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Anderson v. Bellsouth Telecommunications, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

February 4, 2015

SHANDRIKA ANDERSON, Plaintiff,
v.
BELLSOUTH TELECOMMUNICATIONS, LLC (d/b/a BELLSOUTH TELECOMMUNICATIONS, LLC AT&T Southeast), Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

R. DAVID PROCTOR, District Judge.

This case is before the court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 20) filed on March 27, 2014. The Motion has been fully briefed and is now ripe for review. (Docs. 22, 24).

Plaintiff Shandrika Anderson alleges Defendant Bellsouth Telecommunications, LLC discriminated against Plaintiff in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. More specifically, Plaintiff[1] asserts claims under the ADA for: (1) unlawful discrimination for failure to accommodate her disabilities (Count One); (2) discriminatory termination (Count One); and (3) retaliation (Count Two). ( See Doc. 1). Plaintiff also asserts claims under the FMLA for interference (Count Three) and retaliation (Count Four).

After carefully reviewing the Rule 56 record and considering the arguments made by the parties, the court concludes that Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims. Therefore, Defendant's Motion (Doc. 20) is due to be granted, and accordingly, all of Plaintiff's claims are due to be dismissed with prejudice.

I. Standard of Review

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party asking for summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56(e) requires the nonmoving party to 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. See id. at 324.

The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the non-movant. See Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See id. at 249.

II. Facts[2]

A. Background

BellSouth hired Plaintiff Shandrika Anderson in January 2008. ( See Doc. 20, Ex. A, Pl. Dep. 31:16-20). Plaintiff was asked to resign her employment from BellSouth on March 28, 2012; she complied on that date. ( Id. at 81:9-21; Ex. 15 to Pl. Dep.).

While employed, Plaintiff worked as a Sales Associate in a Consumer Services Call Center ("Call Center") in Birmingham, Alabama. (Pl. Dep. 31:21-32:4-33, 67:14-68:6). A Sales Associate's duties are performed in an office environment where employees are assigned to individual workstations with a desktop computer and a telephone. ( Id. at 32:5-12). The job requires handling incoming customer calls and selling Defendant's products and services over the telephone. ( Id. at 32:13-17). Sales Associates are required to meet a monthly and annual sales quota, referred to as a sales "objective." ( See id. at 32:18-22). The sales objective is the same for all Sales Associates in the call center. ( Id. at 32:23-33:1).

When Defendant hired Plaintiff, it provided her with several weeks of initial classroom training and on-the-job training that covered all aspects and requirements of the Sales Associate job. ( Id. at 33:22-34:3, 39:18-40:25). Throughout Plaintiff's employment, she also received ongoing training and coaching. ( Id. at 40:5-41:18). A Sales Associate's position is a non-management job that is within the bargaining unit represented by the Communications Workers of America ("CWA"). ( Id. at 33:6-18). At all pertinent times, the terms and conditions of Plaintiff's employment were governed by the collective bargaining agreement between BellSouth and CWA (the "Labor Agreement"). ( Id. at 33:12-15).

B. Defendant's Management Structure

The immediate three levels of supervision above a Sales Associate position in the Call Center include an immediate supervisor (also known as a Sales Coach), a second-level manager that holds the title of Center Sales Manager (also sometimes called a Center Director), and a third-level manager who held the title of General Manager. ( Id. at 34:4-24). Plaintiff does not recall the person who worked as her General Manager at any time during her employment with Defendant, and (therefore, not surprisingly) does not contend that any of her General Managers discriminated against her in any way, including discrimination based on her disability or use of FMLA leave. ( Id. at 38:16-23). Nor does Plaintiff know who any of her General Managers reported to, and she does not contend that any manager above her General Manager discriminated against her in any way. ( Id. at 39:10-17, 46:8-47:1). Plaintiff had no interaction with any manager above her Center Sales Manager ( i.e., her second-level supervisor). ( Id. ).

From January 2008 to March 2011, Plaintiff's Center Sales Manager (her second-level supervisor) was Steve Wadley. ( Id. at 43:13-23). Plaintiff does not contend that Wadley discriminated against her in any way. ( Id. at 43:19-22, 46:12-16). Beginning on April 1, 2011, and continuing through the date of her resignation (March 28, 2012), Anastacia ("Stacy") Hardy replaced Wadley and became Plaintiff's second-level supervisor. ( See id. 45:24-46:11; Ex. 15 to Pl. Dep.). Although Plaintiff does not contend that Hardy held her to a higher standard than other Sales Associates ( id. at 123:4-7), she does allege that Hardy mistreated her. ( Id. at 158:17-20).[3]

C. Bellsouth's Disability Claim Structure

During Plaintiff's employment, Plaintiff applied for and was granted leave under the BellSouth Short Term Disability ("STD") benefits plan. (Pl. Dep. 42:6-23, 44:14-45:4). The exact nature of Plaintiff's leave is not completely clear from the record.

Defendant outsources the management of its disability claims process to an independent third-party claims administrator, Sedgwick Claims Management Services ("Sedgwick"). Sedgwick is responsible for processing and resolving all of Defendant's employees' STD claims. ( See Pl. Dep. 44:24-45:23). Plaintiff interacted with Sedgwick directly through the AT&T Integrated Disability Service Center (the "Disability Center") and her disability case manager. No person within Plaintiff's direct chain of command made any decision regarding any of Plaintiff's FMLA leave applications. (Pl. Dep. 148:5-149:21). That responsibility belonged to the Disability Center. ( Id. at 44:24-45:23, 148:21-149:21). Plaintiff does not contend that any claims representative discriminated against her in any way. ( Id. at 149:16-21).

D. Plaintiff's First FMLA Leave (March 28 to March 30, 2011)

Plaintiff applied for and was granted FMLA leave twice in March 2011. ( See Pl. Ex. H-8, FMLA Eligibility Forms, at 1459, 1461, 1465; Pl. Dep. 44:14-20). On the first such occasion, March 28, 2011, Plaintiff received fifteen hours of FMLA leave and returned to work on March 30. (Pl. Ex. H-8, FMLA Eligibility Form, at 1459, 1461).[4] At that time, the undisputed Rule 56 evidence shows that Defendant found Plaintiff eligible to receive FMLA benefits, having worked for Defendant for at least twelve months and also having worked 1, 250 hours during the preceding twelve months prior to the first date of her absence. ( See id. ).

E. Plaintiff's Second FMLA Leave (March 31 to September 2)

On March 31, 2011 Plaintiff left work due to a "high level of stress, " and shortly thereafter, Plaintiff's doctors diagnosed her with bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. (Pl. Dep. 18:1-11, 42:6-43:1; Pl. Ex. C-3, Tieszen Recommendation, July 26, 2011, at 793). Plaintiff was out on STD leave until September 2011. (Pl. Dep. 42:6-23). Plaintiff was found eligible to receive FMLA benefits again. (Pl. Ex. H-8, FMLA Eligibility Form, at 1465).

On May 16, 2011, Plaintiff received a letter from the Disability Center advising Plaintiff that her medical information did not support disability from any type of work, including modified duties. (Pl. Ex. C-3, Disability Center Letter, May 16, 2011, at 699). Furthermore, the letter informed Plaintiff that, as of May 19, continued benefit payments would only be paid contingent on the results of an independent medical evaluation. ( Id. ). The record indicates Plaintiff was able to extend the benefits through June 15 without an independent medical evaluation due to a hospitalization for severe depression. (Pl. Ex. A-1, STD Admin. Record, at 565). Ultimately, the Disability Center denied an extension of Plaintiff's STD benefits beyond June 19, 2011. Plaintiff challenged this denial and remained on STD leave. On July 26, 2011, Dr. Stuart Tieszen sent the Disability Center a letter indicating that Plaintiff was unable to return to work and she would need to be reassessed in six weeks. (Pl. Ex. C-3, Tieszen Recommendation, July 26, 2011, at 793).

On September 1, 2011, the Disability Center sent Plaintiff a letter confirming this denial of benefits, finding: "There was insufficient information to support your inability to work. Although some findings are referenced, none are documented to be so severe as to prevent you from performing any type of work from June 19, 2011 through your return to work." (Pl. Ex. A-1, STD Admin. Record, at 588-91).[5] It is undisputed that Plaintiff attempted to remain on STD leave for about six months, from the end of March to the beginning of September. (Pl. Dep. 42:18-23).

F. Plaintiff's Return to Work (September 2 to September 14)

After the denial of her STD claims, Plaintiff returned to work on September 2, 2011. ( Id. at 150:4-25; see also id. at 170:1-14 (noting that when Plaintiff's STD benefits were denied she felt she was being "pressur[ed] to come back to work" which made her feel like she was "going to lose her job.")).

On September 14, 2011, Plaintiff left work, claiming to have suffered a relapse. (Pl. Ex. D-4, STD Admin. Record, at 875-83). This episode led to Plaintiff's hospitalization. ( See Pl. Ex. F-6, Crawford Assessment, Sept. 16, 2011, at 939-41). One of Defendant's managers, Michael LeBlanc, found Plaintiff eligible to receive her remaining fifteen hours of leave under the FMLA. (Pl. Ex. H-8, FMLA Eligibility Form, Sept. 14, 2011, at 1467). In particular, LeBlanc acknowledged that although Plaintiff had not worked 1, 250 hours during the past twelve months, Plaintiff had qualified and been approved to receive FMLA benefits for the same medical condition within the same calendar year. ( Id. at 1467-68).

G. Request for Change in Duty Station

Plaintiff alleges that sometime in 2011, she requested to be moved from Birmingham Call Center 1 to Birmingham Call Center 2 because she felt the music playing in Birmingham Call Center 1 was too loud for her to concentrate. (Pl. Dep. 157:15-158:16). However, Plaintiff never filed a formal request or complaint requesting such an accommodation. In a letter to the EEOC, Defendant indicates Plaintiff requested a transfer, on September 13, 2011, the day before she relapsed. (Pl. Ex. MISC-9, Def. Resp. Letter to EEOC, Feb. 29, 2012, at 1402).

Instead of moving locations, Plaintiff returned to work and Defendant turned down the music in Birmingham Call Center 1 so that Plaintiff no longer believed it to be too loud. ( Id. at 164:7-20). Plaintiff did not request any further accommodation. (Pl. Dep. 157:7-10).

H. Plaintiff's Leave After Relapse (September 14 to November 6)

After her relapse, Plaintiff remained on leave through at least November 6, 2011. ( See Pl. Ex. D-4, STD Admin. Record, at 892). At least initially, Plaintiff was expected to return to work by October 10, unless her STD benefits were extended. ( Id. at 885-86). For that reason, on October 10, Plaintiff received a letter from the Disability Center, advising Plaintiff that her medical information did not support disability from any type of work, including modified duties. (Pl. Ex. C-3, Disability Center Letter, Oct. 10, 2011, at 850). Furthermore, the letter informed Plaintiff that, as of October 13, Plaintiff's continued benefits payments would be paid contingent on the results of an independent medical evaluation ( id. ), and Plaintiff was granted an extension of benefits so that an independent medical evaluation could be conducted by Dr. Thomas Boll (Pl. Ex. D-4, STD Admin. Record, at 886, 888).

On October 27, Dr. Boll conducted an independent medical evaluation of Plaintiff. ( Id. at 890; Pl. Ex. H-8, Boll Assessment, Oct. 27, 2011, at 982-85). In his evaluation, Dr. Boll recounted the prior diagnoses by Dr. Tieszen and suggested she was suffering from various "Mood Disorders." ( Id. at 984). Dr. Boll recommended that Plaintiff receive certain accommodations, including a modified work schedule and a change to a less disruptive setting in order to reduce her stress. ( Id. ). Dr. Boll's report disagreed with Dr. Tieszen's recommendation that Plaintiff return to work within the week, but Dr. Boll accepted that Plaintiff could return by November 1. ( Id. at 984-85). Ultimately, Plaintiff returned to work on November 7. (Pl. Ex. D-4, STD Admin. Record, at 893).

I. Plaintiff's Return to Work After Relapse (November 7 to November 16)

When Plaintiff initially returned to work, she worked six hours a day from November 7 to November 11. ( Id. at 898). On or around November 11, Plaintiff sought and was denied FMLA leave. (Pl. Ex. H-8, FMLA Eligibility Form, Nov. 11, 2011, at 1473). Although Defendant found Plaintiff still had fifteen hours of time off remaining under the FMLA, Defendant found Plaintiff was no longer eligible to take leave. ( Id. ). Defendant determined Plaintiff had not worked 1, 250 hours during the preceding twelve months and did not qualify or receive FMLA approval for the same medical condition within the same calendar year.[6] ( Id. ). It is undisputed that Plaintiff worked 728.87 hours between November 11, 2010 and November 11, 2011. (Pl. Dep. 129:4-14; Ex. 17 to Pl. Dep., at 2).

Nevertheless, on November 10, 2011, Dr. Tieszen submitted a recommendation that Plaintiff continue to work "half days for the time being." (Pl. Ex. F-6, Tieszen Recommendation, Nov. 10, 2011). Soon thereafter, Plaintiff was formally granted a reduction in hours ( i.e., a "modified tour" or "restricted hours") from November 11 to November 14. ( See Ex. 21 to Pl. Dep., Restricted Duty Notice).

On November 15, Plaintiff contends Hardy called Plaintiff's disability case manager in order to void Plaintiff's accommodations. (Doc. 22 at 6; see also Pl. Ex. D-4, STD Admin. Record, at 899-902). Indeed, call logs indicate that Hardy made inquiry regarding the status of Plaintiff's leave request. (Pl. Ex. D-4, STD Admin. Record, at 899). Hardy's call was transferred to Plaintiff's case manager; following that call a voicemail was left with Plaintiff indicating that her "mod tour is voided." ( Id. ). Although it is unclear what hours Plaintiff actually worked between November 11 and November 18, entries in the Disability Center suggest that she worked the following schedule:

11/11/11-ill from 7:30 AM to 8:30 AM then worked "remainder of the day"[7]
11/14/11-worked full day[8]
11/15/11-worked full day except for ...

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