United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division
JOHN E. OTT, Chief Magistrate Judge.
In this action, Talethia Dark ("Plaintiff") brings a claim against her former employer, The Learning Tree, Inc. ("Defendant"), alleging that she was discharged in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq., in retaliation for having taken protected medical leave in the past, to prevent her from taking additional protected leave, or both. (Doc. 1 ("Complaint" or "Compl.")). The parties have consented to an exercise of plenary jurisdiction by a United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and FED. R. CIV. P. 73. (Doc. 10). The now cause comes to be heard on Defendant's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 15). Upon consideration, the court concludes that the motion is due to be granted.
I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD
Pursuant to Rule 56 of the FEDERAL RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE, a party is authorized to move for summary judgment on all or part of a claim asserted against the movant. Under that rule, 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. PROC. 56(a). The party moving for summary judgment "always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, " relying on submissions "which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); see also Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991); Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144 (1970). Once the moving party has met its burden, the nonmoving party must "go beyond the pleadings" and show that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324. Both the party "asserting that a fact cannot be, " and a party asserting that a fact is genuinely disputed, must support their assertions by "citing to particular parts of materials in the record, " or by "showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." FED. R. CIV. PROC. 56(c)(1)(A), (B). In its review of the evidence, a court view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant. Stewart v. Booker T. Washington Ins., 232 F.3d 844, 848 (11th Cir. 2000). At summary judgment, "the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).
Defendant is a nonprofit organization that provides educational and support services in residential settings for children and teens with developmental disabilities, including autism. (Doc. 16-19, Declaration of Marc Williams ("Williams Decl.") ¶ 2). Plaintiff commenced her employment with Defendant in 1999. (Doc. 16-1, Deposition of Plaintiff Talethia Dark ("Pl. Dep.") at 12). In 2010, she began working as a Residential Support Supervisor at Defendant's campus in Jacksonville, Alabama. (Pl. Dep. at 16-18; Williams Decl. ¶ 4). In that capacity, she was charged with supervising staff providing direct care to students in several group homes on the overnight shift. (Doc. 17-1, Deposition of Patricia Murphy ("Murphy Dep.") at 10-11). Plaintiff's immediate supervisors were Jenny Dooley and Dooley's assistant, Ed Clark. (Pl. Dep. at 18). Dooley, in turn, reported to Regional Director Patricia Murphy, the highest-ranking employee at the Jacksonville Campus. (Doc. 16-13, Deposition of Jenny Dooley ("Dooley Dep.") at 8; Murphy Dep. at 7-10; Doc. 17-2 at 2). As further explained below, Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment on August 29, 2012, allegedly for failing to report that another overnight supervisor was found sleeping on the job.
Some eight months before she was discharged, however, in late December 2011, Plaintiff gave notice to Defendant that she needed to take medical leave under the FMLA in connection with a surgery to remove her gallbladder. (Pl. Dep. at 19-24, 39-40). Plaintiff's doctor had recommended the procedure to address gastrointestinal problems that Plaintiff had been experiencing, which included vomiting, abdominal pain, and loss of appetite. (Id. at 19-30). Murphy was responsible for approving FMLA leave requests made by employees on the Jacksonville campus (Murphy Dep. at 69; Pl. Dep. at 80), and she approved Plaintiff's request on this occasion without incident. (Pl. Dep. at 39-40, 73; Murphy Dep. at 7). Plaintiff thus commenced her FMLA leave on December 24, 2011, and she had the surgery as scheduled on January 4, 2012, during which she also underwent an elective procedure to remove a portion of her stomach to facilitate weight loss. (Pl. Dep. at 20, 28; Plaintiff's 2011-2012 Leave Records ("Leave Records")). Plaintiff initially applied for FMLA leave though January 9, 2012. (Doc. 17-5 at 1). After the surgery, however, Plaintiff continued to have problems, and she was readmitted to the hospital to undergo additional testing and procedures in the ensuing weeks. (Pl. Dep. 30-36). Because of these complications, Plaintiff requested additional FMLA leave, which was also granted, and she remained out through February 6, 2012. (Id. at 40-41; Leave Records).
Even after returning from FMLA leave, however, Plaintiff still continued to experience problems periodically. (Pl. Dep. at 42-44). Plaintiff advised Defendant's payroll administrator that her condition would require her to take intermittent FMLA leave going forward. (Id. at 41, 46-48). That request was also approved, apparently by Murphy. According to Defendant's records, between Plaintiff's return to work in early February 2012 and her termination that August 29th, Plaintiff missed all or some part of her scheduled shift on 18 occasions. (Leave Records). Given the structure of Plaintiff's work schedule, under which she worked two 15-hour shifts on the weekend and one 10-hour shift during the week, such was the equivalent of missing about five 40-hour workweeks in total. (Leave Records; Pl. Dep. at 51). However, Defendant designated only three of those missed shifts, June 10, July 7, and July 8, as FMLA-qualifying leave. (Leave Records). By contrast, the first two shifts that Plaintiff missed after returning in early February from extended leave, on March 31 and April 1, were coded simply as "unpaid, " while five others, May 13, June 2, June 3, August 12, and August 19, were coded as non-FMLA "illness" leave. (Id. ) The remaining eight shifts that Plaintiff missed, on April 14, April 15, April 21, April 22, July 29, August 4, August 5, and August 24, were all classified as "General" leave, which Plaintiff says denoted annual vacation time. (Attendance Records; Pl. Dep. at 55-56, 61-62).
On August 23, 2012, the supervisor over Defendant's adult program in Jacksonville, Tiffany Canady, was cleaning up the vacated work area and computer that had been assigned to April Nelson, Canady's former assistant who had recently taken another position within the company. ( See Pl. Dep. at 142; Doc. 16-17, Deposition of Tiffany Canady ("Canady Dep.") at 10, 15-17, 26; Doc. 17-1, Deposition of Patricia Murphy ("Murphy Dep.") at 44-45). In the course of that endeavor, Canady also began to look into why Nelson had arranged to have some emails addressed to Canady forwarded to Nelson's computer. (Canady Dep. at 15-17, 27-28). That led Canady to discover the following email exchange dated, Wednesday, October 19, 2011, some ten months prior, between Nelson and Plaintiff:
Nelson: Caught Neicy sleeping in the van this morning I hope Lisa didn't see her, she hasn't said anything yet
Plaintiff: omg did you wake her up
Nelson: Yeah, I went outside because spring garden wanted to send me a pic of wacky day, I saw her asleep. I wasn't going to because I saw lisa (sic) suv. Then I knoncked (sic) on the window, she got out and said am I being sent home. I said not bye (sic) me but lisa was here.
Plaintiff: maybe she didnt (sic) but Ammie will tell if she does so just wait. OAN: she pissed me off so bad last night her and her damn kids\ (sic)
(Doc. 16-3). These emails refer to three other employees of Defendant: "Neicy" is Phenecia
Willis, who, similar to Plaintiff, supervised direct care staff on the overnight shift (Pl. Dep. at 94-95; Murphy Dep. at 37); "Lisa" is Lisa Spurling, a non-supervisory employee who worked in "Resource Development" (Pl. Dep. at 115-16; Murphy Dep. at 50); and "Ammie" is Ammie Pike, another overnight supervisor who frequently worked with Willis. (Pl. Dep. at 119; Murphy Dep. at 52). Plaintiff further clarified that her use of "omg" and "OAN" in the emails were acronyms for "oh my gosh" and "on another note, " respectively. (Pl. Dep. at 99, 118).
When Canady read the emails, she took them to convey that Nelson had told Plaintiff that she, Nelson, had caught Willis asleep on the job. Under Defendant's policies, sleeping on the job is treated as a serious infraction that is categorized as "gross misconduct" that may be grounds for immediate termination. (Doc. 17-2 at 14-15; see also Pl. Dep. at 100-101). Sleeping on the job may also constitute a "neglect" of a student, in violation of Defendant's policy that prohibits "abuse, neglect, or mistreatment" of a student. (Doc. 17-2 at 4-5; Williams Dep. ¶ 7; Pl. Dep. at 132; Murphy Dep. at 32). Indeed, it is undisputed that, if it was determined that an employee was sleeping on the job, it resulted, at least in almost all cases, in the offender's discharge. (Murphy Dep. at 93; Canady Dep. at 31, 34; Pl. Dep. at 101-02, 108-110). It is also undisputed that Defendant's employees generally have a duty to report to their supervisor when they are aware or suspect that another employee has committed a violation constituting abuse, neglect, or mistreatment, including sleeping on the job. (Doc. 17-2 at 4-5, 14-15; Murphy Dep. at 24-29, 51; Pl. Dep. at 130-37, 157-58). Despite that, neither Nelson, Plaintiff, nor anyone else reported Willis for sleeping on the job at the time of the incident in October 2011. (Pl. Dep. at 128; Murphy Dep. at 51-52, 56).
Upon discovering the emails on August 23, 2012, however, Canady showed them to her supervisor, Murphy. (Canady Dep. at 28). By late that same afternoon, Willis was placed on unpaid administrative leave for allegedly sleeping on the job. (Doc. 16-6 at 2; Murphy Dep. at 40). Several days later, just after midnight on the morning of August 29th, Willis tendered her resignation via an email to her supervisor, Dooley, stating, "Due to the current circumstances I prefer to resign than be fired. Please inform my staff, co-works (sic) and students, that I am sincerely sorry to have let them down." (Doc. 16-6 at 1). Dooley forwarded that email to Murphy that morning at 10:49 a.m. ( Id.; see also Murphy Dep. at 128-29). It is undisputed, however, that at no time before or after that resignation did Murphy question Willis about the circumstances under which she was alleged to have fallen asleep in October 2011, nor did Murphy task anyone with interviewing Willis about that episode. (Murphy Dep. at 20-21, 30, 39-40).
Meanwhile, Murphy had called her superior, Dr. Marc Williams, Defendant's Executive Director who worked in Defendant's Tallassee, Alabama, office to discuss possible disciplinary action against Plaintiff and Nelson for failing to report Willis for sleeping on the job. (Murphy Dep. at 54; Doc. 16-14, Deposition of Marc Williams ("Williams Dep.") at 7, 17; Williams Decl. ¶ 1). As Executive Director, Williams had sole termination authority and thus had the final decision on such matters. (Williams Dep. at 27). Williams testified that it was clear to him from reading the emails that Nelson had directly witnessed Willis being asleep; that Nelson had communicated that circumstance to Plaintiff; and indicated that she, Nelson, was not going to report it. (Williams Dep. at 9-10, 28-29; see also Doc. 16-14 at 16-17). Murphy testified that she interpreted the emails similarly and that she believed Plaintiff had a duty to report the incident but failed to do so. (Murphy Dep. at 18, 25-27, 49-53, 63-64). After Williams and Murphy reviewed the emails, they tentatively agreed, according to Murphy, that both Nelson and Plaintiff were due to be fired unless they could provide a satisfactory explanation for failing to report Willis for sleeping on the job. (Murphy Dep. at 56-58; Williams Dep. at 8-10, 26-30).
After talking with Williams, Murphy met with Nelson on August 29, 2012, to talk about the emails. (Murphy Dep. at 56). At that time, Nelson admitted she had indeed seen Willis sleeping in the van, as she had stated in her email to Plaintiff. (Id. at 30-31, 56). Murphy could not recall whether she told Nelson at the conclusion of that meeting that her employment was formally terminated. (Id. at 57). It is undisputed, however, that Nelson was ultimately discharged and presented with a written termination notice drafted by Murphy, dated August 29, 2012, authorized by Williams. (Doc. 16-5 at 1; see also Pl. Dep. 146). That notice recited that Nelson was fired for failing to report Willis for sleeping on the job, noting that "failure to report actual or possible abuse, neglect or mistreatment to a supervisory staff member is a violation of policy and procedures of The Learning Tree, Inc." (Doc. 16-5 at 1).
Later on August 29th, Murphy also met with Plaintiff to discuss the emails. (Murphy Dep. at 56, 59; Pl. Dep. at 140-42). However, shortly before that meeting, Plaintiff sat down with Dooley and Clark to review Plaintiff's annual job performance evaluation that they had prepared. (Pl. Dep. at 76-77, 83, 140-42; Deposition of Jenny Dooley ("Dooley Dep.") Dooley Dep. at 10-12, 16, 21-22; Doc. 16-19, Deposition of Ed Clark ("Clark Dep.") at 11-12). But at the time of that performance review, neither Dooley, Clark, nor Plaintiff were aware that the October 2011 emails had surfaced or that Plaintiff was potentially facing discipline as a result. (Pl. Dep. at 141; Dooley Dep. at 10-11, 26; Clark Dep. at 13-14). Accordingly, no mention was made of such matters either in Plaintiff's written job evaluation or during the review meeting. In any event, Plaintiff's written evaluation itself shows that she received a cumulative score in the low range of "average, " the third level on a five-tier scale. (Doc. 16-13 at 14-16). However, Plaintiff did receive an "unsatisfactory" rating, a "1" out of a possible "5, " for her attendance, and she claims that Dooley specifically told her during the meeting that she needed to "work on" her attendance. ( See id. at 15-16; Pl. Dep. at 84-85). Plaintiff responded by protesting to Dooley that such criticism was unwarranted, offering that "the only time that [she] had been out was on FMLA." (Pl. Dep. at 84-85). To that, Plaintiff says, Dooley simply replied, "Well, you know, you understand." (Id. at 84).
Only about 20 minutes following Plaintiff's performance review, Murphy approached Dooley and told her that there had been some emails found that Nelson had sent to Plaintiff about Willis sleeping on the job. (Dooley Dep. at 10-13). Not revealing that Plaintiff might be fired, Murphy advised Dooley simply that they were going to talk with Plaintiff about the emails and then contact Williams. (Id. at 10-13). In the ensuing meeting, Murphy, with Dooley present, confronted Plaintiff with the October 2011 emails. (Pl. Dep. at 141-42). Plaintiff asked how they had found out about the emails, and Murphy said that they had been discovered and reported by Canady. (Id. ) Plaintiff also noted that the copy of the email appeared to have been printed out several days earlier, on August 23rd, and she asked why the issue was not raised then. (Id. at 143). Murphy replied that they had waited because Williams had been out of town. (Id. ) Murphy further told Plaintiff that Williams had asked her, Murphy, to inquire into the emails, and after Plaintiff and Murphy spoke, Murphy left the room and went to her office. (Id. at 145; see also Dooley Dep. at 15). She returned shortly thereafter and said that Williams had directed her to "fire them all." (Pl. Dep. at 145; see also id. at 151; Murphy Dep. at 62, 65, 67; Dooley Dep. at 15). Accordingly, Murphy presented Plaintiff with a written notice that her employment was terminated for violating Defendant's policy against client abuse, neglect, and mistreatment by failing to report that Nelson had caught Willis sleeping on the job. (Pl. Dep. at 95-96; Doc. 17-4 at 4; Dooley Dep. at 15). When Murphy told Plaintiff that Williams had decided to fire her, Murphy, Dooley, and Plaintiff all became very emotional and started crying. (Pl. Dep. at 147, 155).
As it related to the mechanics of the decisional process, Williams denied recalling that Murphy had made a "recommendation" that he should fire Plaintiff. (Williams Dep. at 26). However, when asked whether he and Murphy were "both on the same board, the same team, " with regard to the decision to discharge Plaintiff, Williams acknowledged that to have been the case as far as he could remember. (Williams Dep. 27-28). Murphy likewise did not recall making a ...