant Whirley Industries, Inc. ("Whirley"), is in the business of designing, manufacturing and selling specialty cups, straws and related products. ECF Nos. 25 & 41 at ¶ 2. Several of Whirley's products incorporate some form of artwork. Id. at ¶ 3. While some customers either supply their own artwork or have Whirley obtain artistic designs from alternative production sources, others rely on Whirley to create artistic designs for their products. Id. Individuals employed by Whirley's Art Department typically work on either "production art" or "creative art." Id. at ¶ 4. Employees who work on production art typically work with designs that have been already been submitted by customers. Id. at ¶ 5. In contrast, employees who work on creative art generally create artistic designs in connection with specific products without the benefit of predetermined templates. Id. at ¶ 4.

Plaintiff Christine A. Eck ("Eck") was born on May 4, 1963. ECF No. 39 at 36. On December 12, 1994, she was hired to be Whirley's Creative Art Director. ECF No. 37 at 55. Terry Lyle ("Lyle"), the Manager of Whirley's Art Department, was Eck's immediate supervisor. ECF Nos. 25 & 41 at ¶ 7. During the course of her employment with Whirley, approximately 80% of Eck's time was spent performing tasks related to creative art. Id. at ¶ 9. She spent the remainder of her time assisting with the preparation of production art, attending meetings, and performing other work-related duties. Id.

At some point in 1997 or 1998, Eck began to experience pain and numbness in her feet. Id. at ¶ 28. She later experienced vision problems, numbness in her hands, and balance-related difficulties. Id. at ¶¶ 28-29. Medical personnel at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, ultimately determined that Eck was suffering from multiple sclerosis. Id. at ¶ 29. Eck told Lyle about the diagnosis. Id. at ¶ 30.

In 2000, Eck complained about the condition of Whirley's parking lot, claiming that she had fallen several times while walking to her workplace. Id. at ¶ 35. Whirley responded by providing Eck with a permit allowing her to park her vehicle in close proximity to the entrance that she used to access the building. Id. at ¶ 36. The permit alleviated Eck's concerns about the condition of the parking lot, since she no longer needed to walk across it on a daily basis. Id. at ¶ 37.

Around the beginning of 2006, Eck's medical condition began to deteriorate. Id. at ¶ 38. Cleo A. Nixon ("Nixon"), Whirley's Payroll and Benefits Supervisor, informed Eck of her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA") [29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq.] in a letter dated February 3, 2006. ECF No. 30 at 24. Nixon's letter provided details as to how Eck could invoke her rights under the FMLA. ECF No. 30 at 24-26.

In a letter dated June 9, 2006, Dr. Mary R. Rensel, Eck's treating neurologist, and Kathleen M. Schwetz ("Schwetz"), a registered nurse employed by the Cleveland Clinic, stated that Eck would be unable to work between June 14, 2006, and August 11, 2006, because of an exacerbation of her multiple sclerosis. Id. at 20. Eck formally requested that Whirly grant her a short-term disability leave during that period of time, and her request was granted.*fn1 ECF No. 41-5 at 11-12. In a letter dated July 26, 2006, Dr. Rensel stated that Eck would need to remain on medical leave until August 29, 2006, at which point she would be re-examined. ECF No. 30 at 19. In response to Dr. Rensel's letter, Eck was permitted to remain on leave for an additional two weeks. ECF Nos. 41 & 44 at ¶ 7.

After a functional capacity evaluation conducted on August 29, 2006, Dr. Rensel completed an evaluation form indicating that Eck would be able to return to work on September 5, 2006, without restrictions as long as she was not expected to work more than eight hours per day and five days per week.*fn2 ECF No. 30 at 17-18. The next day, however, Eck was informed that her position with Whirley was being eliminated. Id. at 11. In a letter to Eck dated August 30, 2006, Rita M. Bevevino ("Bevevino"), Whirley's Human Resources Manager, stated:

Due to a significant reduction in the amount of creative artwork, Whirley Industries, Inc. has been forced to make the difficult decision to eliminate your job. The purpose of this letter is to inform you that your employment with Whirley Industries will end on Wednesday, August 30, 2006.

Id. The letter was handed to Eck during a meeting conducted in Bevevino's office. ECF No. 32 at 45. During the course of the meeting, Lyle explained to Eck that he had decided to eliminate her position because of a decrease in the demand for creative artwork. Id. at 46.

In November 2006, Eck applied for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act [42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f]. ECF Nos. 25 & 41 at ¶ 39. Her application was denied on November 9, 2006, because the value of her financial resources was in excess of Title XVI's eligibility limits. ECF No. 28 at 91-92. On January 30, 2007, Eck applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act [42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433], alleging that she had become disabled on June 14, 2006. ECF No. 29 at 15. The application was administratively denied on June 11, 2007. ECF No. 29 at 52-56. Eck appealed this denial on August 2, 2007, by submitting additional information about her medical condition. Id. at 57-63. On August 12, 2008, the Social Security Administration ("SSA") reversed its earlier decision and determined that Eck had become disabled on June 14, 2006. ECF Nos. 25 & 41 at ¶ 46. Although Title II's statutory "waiting period" prevented her from receiving Social Security disability benefits for the first five months of her period of disability, Eck was awarded retroactive benefits dating back to December 2006. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E), (c)(2); ECF No. 29 at 64. This award was consistent with Eck's onset date of June 14, 2006.

Eck commenced this action against Whirley on November 26, 2008.*fn3 Whirley filed a motion for summary judgment on July 22, 2010. ECF No. 23. Oral argument was held on December 7, 2010. ...

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