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Brown v. Gestamp of Alabama LLC

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

July 18, 2018

GEORGE BROWN, III, Plaintiff,
v.
GESTAMP OF ALABAMA LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         These consolidated employment discrimination cases come before the court on Defendant Gestamp of Alabama's motions for summary judgment. (Doc. 25).[1] In his two complaints, which are based on identical sets of facts, Plaintiff George Brown charges Gestamp with violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). In short, Mr. Brown asserts that Gestamp wrongfully placed him on unpaid continuous FMLA leave when he requested only intermittent FMLA leave.

         In his first complaint, Mr. Brown charges Gestamp with violating the FMLA by improperly placing him on continuous FMLA leave instead of intermittent FMLA leave, retaliating against him for requesting intermittent FMLA leave, and subjecting him to a hostile work environment that caused him to quit his position involuntarily. In his second complaint, Mr. Brown charges Gestamp with failing to accommodate his disability and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. This court dismissed Mr. Brown's intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, but consolidated the two cases because of their identical parties and facts and because proceeding on both complaints separately would constitute improper claim splitting. And because the two cases involve the same facts and parties, the court will treat Mr. Brown's two sets of claims as if he brought them in a single complaint. Gestamp likewise submitted a single motion for summary judgment in both cases that requests summary judgment in its favor as to all of Mr. Brown's claims.

         As discussed in more detail below, the court will DENY Gestamp's motion as to Mr. Brown's ADA reasonable accommodation claim and his FMLA interference claim because a genuine issue of material fact exists about whether Mr. Brown was “qualified” to continue in his position as a Materials Handler with Gestamp. The court will likewise DENY Gestamp's motion for summary judgment as to Mr. Brown's retaliation claim. The court will GRANT Gestamp's motion as to Mr. Brown's hostile work environment/constructive discharge claim. Accordingly, the court will GRANT IN PART and DENY IN PART Gestamp's motion for summary judgment.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is an integral part of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Summary judgment allows a trial court to decide cases when no genuine issues of material fact are present and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. When a district court reviews a motion for summary judgment, it must determine two things: (1) whether any genuine issues of material fact exist; and if not, (2) whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

         The moving party “always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56). The moving party can meet this burden by offering evidence showing no dispute of material fact or by showing that the non-moving party's evidence fails to prove an essential element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Id. at 322-23.

         Once the moving party meets its burden of showing the district court that no genuine issues of material fact exist, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party “to demonstrate that there is indeed a material issue of fact that precludes summary judgment.” Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). In reviewing the evidence submitted, the court must “view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden, ” to determine whether the nonmoving party presented sufficient evidence on which a jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 254 (1986); Cottle v. Storer Commc'n, Inc., 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir. 1988). And, all evidence and inferences drawn from the underlying facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Graham v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., 193 F.3d 1274, 1282 (11th Cir. 1999).

         FACTS

         Gestamp operates an automotive component production facility in McCalla, Alabama. Gestamp hired George Brown as a full-time “Materials Handler” in 2012. Mr. Brown's duties included physically moving objects exceeding 10 pounds around Gestamp's production facility and operating a forklift.

         In his first few years at Gestamp, Mr. Brown, who suffers from gout, arthritis, and hypertension, occasionally missed work during “flare ups” of those conditions. Eventually, a coworker recommended that Mr. Brown apply for FMLA leave so that he would not receive disciplinary action for missing work.

         Consistent with the FMLA, Gestamp provides eligible employees such as Mr. Brown up to 12 weeks of medical leave on a rolling calendar year. To receive FMLA leave, an employee must submit a certification form completed by a physician or healthcare provider. The certification form, created by the U.S. Department of Labor for use by employers like Gestamp, consists mainly of generic questions to which a physician can check “Yes” or “No.” The physician may provide additional explanation in fields after each “Yes” or “No” question. Gestamp requires its employees to submit a new certification form for FMLA leave each year they seek FMLA leave.

         Through his physician, Mr. Brown submitted an FMLA certification form to Gestamp in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Mr. Brown's physician offered virtually identical responses on the forms for each year, checking the same boxes and describing the same limitations.

         For example, in “Part A, ” the “Medical Facts” section of the form, the healthcare provider must respond “Yes” or “No” to the question whether “the employee is unable to perform any of his/her job functions due to the condition.” In 2014, 2015, and 2016, Mr. Brown's physician checked “Yes, ” and explained that Mr. Brown was unable to lift above 10 pounds, push, pull, manipulate, or bend. The physician described Mr. Brown's conditions as “gout, ” “arthritis, ” “hypertension, ” “chronic joint pain, ” “chronic headaches, ” and “dizziness.”

         “Part B, ” the “Amount of Leave Needed” section of the form, asks whether the employee will be “incapacitated for a single continuous period of time due to his/her medical condition, including any treatment and recovery.” Mr. Brown's physician checked “Yes.” But Mr. Brown's physician provided additional information, estimating that Mr. Brown would need to make a doctor's appointment every 3 to 4 months, with “recovery after flare up in 1-2 weeks.” (Doc. 27-3 at 75). In the same section, the form asks whether the condition would “cause episodic flare-ups periodically preventing the employee from performing his/her job functions.” (Id.). Mr. Brown's physician checked “Yes.” The form asked the frequency of flare ups and duration of related incapacity. Mr. Brown's physician indicated that the frequency would be once each month and five days of incapacity per episode.

         Gestamp approved Mr. Brown for intermittent FMLA leave in 2014 and 2015, and Mr. Brown used intermittent FMLA leave sporadically. In 2016, however, Gestamp denied Mr. Brown's FMLA recertification for intermittent leave and instead placed Mr. Brown on continuous FMLA leave, stating that Mr. Brown could not work with the restrictions listed on his physician-provided FMLA certification form. Gestamp told Mr. Brown that he could return to work if his physician lifted the restrictions listed on his FMLA form. Mr. Brown's physician refused, however, to remove the restrictions, and he did not clarify whether the restrictions applied only during flare ups.

         Gestamp's human resources representative who made the decision to deny Mr. Brown's request for intermittent leave did not believe that Mr. Brown's physician-imposed restrictions applied only during flare ups. Although Gestamp's decision maker did not know that Gestamp had authorized intermittent leave in 2014 and 2015 for Mr. Brown, she testified in her deposition that knowledge of that information would not have changed her decision to deny Mr. Brown's 2016 intermittent leave certification. Rather, she interpreted Mr. Brown's 2016 FMLA certification form to state that Mr. Brown could not perform his job at all because the physician had checked the box indicating that he was unable to lift more than 10 pounds. Furthermore, she interpreted the form to say that Mr. Brown was requesting both intermittent FMLA leave and continuous FMLA leave because the physician checked the box indicating that Mr. Brown would be incapacitated for “continuous” periods of time. (Doc. 27-7 at 11).

         Although Mr. Brown had unused FMLA leave, he did not have unused vacation time.[2]Gestamp told Mr. Brown that he could apply for disability benefits, but Mr. Brown did not think the income from those benefits alone would be sufficient for his needs. Mr. Brown could not collect unemployment benefits because he remained employed with Gestamp, and he did not believe he could draw funds from his retirement account. Accordingly, after spending slightly more than one month on continuous ...


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