United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
VARONICA L. UDEH, Plaintiff,
WINN-DIXIE MONTGOMERY, LLC, Defendant.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, District Judge.
Plaintiff Varonica Udeh is a former employee of defendant Winn-Dixie Montgomery, LLC. In June of 2009, Ms. Udeh went on maternity leave. The following month, Winn-Dixie terminated Ms. Udeh's employment. Ms. Udeh contends that Winn-Dixie discriminated against her by terminating her employment while she was on maternity leave. Winn-Dixie maintains that it terminated Ms. Udeh's employment because she abandoned her job. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, Winn-Dixie asks the Court to enter judgment in its favor on Ms. Udeh's pregnancy discrimination claim. (Doc. 25). For the reasons stated below, the Court denies Winn-Dixie's motion for summary judgment.
I. STANDARDS OF REVIEW
"The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). To demonstrate that there is a genuine dispute concerning a material fact, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment must cite "to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). "The court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3). The Court must view the evidence in the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Atheists of Florida, Inc. v. City of Lakeland, Fla., 713 F.3d 577, 589 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Johnson v. Booker T. Washington Broad. Serv., Inc, 234 F.3d 501, 507 (11th Cir. 2000)); Hill v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 510 Fed.Appx. 810, 813 (11th Cir. 2013). "If a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), the court may  give an opportunity to properly support or address the fact" or "issue any other appropriate order." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e).
Winn-Dixie asks the Court to disregard some of the evidence that Ms. Udeh has presented in opposition to the company's summary judgment motion. Under Rule 56(c)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, at the summary judgment stage, "[a] party may object that the material cited to support or dispute a fact cannot be presented in a form that would be admissible in evidence." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2). These objections function like trial objections, and "[t]he burden is on the proponent [of the evidence] to show that the material is admissible as presented or to explain the admissible form that is anticipated." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2) advisory committee's note (2010 amendments). If the Court finds that summary judgment evidence will be available at trial in an admissible form, then the Court may consider the evidence when deciding a summary judgment motion even though the evidence is not in an admissible form at the summary judgment stage. For example, "a district court may consider a hearsay statement in passing on a motion for summary judgment if the statement could be reduced to admissible evidence at trial or reduced to admissible form." Jones v. UPS Ground Freight, 683 F.3d 1283, 1293-94 (11th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). A district court has broad discretion to determine at the summary judgment stage what evidence it will consider pursuant to Rule 56(c)(2). See Green v. City of Northport, 2014 WL 1338106, at *1 (N.D. Ala. March 31, 2014).
II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
In January 2009, Winn-Dixie hired Ms. Udeh as an in-store coordinator at the company's Bessemer, Alabama store. (Doc. 28-1, p. 78). Ms. Udeh was approximately three months pregnant when she went to work for Winn-Dixie. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 17, 78). In April or May 2009, Amanda Williams, the front-end manager at the Bessemer store, began asking Ms. Udeh when she would take maternity leave. (Doc. 28-1, p. 88). In May or June of 2009, Monica Sledge, the store manager, also asked Ms. Udeh when she would schedule maternity leave. (Doc. 28-1, p. 90). Ms. Udeh told Ms. Williams and Ms. Sledge that she intended to take maternity leave by the end of June. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 92-93).
Ms. Udeh asked Ms. Sledge and Ms. Williams for maternity leave request forms. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 98-100). Ms. Sledge responded that she did not know how to access Winn-Dixie's maternity leave forms. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 99, 102). Ms. Williams told Ms. Udeh that she would print the forms and leave them in the office for her. (Doc. 28-1, p. 93). Before going on leave, Ms. Udeh looked for the forms in the office but could not find them. (Doc. 28-1, p. 101). Ms. Udeh did not follow up with Ms. Williams when she could not find the forms. (Doc. 28-1, p. 101).
Ms. Williams was on vacation when Ms. Udeh was ready to begin her maternity leave. Ms. Sledge told Ms. Udeh to start her leave and complete the forms when Ms. Williams returned. (Doc. 28-1, p. 99). Ms. Udeh began her leave on June 11, 2009, a few weeks earlier than she originally planned. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 94, 98). She delivered her son on June 20, 2009. (Doc. 28-1, p. 17).
After having her baby, Ms. Udeh spoke with Ms. Williams about completing the maternity leave forms. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 156-58). On June 23 or June 24, 2009, Ms. Udeh picked up the leave forms from Ms. Williams at the store. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 166-67). Ms. Williams did not give Ms. Udeh a specific date to return the forms. (Doc. 28-1, p. 167). Ms. Udeh does not know the exact date, but she returned the completed forms to the store sometime before July 4, 2009. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 172-73).
Ms. Udeh gave the completed leave paperwork to Customer Service Lead Tara Warren. (Doc. 28-1, p. 173; Doc. 28-7, ¶ 7). Ms. Warren gave the completed forms to In-Store Coordinator Rachel Weston. (Doc. 28-7, ¶ 8). Ms. Warren saw Ms. Weston place the forms in the fax machine and heard the machine faxing the leave papers. (Doc. 28-7, ¶ 9). After faxing the paperwork, Ms. Weston took the forms to Ms. Sledge in her office. (Doc. 28-7, ¶ 10). Ms. Sledge states that she does not know whether Ms. Udeh was ever able to obtain her leave paperwork. (Doc. 28-4, p. 13).
After Ms. Udeh turned in the leave request forms, no one from Winn-Dixie called her or explicitly told her that her request was granted. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 185; 327-28). Ms. Udeh "assum[ed] it was granted" when Ms. Sledge told her to pick up the paperwork when Ms. Williams returned from vacation. On this point, Ms. Udeh testified:
Q. Are you assuming that she meant your request that you had yet put in would be granted?
Q. Okay. But you can't testify here today that after you turned in your paperwork anyone  told you, Ms. Udeh, your request is granted, correct?
A. Not so much in those words, but in actions, yes.
(Doc. 28-1, pp. 328-29). Winn-Dixie's Benefits Department does not have a record of Ms. Udeh's Leave of Absence Request Form or related documents. (Doc. 28-8, p. 13). The Leave of Absence Request Form states that it should be faxed to Winn-Dixie's Human Resources Department. (Doc. 26-2, p. 1). Ms. Udeh does not know whether the form was faxed according to these instructions. (Doc. 28-1, p. 176).
On July 8 or 9, 2009, Ms. Udeh called Ms. Sledge to see if she could return to work earlier than originally planned. (Doc. 29, p. 30; Doc. 28-1, p. 195). During the call, Ms. Sledge told Ms. Udeh that the store had given Udeh's position as an in-store coordinator to Lisa Hubbard because Ms. Hubbard had been at the store longer than Ms. Udeh. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 195-96). Ms. Sledge told Ms. Udeh that she could return to work in a lower-paying cashier position. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 197-98). Ms. Udeh agreed to take that position. (Doc. 28-1, p. 198).
According to Ms. Udeh, she told Ms. Sledge that she needed to call her doctor and confirm that she could return to work early. (Doc. 28-1, p. 199). Ms. Sledge told Ms. Udeh to call her doctor and find out whether she could come back to work. (Doc. 28-1, p. 199). Ms. Sledge also informed Ms. Udeh that she was putting Ms. Udeh on the schedule as a cashier. Ms. Sledge advised Ms. Udeh that she would be terminated if she did not show up for her shift. (Doc. 28-1, p. 199). Ms. Sledge did not tell Ms. Udeh when she was putting her on the schedule. (Doc. 28-1, p. 199).
After Ms. Udeh contacted her doctor, Ms. Udeh called Ms. Sledge and informed her that the doctor would not let Ms. Udeh return to work until August 12, 2009, after her postpartum checkup. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 200-04). Ms. Sledge told Ms. Udeh to let her know when she could come back to work, and the cashier's position would be waiting for her. (Doc. 28-1, p. 204). Ms. Udeh did not talk to Ms. Sledge again after that conversation. (Doc. 28-1, p. 205).
On or around July 13, 2009, Lorre Prisby, co-director of the Bessemer store, called Ms. Udeh. (Doc. 28-1, p. 206). Ms. Prisby told Ms. Udeh that the company had terminated Ms. Udeh's employment, and that if Ms. Udeh wanted to come back to the store, she would have to reapply for her job. (Doc. 28-1, pp. 206-07). When Ms. Udeh asked why she was terminated, Ms. Prisby told her that her maternity leave paperwork was not on file with the office, and that after six weeks, the computer automatically deletes an employee from the system. (Doc. 28-1, p. 208). On July 13, 2009, Ms. Udeh had been on maternity leave for fewer than six weeks. ( See pg. 5, supra ). Ms. Prisby testified that she does not know why Ms. Udeh was terminated, and no one contacted Ms. Udeh to tell her that the company was prepared to terminate Ms. Udeh's employment. (Doc. 28-3, p. 12).
According to Ms. Sledge, Winn-Dixie terminated Ms. Udeh when she failed to show up for her assigned shift. (Doc. 26-3, p. 54; Doc. 28-4, p. 15). Winn-Dixie's policy provides that "a team member with unexcused Absences for three (3) consecutively scheduled work days will be considered to have abandoned his/her job and will be terminated." (Doc. 28-8, p. 13). Generally, a manager will call an employee who is late or absent. (Doc. 26-3, p. 56; Doc. 28-2, p. 10; Doc. 28-5, pp. 13-14). According to front-end manager Latasha Poe, a manager always calls an employee when he or she does not show up for an assigned shift. (Doc. 28-2, p. 10). Neither Ms. ...