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Prichard v. Hyundai Motor Manufacturing of Alabama, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

October 7, 2019

TOMMY PRICHARD, Plaintiff,
v.
HYUNDAI MOTOR MANUFACTURING OF ALABAMA, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ANDREW L. BRASHER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Tommy Prichard brought this action against his former employer, Defendant Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, LLC (“Hyundai”), alleging retaliation in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq. (“FMLA”). This matter comes before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 22). For the reasons stated below, the motion is due to be granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Hyundai, an automobile manufacturer, hired Prichard around August 2012 as a laborer in the weld shop at its Montgomery, Alabama facility. Sometime in 2016, Prichard was moved to a position in General Assembly. Prichard's Team Leader in General Assembly was Paul Brand, his Group Leader was Tim Lucas, and his Assistant Manager was Anthony Davis.[1]

         I. Prichard's Intermittent FMLA Leave

         Sometime before 2011, Prichard was diagnosed with migraine headaches, and by 2013, he was being treated by a physician for his migraines. When Prichard had a migraine, he was unable to work and became bedbound. As a result, Prichard sought intermittent FMLA leave in 2013.

         Hyundai uses a third-party administrator, The Hartford, to administer its employees' FMLA leave. Prichard followed all necessary procedures provided by Hyundai and The Hartford to receive intermittent FMLA leave, including submitting a Certification of Health Care Provider Employee's Serious Health Condition. Prichard was approved for intermittent FMLA leave and was entitled to take such leave as long as he did it honestly and with integrity and gave proper notification of his leave in accordance with Hyundai's policies. Prichard renewed his FMLA certification every six months as required, and though the exact wording in the certifications varied slightly, Prichard's physician generally certified that “[o]n the days [Prichard's] Migraine HA's flare [sic] he will be unable to work. He is bed bound unable to function.” (Doc. 24-2 at 39).

         According to The Hartford's records, Prichard took FMLA leave numerous times in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Prior to being moved to General Assembly in 2016, Prichard claims that his Team Leader in the weld shop, Craig Haye, harassed him about taking FMLA leave by asking him questions like “You coming? You coming to work tomorrow?” and cracking jokes about him being absent. (Doc. 24-2 at 35:9-36:5). Prichard claims that this alleged harassment continued after he was moved to General Assembly in 2016 when his Team Leader, Paul Brand, made similar comments to him about being absent. Neither Haye nor Brand were involved in the decision to terminate Prichard or the investigation that led to Prichard's termination.

         II. Hyundai's Suspicion About Prichard's Alleged Misuse of FMLA Leave

         In 2018, Hyundai noticed a pattern in which Prichard often took FMLA leave on Fridays before non-production days. Prior to March 2, 2018, there were eight Fridays in 2018. Prichard worked three of them and used FMLA leave for four others. The only other Friday was a non-production day, which was not a working day for Prichard.

         Hyundai has a Medical Review Committee (“MRC”) that meets weekly to discuss various medical issues, such as employee work restrictions, requests to employees for medical or leave paperwork, and potentially fraudulent use or abuse of FMLA and other leave and benefit programs. Robert Burns, then-Director of Team Relations, Public Relations, General Affairs, and Human Resources, was the decisionmaker of the MRC, and in that role, authorized and oversaw the investigation of suspected abuses of certain leave and benefit programs provided by Hyundai, including FMLA leave. Team Relations is responsible for addressing various employee concerns, including investigating alleged policy violations by employees.

         It is unclear from the record how Prichard's alleged pattern of Friday absences was brought to the MRC's attention. Nevertheless, on February 22, 2018, the MRC met and discussed Prichard's medical leave. Burns reviewed a 2018 calendar showing the days on which Prichard had taken FMLA leave, and based on what appeared to be a pattern of Prichard taking Fridays off, Burns ultimately authorized and directed Team Relations to hire a private investigator to investigate and surveil Prichard's use of FMLA leave. Burns's decision to surveil Prichard was not based on a standard or policy defining what constitutes a pattern of abuse for FMLA leave.

         III. Prichard's Termination

         On Friday, March 2, 2018, Prichard was scheduled to work on the second shift, beginning at 2:30 p.m. There are two accounts as to what happened on March 2.

         According to Prichard, he left his house in Calera, Alabama, around 8:00 a.m. to run errands in Birmingham, Alabama. After Prichard got his car washed, got a haircut, and ate breakfast, he felt the onset of a migraine. When Prichard had a migraine and needed to miss work, he was required to call his supervisor and the Medical Department at Hyundai and either call The Hartford or use its website to report the absence. Between 11:35 and 11:40 a.m., Prichard properly notified both Hyundai and The Hartford of his need to take FMLA leave that day. Prichard then went home, took his medication, and went to bed. He estimates that he got home between 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m.

         According to Hyundai's private investigator, who conducted surveillance of Prichard on March 2, the investigator began observing Prichard's house around 7:00 a.m. He reported that Prichard left his house around 8:13 a.m. and drove to Birmingham. After losing Prichard in Birmingham, the investigator returned to Prichard's house around 10:15 a.m. and stayed until 3:35 p.m. During that time, the investigator did not see Prichard return home. While conducting surveillance, the investigator took notes regarding ...


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