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Batson v. Salvation Army

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

July 31, 2018

EBONIE BATSON, Plaintiff - Appellant,
THE SALVATION ARMY, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 3:14-cv-00031-TCB

          Before ROSENBAUM, JILL PRYOR and RIPPLE, [*] Circuit Judges.

          JILL PRYOR, Circuit Judge

         Ebonie Batson was an employee of The Salvation Army ("TSA") for more than a decade. She received promotions and consistently positive performance reviews. After Batson was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, she requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. ("FMLA"), and an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. ("ADA"). TSA then eliminated her position and required her to apply and interview for a position she had previously held. During the interview, Batson was questioned repeatedly about her appointments with doctors and ability to travel. TSA decided against hiring Batson for her former position, citing her conduct in the interview and poor job performance.

         Batson filed a complaint against TSA in federal district court, alleging that the organization had discriminated against her based on her disability when it denied her a reasonable accommodation in violation of the ADA, retaliated against her for statutorily protected activities in violation of the ADA and the FMLA, and interfered with her rights under the FMLA. The district court granted TSA's motion for summary judgment on all of Batson's claims. The district court ruled that she failed to come forward with evidence of the following: on her accommodation claim, that TSA had denied her request for a reasonable accommodation; on her retaliation claim, that TSA's explanations for eliminating her position and refusing to rehire her were pretextual; and on her interference claim, that TSA had interfered with her rights under the FMLA.

         After careful consideration, and with the benefit of oral argument, we affirm in part and reverse in part the district court's grant of summary judgment. We agree with the district court that Batson failed to establish that TSA discriminated against her by refusing to accommodate her under the ADA. But we disagree that Batson failed to offer evidence showing that TSA's explanations for terminating her were pretextual and that TSA interfered with her rights under the FMLA. Batson is thus entitled to a trial on her ADA and FMLA retaliation claims and her FMLA interference claim.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Because Batson's claims rely upon who knew and did what when, a chronology of relevant events is necessary. On review of summary judgment, we set forth the facts in the light most favorable to Batson, the non-moving party. See Kragor v. Takeda Pharms. Am., Inc., 702 F.3d 1304, 1307 (11th Cir. 2012). In 2002, Batson began working for TSA at the organization's territorial headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. She was transferred to the Audit Department in 2006 and promoted to Senior Auditor the following year. At that time, Major Len Eugene Broome was the Audit Secretary and head of the Audit Department.[1] Frank Duracher, the Audit Manager, was Batson's direct supervisor.

         Batson was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in January 2010. She informed her supervisors and the rest of the Audit Department of her diagnosis shortly thereafter. Around the same time that Batson was diagnosed, Broome became ill and could not fully discharge his duties, which led to a restructuring of the Audit Department. To assist Broome, TSA promoted Duracher to the position of Assistant Audit Secretary and Batson to the position of Audit Manager.

         Broome passed away in September 2012 and was replaced as the Audit Secretary by Major Everett Wilson. Following Broome's death, Wilson and Duracher discussed whether Batson's position as the Audit Manager remained necessary now that Broome's former position had been filled. Wilson reassigned some of Batson's duties to himself and Duracher.

         Throughout her tenure with TSA, Batson received "excellent performance evaluations." Doc. 58 at 11.[2] In her 2009 performance review, Duracher wrote that Batson was a "wonderful employee" who "always ha[d] a pleasant demeanor" and was "eager to learn new auditing techniques." Id. In Batson's 2011 performance review, Duracher wrote that she was "a pleasure to work with" and that she had "grown nicely in her role as [A]udit [M]anager." Id. at 12. According to Batson's 2012 performance review, the last one before her termination, she "exceed[ed] expectations" in every category. Id. Duracher commented that Batson was "eager to help anyone in need" and that "she strives for excellence and sets an example for the entire department." Id.

         In November 2012, a couple of months after Wilson assumed the position of Audit Secretary, Batson requested a meeting with Duracher and Wilson to discuss her need for an accommodation because of her Multiple Sclerosis. A meeting was scheduled for December 4, 2012, but it had to be rescheduled. The meeting was rescheduled a number of times between December 2012 and April 2013 but never took place.

         In January 2013, Batson requested and took her first FMLA leave, which was approved for a two-week period. Later that month, she requested intermittent FMLA leave, which was also approved.

         Batson met with Dr. Murray Flagg, the head of the human resources department for TSA's southern territory on February 22 to discuss Batson's concerns related to her Multiple Sclerosis. In particular, Batson told Flagg that Duracher had disclosed her medical diagnosis to another employee. She later complained about Duracher's disclosure in an official grievance, which led TSA to reprimand him.

         Shortly after her meeting with Flagg, in late February, Batson's physician completed an ADA Interactive Process Questionnaire on her behalf. Through that questionnaire, which was submitted to TSA, Batson requested adjustments to her travel schedule and asked to telecommute occasionally due to her illness. Regina Davis, the Assistant Human Resources Director, was aware of Batson's request.

         After Batson submitted the questionnaire, she met with Davis and Rendrick Nash, another human resources employee, to discuss her FMLA leave and her supervisors' failure since November of 2012 to meet with her about her request for an accommodation. Davis and Nash told Batson that Wilson and Duracher had denied her accommodation request.

         On March 1, Flagg met with Wilson and Duracher to discuss the grievance Batson had filed. The same day, Wilson requested to eliminate Batson's position, explaining that following Broome's death, three administrative leads were no longer necessary "as [Duracher] and I can effectively lead the department." Doc. 57-14 at 1. At the same time, Wilson requested permission to post a vacant Senior Auditor position, the position Batson had held before her promotion to Audit Manager, so that "upon notification that her position . . . is being eliminated, [she] c[ould] apply for consideration as Senior Auditor." Id.

         Around the same time, TSA's Territorial Finance Council ("TFC") approved the elimination of Batson's Audit Manager position. It also determined that she could be transferred directly to the Senior Auditor position. Captain Phil Swyers, who led the TFC, emailed Davis that there was "no need to post the Senior Auditor position unless Ms. Ebonie Batson does not accept the opportunity to transfer . . . from her present . . . position." Doc. 58-10 at 3. Davis responded, however, that the position had to be posted internally to comply with equal opportunity laws and the organization's affirmative action policy. Swyers replied by reiterating that Davis should follow the TFC's instruction: "I am writing to confirm that the original email below . . . is the procedure TFC would like Major Wilson to follow." Id. at 1. Davis again insisted that "TFC [was] instructing us to violate the [affirmative action plan], which is a violation of federal law." Id. The record is unclear as to whether such a plan or policy actually existed at TSA and, if so, whether permitting Batson to fill a Senior Auditor position that she had held previously without posting the position would violate that policy.

         At the end of March, Batson took approved FMLA leave for several weeks. Before she left, she overheard Wilson say, "[w]e don't allow sick people in our department, everyone has to work." Doc. 64-1 at 15. When she returned from her leave, Wilson and Davis informed her that her Audit Manager position had been eliminated and that she could apply for the Senior Auditor position. Batson was told that the application process was just a formality and that she would be transferred to her previous role; she merely had to apply. The position was posted internally, and Batson was the only person to apply by the deadline.

         While Batson's application was pending, Wilson retired from his position as Audit Secretary and was replaced by Major Beatrice Boalt, who was tasked with filling the Senior Auditor position. Before Wilson's departure, he emailed Boalt, telling her that TSA was "obligated" to hire Batson because "[s]he never receive[d] poor ratings and she did the [Senior Auditor] job prior to the position she held." Doc. 60 at 19. Wilson expressed his belief that Batson could be transferred directly to the Senior Auditor position. He testified in his deposition that she was qualified and that he perceived her to be "bright" and "capable of what she was doing." Id. at 17.

         TSA nonetheless required Batson to interview for the Senior Auditor position. Before the interview, Boalt emailed Colonel Samuel Henry, the head of the Audit and Financial Department, expressing concern about hiring Batson. Given that Batson was "the only one who applied" by the deadline, Boalt wrote, "[i]t appears that we have painted ourselves into a corner . . . [s]o we have to hire her?" Doc. 54-2 at 1. Boalt revealed that she "had hoped . . . [to] find out if we could appoint [another candidate] as the Senior Auditor." Id. at 2. She also worried about the questions she could ask Batson in the interview, telling Henry, "I guess for the interview, I need to be coached as to what I can and can't say." Id. at 1. Later she emailed a human resources employee to ask whether "there are any questions I cannot ask." Doc. 54-3 at 2. She added, "I assume that if this candidate is applying then the candidate . . . is well enough to travel at least 75% of the time." Id.

         Together Boalt and Duracher interviewed Batson for the Senior Auditor position. During the interview, Boalt asked Batson a number of questions related ...

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