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Howard v. Balon Corp.

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 31, 2017




         Before the Court are motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff Loraine Howard [Doc. No. 17] and Defendant Balon Corporation [Doc. No. 16] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Plaintiff moves for partial summary judgment on the issue of Defendant's liability for allegedly terminating her employment in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. Defendant moves for a judgment in its favor on all claims. Each party has filed a timely response to the other's motion, and both motions are fully briefed.[1]

         Standard of Decision

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for either party. Id. at 255. All facts and reasonable inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. If a party who would bear the burden of proof at trial lacks sufficient evidence on an essential element of a claim, all other factual issues concerning the claim become immaterial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

         The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a dispute of material fact warranting summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. If the movant carries this burden, the nonmovant must go beyond the pleadings and “set forth specific facts” that would be admissible in evidence and that show a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 671 (10th Cir. 1998). “To accomplish this, the facts must be identified by reference to affidavits, deposition transcripts, or specific exhibits incorporated therein.” Adler, 144 F.3d at 671; see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A). “The court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3). The Court's inquiry is whether the facts and evidence identified by the parties present “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.” See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52.

         Statement of Undisputed Facts [2]

         Defendant is a family-owned corporation that operates a manufacturing business in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and employs more than 900 employees. Defendant hired Plaintiff as a machine operator in May 2008, and she worked in that position until March 2015. Defendant had a written attendance policy that was provided to employees (including Plaintiff) upon employment; it required employees to call a dedicated telephone line to report work absences or lateness for work. Employees were responsible to clock in and clock out each work day for the core hours of 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., to report back on time after a work break or lunch period, and to use accrued vacation time for absences. Plaintiff accrued 120 hours of paid vacation annually on her anniversary date. Accrued vacation time could be used for any reason designated by the employee, including sickness, if requested in a timely manner.

         Defendant maintained a written FMLA policy that summarized employees' rights. Statutorily required notices were posted near two human resources (HR) offices in Defendant's facility, and a summary of FMLA policies and procedures was on display in an employee break area. Defendant's HR representative, Holly Siderits, testified regarding the procedures used to implement FMLA leave requirements. These included initiating a discussion of leave rights with an employee who was absent from work for more than three days for medical care, even without an FMLA leave request by the employee.

         During the course of Plaintiff's employment by Defendant, she received verbal and written warnings about attendance and productivity issues.[3] Defendant's concerns were documented in an employee activity report regarding Plaintiff that, as to productivity, noted instances when Plaintiff was away from her machine during work hours. On February 6, 2015, Ms. Siderits met with Plaintiff to discuss Plaintiff's concern that she had not received a pay raise during employee reviews conducted in December 2014. Although Plaintiff disagrees with Ms. Siderits' account of the details of their discussion, Plaintiff admits they discussed Plaintiff's absences from her machine during production hours, that Ms. Siderits encouraged Plaintiff to improve her work habits, and that Ms. Siderits stated Plaintiff would be reevaluated. Ms. Siderits also counseled Plaintiff about her attendance.

         As of July 15, 2014, Plaintiff had exhausted all 120 hours of paid vacation time accrued on her anniversary date in May 2014.[4] Thus, Plaintiff had no vacation time available for subsequent absences (including late arrivals or early departures from work) until her next anniversary date in May 2015.[5] Following Plaintiff's meeting with Ms. Siderits in February 2015, Plaintiff incurred numerous additional absences from work.

         On Monday, March 23, 2015, six weeks after Plaintiff's meeting with Ms. Siderits, a weekly HR/management meeting was held with Defendant's owners, its vice president and general counsel (Donald J. Kyte), Ms. Siderits, and others in attendance. Ms. Siderits brought Plaintiff's personnel file to the meeting for an employee review and discussion of Plaintiff's request for a wage increase. After discussion at the meeting, upon Ms. Siderits' recommendation, the owners decided to terminate Plaintiff's employment due to lack of improvement, subject to Mr. Kyte's review of Plaintiff's file and approval of the decision. Following the meeting, Mr. Kyte conducted his review, formed an opinion that there was a sufficient basis for termination, and communicated to HR the same day that he had no objection to the decision.[6]

         The following day, Ms. Siderits prepared a form to be used to terminate Plaintiff's employment on March 24, 2015, but Plaintiff called in sick that day and was absent from work. On each subsequent day until March 30, 2015, Ms. Siderits revised the form by inserting the current day's date, but Plaintiff remained absent from work until the following Monday, March 30. On that date, after Plaintiff had worked part of her shift, Ms. Siderits met with Plaintiff and informed her of the termination decision.[7] The effective date of Plaintiff's termination for purposes of employee benefits was March 30, 2015.

         On each day that Plaintiff was absent from work March 24-27, 2015, she called in pursuant to Defendant's attendance policy, and reported an absence due to sickness and on one day a doctor's appointment. On March 24, Plaintiff received medical treatment for back pain, and a doctor determined that she was unable to return to work until March 26, 2016. Plaintiff returned to the doctor on March 26, and was directed to remain off work until March 30, 2015. The doctor's notes regarding Plaintiff's work restrictions were delivered to Defendant on March 27, 2015, but were not seen by Ms. Siderits or Mr. Kyte until sometime after Plaintiff's termination.

         In the Complaint, Plaintiff claims that Defendant interfered with her exercise or attempted exercise of an FMLA right to medical leave for a serious health condition, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1). Although not entirely clear from her pleading, Plaintiff also asserts a claim that Defendant retaliated against her for exercising a right to FMLA leave by terminating her employment, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(2). By her Motion, Plaintiff seeks a determination as a matter of law that ...

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