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White v. Northwest Alabama Treatment Center, Inc.

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

August 13, 2018

ROBERT WHITE, et al., Plaintiff,
v.
NORTHWEST ALABAMA TREATMENT CENTER, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          T. MICHAEL PUTNAM UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 8).[1] The defendant, Northwest Alabama Treatment Center, Inc. (“NWATC”), filed its motion on September 22, 2017, seeking to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint in its entirety. Under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1984 (“COBRA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1161-1169 (2017), the defendant argues that the small employer exception bars the plaintiff's claim because NWATC does not employ more than twenty full-time employees. 19 U.S.C. § 1161(b). The motion has been fully briefed, and the parties have consented to dispositive jurisdiction by a United States Magistrate Judge in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 16).

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), summary judgment is proper “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). The party asking for summary judgment “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 former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). The movant can meet this burden by presenting evidence showing there is no dispute of material fact or by showing that the nonmoving party has failed to present evidence in support of some element of its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. There is no requirement, however, “that the moving party support its motion with affidavits or other similar materials negating the opponent's claim.” Id. at 323.

         Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56 “requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the ‘depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions of file,' designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 324 (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). The nonmoving party need not present evidence in a form necessary for admission at trial; however, he may not merely rest on his pleadings. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. “[T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Id. at 322.

         After the plaintiff has properly responded to a proper motion for summary judgment, the court “shall” grant the motion if there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 248. “[T]he 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.” Id. at 249. His guide is the same standard necessary to direct a verdict: “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 251-52; see also Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 461 U.S. 731, 745 n. 11 (1983).

         However, the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). The evidence supporting a claim must be “substantial, ” Marcus v. St. Paul Fire and Marine Ins. Co., 651 F.2d 379 (5th Cir., Unit B, 1981); a mere scintilla of evidence is not enough to create a genuine issue of fact. Young v. City of Palm Bay, 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004); Kesinger ex rel. Estate of Kesinger v. Herrington, 381 F.3d 1243, 1249-50 (11th Cir. 2004). If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249 (citations omitted); accord Spence v. Zimmerman, 873 F.2d 256 (11th Cir. 1989). Furthermore, the court must “view the evidence presented through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden, ” so there must be sufficient evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 254; Cottle v. Storer Communications, Inc., 849 F.2d 570, 575 (11th Cir. 1988). Nevertheless, credibility determinations, the weighing of evidence, and the drawing of inferences from the facts are the function of the jury, and therefore the evidence of the non-movant is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. The non-movant need not be given the benefit of every inference but only of every reasonable inference. Brown v. City of Clewiston, 848 F.2d 1534, 1540 n. 12 (11th Cir. 1988).

         II. FACTS

         Viewing the facts favorably to the non-moving plaintiff, the following appear be undisputed. The plaintiff, Robert White, opened NWATC in 1993 and, at the time of his termination, served as the President and Program Sponsor. Part of his duties included the power to employ, manage, and terminate personnel. On February 18, 2017, NWATC terminated White's employment, but White “was not terminated for gross misconduct.” (Doc. 1, ¶ 19). NWATC maintained a group health plan that insured both White and his wife. However, NWATC did not notify White or his wife of their rights to continue coverage under COBRA following his termination.

         According to White, NWATC employed both full-time and part-time employees. He states by affidavit that:

The position or job classification of the employee often determined whether the employee was considered full-time or part-time. Most full-time employees were salaried while part-time employees were paid hourly. . . . A 40-hour work week has never been used to determine whether an employee was full-time or part-time.

(Doc. 23-1 at 3, ¶ 6).[2] Under the Personal Time Off (“PTO”) policy, NWATC treats full-time employees differently than part-time employees. Part-time employees who work between “at least 20 hours but less than 32 hours per week” qualify for PTO if certain requirements are met. (Doc. 23-1 at 8). Furthermore, on the PTO policy provided by the defendant to White, a handwritten notation states that an employee by the name of “David [wa]s working full-time” at some point in 2016. (Doc. 23-1 at 8).[3] Additionally, White identifies at least twenty employees who were employed full-time during at least part of the 2016 calendar year.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Under COBRA, employers that sponsor a group health plan must allow “each qualified beneficiary who would lose coverage under the plan as a result of a qualifying event . . . to elect, within the election period, continuation coverage under the plan.” 29 U.S.C. § 1161(a). After a qualifying event occurs, the plan's administrator must notify the qualified beneficiary of the beneficiary's right to elect continuation coverage. § 1166(a)(4). However, § 1161(a) does not “apply to any group health plan for any calendar year if all employers maintaining such plan normally employed fewer than 20 employees on a typical business day during the preceding calendar year.” § 1161(b).

         Although the Eleventh Circuit has not authoritatively adopted a test to determine when an employer employs more than 20 employees on “a typical business day, ” the Northern District of Georgia has adopted the Department of Treasury's regulation to make that determination. See, e.g., Giddens v. University Yacht Club, Inc., No. Civ.A. 2:05-cv-19-WC, 2006 WL 508056, at *3-7 ...


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