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Frymoyer v. East Penn Manufacturing Co., Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 1, 2017

BRUCE FRYMOYER, Plaintiff,
v.
EAST PENN MANUFACTURING COMPANY, INC., Defendant.

         Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 25 - Granted

          OPINION

          JOSEPH F. LEESON, JR. United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Bruce Frymoyer claims that his former employer, East Penn Manufacturing Company, Inc., terminated him to avoid incurring further workers' compensation expenses for a knee injury that he suffered at work. He claims that East Penn violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Pennsylvania common law by discriminating against him on the basis of a disability and retaliating against him for seeking workers' compensation. East Penn has moved for summary judgment. Because no reasonable jury could find a causal link between Frymoyer's termination and either his knee injury or his claims for workers' compensation, summary judgment is warranted in East Penn's favor.

         II. Background[1]

         East Penn manufactures batteries. It employs approximately 8, 000 employees at a facility in Lyons Station, Pennsylvania. Frymoyer was one of those employees. He was a maintenance technician, and in May 2012, while at work, he suffered an injury to his left knee. The injury required surgery, and East Penn covered the cost as a workers' compensation expense. After the surgery, Frymoyer missed about two months of work. Upon his return, he resumed his same duties at his same rate of pay.

         About a year later, Frymoyer began experiencing pain in the same knee. He received occupational therapy from East Penn's medical department, but East Penn denied his request to pay for a second surgical procedure. He went ahead with the procedure anyway and missed approximately three months of work-from May 6, 2014, until August 18, 2014-while he recovered. In their briefs, both sides allude to the fact that he filed a petition with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry to challenge East Penn's decision to deny coverage, which was ultimately successful, but neither side discusses that proceeding in much detail.

         When Frymoyer returned to work on August 18, 2014, he again resumed his same duties at his same rate of pay. At his deposition, he testified that his knee injury fully healed as a result of this second procedure and has not given him any further trouble. Frymoyer Dep. 30:14-21, ECF No. 25-5.

         In early September 2014, a few weeks after he returned to work, he was called to the office of Anthony DiBenedetto, East Penn's personnel coordinator. After asking how Frymoyer was feeling following the surgery, DiBenedetto informed him that he had exceeded the number of absences he was permitted to take under the company's leave policy. He provided Frymoyer with a copy of the policy and asked Frymoyer to acknowledge in writing that he received it, but Frymoyer refused. DiBenedetto made a note of the meeting and placed a copy of the note in Frymoyer's personnel file.

         About five months later, an incident occurred in the maintenance department where Frymoyer worked. Someone had thrown an object-apparently a fuse or a metal nut-at a computer screen and damaged it. Frymoyer was summoned to a meeting with DiBenedetto and two other East Penn personnel representatives, who informed him that another employee had identified him as the one who threw the object. Frymoyer Dep. 35:8-38:2; Frymoyer Dep. Ex. D-2, ECF No. 25-5. Frymoyer denied responsibility, but the group told him that he would be suspended while the incident was investigated further. Id. He was sent home immediately after the meeting. Id.

         Later that day, DiBenedetto reported the incident to East Penn's personnel director, Alison Snyder. After reviewing a few written reports of the incident that had been prepared, she decided that a further investigation was warranted. She and DiBenedetto proceeded to interview a number of employees who were present at the time of the incident.[2] Snyder Dep. 20:3-21:25, ECF No. 25-4. As Frymoyer had been told, one of those employees, who said that he had witnessed the incident first-hand, identified Frymoyer as the one who threw the object. He also signed a written declaration, under penalty of perjury, attesting to his account. See Eshbach Decl., ECF No. 25-6.

         Frymoyer's counsel claims that he sent Snyder an email the evening after Frymoyer was suspended, warning her that taking any action against Frymoyer would be viewed as retaliation for Frymoyer's exercise of his workers' compensation rights:

Ms. Snyder: given that you consider yourself a human resources professional, I will presume you are aware that it's illegal to retaliate against someone because he has filed a workers' compensation claim. If you fire Mr. Frymoyer based on an incident in which he wasn't involved (and had witnesses to attest that he was not involved), your company will be liable for a Wrongful Termination claim under Pennsylvania [law]. He's been an excellent employee for eight years. Leave him alone. . . . The last retaliation case I had to try led to a $750, 000 verdict for emotional distress, plus reinstatement to the job and lost pay. I'm sure you don't want something like that on your record.

Pl.'s Br. Ex. 7, ECF No. 31-7. Snyder denies that she ever received the email.[3]

         A few days after his suspension, DiBenedetto and Snyder spoke to Frymoyer by telephone about the incident, and he maintained his innocence. Two days later, an in-person meeting was convened with Frymoyer at East Penn. DiBenedetto, Snyder, and another East Penn personnel representative attended, and at the end of the meeting, they informed Frymoyer that he was being terminated. Frymoyer Dep. 43:10-25; Frymoyer Dep. Ex. D-4. According to Snyder, they ultimately credited Frymoyer's coworker-who claimed that he saw Frymoyer throw the object-over Frymoyer, in part because they had been told that the two of them were friends, which, in their minds, made it unlikely that Frymoyer's co-worker had any motive to fabricate his story. Snyder was the only employee present at the meeting with termination authority, but both Snyder and DiBenedetto signed Frymoyer's termination notice.

         Frymoyer maintains that he was not responsible for damaging the computer screen. He believes that he was blamed for the incident as a pretext to terminate him for seeking workers' compensation for the two surgical procedures he underwent to treat his knee injury. On that basis, he claims that the decision to terminate him constituted discrimination on the basis of a disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, see 29 U.S.C. § 794(a), [4] and a wrongful discharge under Pennsylvania common law, see Shick v. Shirey, 716 A.2d 1231, 1232 (Pa. 1998) (holding that an “employee who alleges retaliatory discharge for the filing of a workers' compensation claim has stated a cause of action” under Pennsylvania common law).

         III. Standard of Review ...


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