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Jones v. Gulf Coast Health Care of Delaware, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

April 19, 2017

RODNEY JONES, Plaintiff-Appellant,
GULF COAST HEALTH CARE OF DELAWARE, LLC, a Foreign Limited Liability Corporation dba Accentia Health and Rehabilitation Center of Tampa Bay, Defendant-Appellee.

         On Appeal from the District Court for the Middle District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 8:15-cv-00702-SCB-EAJ

          Before ROSENBAUM, JULIE CARNES, and GILMAN, [*] Circuit Judges.


         Rodney Jones brought suit against his former employer, Gulf Coast Health Care of Delaware, LLC, doing business as Accentia Health and Rehabilitation Center of Tampa Bay (Accentia), under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654. Approximately a month after returning from FMLA leave to have rotator-cuff surgery on his shoulder, Jones was suspended and subsequently fired from his job as Activities Director. Jones claims that, in taking these actions, Accentia interfered with the exercise of his FMLA rights and later retaliated against him for asserting those rights. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Accentia on both claims. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the court with respect to Jones's interference claim, but REVERSE the judgment with respect to his retaliation claim and REMAND the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual background

         Jones served as Activities Director for Accentia, a long-term-care nursing facility, from 2004 until he was fired in 2015. His duties included keeping up with resident charting and care plans, providing calendars for programming events, organizing volunteer programs, planning parties and outings, arranging entertainment activities for the residents, and generally overseeing his staff to ensure that these various programs were carried out. Jones's job involved substantial desk work and planning, but his duties as Activities Director also included regular physical tasks such as unloading vehicles, decorating for parties, shopping for supplies, and traveling around the community for outreach programs. During the last two years of his employment, Jones also organized and participated in resident outings, which involved traveling around the community with residents, helping them get on and off the Accentia bus, and clearing paths for wheelchairs during these outings. Although Jones had five assistants to help him organize and execute activities, he preferred to be "hands-on" with planning and was always physically involved with setting up for volunteer events.

         Jones learned in 2014 that he needed to undergo shoulder surgery in order to repair his torn rotator cuff, and that he would need to take time off from work to recover from the surgery. Accentia determined that Jones was eligible for FMLA leave and granted him time off from September 26, 2014, until December 18, 2014, so that he could undergo the surgery and fully recover. He was scheduled to return to work on December 19, 2014. But on December 18, 2014, Jones's doctor reported that Jones would not be able to return to work and resume physical activity until February 1, 2015. The report also stated that Jones needed to continue physical therapy on his shoulder.

         Despite the recommendations of Jones's doctor and Jones's own physical limitations, he still wished to return to his job as Activities Director at the end of his FMLA leave. Jones understood his doctor's report to simply mean that he needed to continue physical therapy, not that he was prohibited from working entirely. He therefore asked his supervisor, Donald Daniels, to allow him to return to work on light duty. Jones wished to perform desk duty and computer work, with his staff to cover the physical aspects of his job. Daniels, however, refused to reinstate Jones as Activities Director until Jones could submit an unqualified fitness-for-duty certification, which Jones's doctor failed to issue before the end of the FMLA period.

         Jones maintains that, if Daniels had allowed him to return on light duty, Jones's doctor would have certified him to return to work in this capacity. But because Daniels was adamant that Jones could not return to work on light duty, Jones did not ask his doctor for a light-duty certification. Jones instead requested additional time off from Accentia and was granted another 30 days of non-FMLA medical leave in order to complete his physical therapy. He felt that he was forced by Daniels into requesting this additional leave.

         While on the 30 days of additional leave, Jones twice visited the Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa Bay, Florida and went on a trip to St. Martin. Jones spent his time at Busch Gardens walking around and taking pictures of the park's Christmas decorations. He sent these pictures to his staff via text message, hoping to give them ideas for decorating Accentia's facilities. Jones also visited his family in St. Martin for three days. He posted photos from these trips on his Facebook page, including pictures of himself on the beach, posing by a boat wreck, and in the ocean.

         Jones eventually returned to work on January 19, 2015 as planned, meeting with Daniels at the beginning of the day. During the meeting, Jones presented Daniels with a fitness-for-duty certification confirming that Jones could immediately resume his job as Activities Director. Daniels responded by showing Jones the photos from Jones's Facebook page, which depicted the trips that he had taken while on medical leave.

         When Jones asked Daniels how he had obtained the photos, Daniels responded that "you can thank your wonderful staff, they just ratted you out, " but also remarked that "maybe if you're going to have a Facebook account, you shouldn't have it on public." Daniels then informed Jones that "corporate" believed, based on these Facebook posts, that Jones had been well enough to return to work at an earlier point. Jones was subsequently suspended so that Daniels could investigate his conduct during medical leave. Although Jones was given an opportunity to respond to these charges in a letter, he failed to do so. Several days later, Jones's employment was terminated.

         B. Procedural background

         In February 2015, Jones brought suit against Accentia in Florida state court. Jones alleged that, in suspending and later terminating him, Accentia interfered with the exercise of his FMLA rights and retaliated against him for asserting those rights. Accentia removed the action to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, and subsequently moved for summary judgment on both of Jones's claims. In February 2016, the district court granted Accentia's motion for summary judgment, holding that Jones had failed to establish a prima facie case of either interference or retaliation under the FMLA. This timely appeal followed.


         We review de novo the district court's grant of summary judgment, "viewing all the evidence, and drawing all reasonable inferences, in favor of the non-moving party." Vessels v. Atlanta Indep. Sch. Sys., 408 F.3d 763, 767 (11th Cir. 2005). Summary judgment is proper only if there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.; Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

         III. ...

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