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Sartin v. Oklahoma Department of Human Services

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

July 17, 2017

OKLAHOMA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES; JOHN DOES 1-30, unknown individuals employed by Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Defendants.


          TERENCE KERN United States District Judge

         Before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendant Oklahoma Department of Human Services (“DHS”) (Doc. 37).[1]

         On August 1, 2016, the Court: (1) dismissed Plaintiff's claim for interference under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) but permitted Plaintiff's claim for FMLA retaliation to proceed; (2) dismissed Plaintiff's claim for hostile work environment under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) but permitted Plaintiff's claim for ADA discrimination to proceed; (3) dismissed Plaintiff's claim for ADA retaliation; (4) permitted Plaintiff's claims under the Oklahoma Anti-Discrimination Act (“OADA”) to proceed consistent with the federal claims; and (5) dismissed Plaintiff's claim for negligence. Plaintiff has now voluntarily dismissed her sixth cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress. (Doc. 29.) Therefore, the only remaining claims are: (1) FMLA retaliation; (2) ADA discrimination; and (3) OADA claims. DHS moves for summary judgment on all remaining claims.[2]

         I. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is proper only if “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The moving party bears the burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists. See Zamora v. Elite Logistics, Inc., 449 F.3d 1106, 1112 (10th Cir. 2006). The Court resolves all factual disputes and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Id. However, the party seeking to overcome a motion for summary judgment may not “rest on mere allegations” in its complaint but must “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). The party seeking to overcome a motion for summary judgment must also make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of those elements essential to that party's case. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-33 (1986).

         II. Factual Background

         The following facts in the summary judgment record are either undisputed or resolved in favor of Plaintiff. Plaintiff Jammie Sartin has been employed by DHS for fifteen years and remains employed there. At times relevant to her lawsuit, Plaintiff was employed as a Programs Manager and supervised the professional-level staff at two Oklahoma DHS offices - one located in Miami, Oklahoma, and another located approximately a one-hour drive away in Jay, Oklahoma. Plaintiff considered the Miami office her main office and, at relevant times, only supervised one employee in Jay. Beginning in mid-2014, Martha Thompson (“Thompson”), Plaintiff's supervisor, began requiring Plaintiff to travel to the Jay office at least twice a week and sometimes more. In Plaintiff's “Certification of Health Care Provider for Employee's Serious Health Condition (Family and Medical Leave Act)” signed on October 14, 2014, Plaintiff described her “official job functions” as “[]overseeing daily operations of 2 offices 72 miles round trip several times per week, handling finance update for both offices.” (Ex. 3 to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J.) Thompson supervised Plaintiff from June of 2001 until April 30, 2016, when Thompson retired. Thompson was the only local DHS employee at a management level above Plaintiff at the Miami and Jay offices.

         In October of 2014, Plaintiff informed Thompson that she had scheduled knee replacement surgery for December 1, 2014 and would require leave. According to Plaintiff, Thompson originally exhibited hostility toward a six-week leave period and told Plaintiff that five weeks should be sufficient. However, it is undisputed that Thompson approved Plaintiff's request for six weeks of leave quickly after Plaintiff made her request.

         Prior to the surgery date, Thompson and Plaintiff discussed what tasks Plaintiff needed to complete prior to her leave and how those tasks would be covered in her absence. According to Plaintiff, she completed the tasks expected of her prior to her leave, including certain finance duties in the Jay office.

         Plaintiff's doctor released her to return to “regular duty” on January 12, 2015 with no restrictions, including no driving restrictions. On January 12, 2015, Plaintiff returned to work. According to Plaintiff, the following events transpired upon her return:

When I returned from medical leave Thompson was hateful and angry towards me and right off instructed me to go to Jay OKDHS Office to clean up a ‘mess' I supposedly left prior to taking leave. I explained to her that driving nearly one hour each way to and from work was impeding my healing but Thompson refused to acknowledge my needs ..... After returning to work on January 12, 2015, I worked in the Jay OKDHS office for 10 days in January and 2 days in Norman, Oklahoma. I worked similar work schedules in February through June 2016 working several days in Jay and other days working in other OKDHS locations such as in the Tulsa OKDHS offices. I repeatedly informed Thompson how much pain I was suffering and that driving from Miami Oklahoma to Jay Oklahoma was making the pain worse. On one occasion, we discussed how each needed to travel to the Jay OKDHS Office in Thompson's office while she sat at her desk and I stood at her door. After Thompson told me she was driving her own vehicle, I responded by telling Thompson I was driving my car because my vehicle did not cause me as much pain. My vehicle sat higher off the ground than the state vehicle and was easier to enter and exit. Thompson asked me if driving the state vehicle hurt my leg, to which I stated that my leg always hurts, but it also hurt my back. I did not submit travel claims because from the outset Thompson made very clear to me that I would never be reimbursed for driving my personal vehicle. I specifically requested to work in the Miami OKDHS Office in order to resolve serious staffing problems including working finance so another worker could be moved to case working. In response, Thompson told me, ‘No, I need you in Jay.'

(Sartin Aff., Ex. 1to Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J.)

         On January 20, 2015, approximately ten days following Plaintiff's return from work, Thompson issued a formal written reprimand (“Reprimand”) to Plaintiff on DHS letterhead, which was signed by Thompson and Karen Dale, the East Region Administrator for DHS. According to Thompson, she began the process of preparing the Reprimand before Plaintiff returned to work based on problems she discovered while Plaintiff was on leave. The Reprimand has three topics: (1) “Unsatisfactory performance” based on Plaintiff's failure to follow through on her alleged guarantee to Thompson that all the finance work for the Jay office would be complete before she left, which resulted in customer complaints and “harm to the reputation of the Jay office;” (2) “Discourteous treatment of clients, other employees, or the public in general” based on Plaintiff referring to employees in the Jay office, in mid-November of 2014, as “dumbasses;” and (3) “Conduct unbecoming a public employee” based on Plaintiff allegedly borrowing $100.00 from a subordinate employee in the Jay office. (Ex. 3 to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J.) Plaintiff admits the “dumbasses” comment but contends it was made to Thompson in a joking manner. Plaintiff contends that she did complete the finance work she guaranteed to complete prior to her leave and that the subordinate employee gave her the $100.00 rather than loaned it to her. Plaintiff believes the Reprimand was baseless and in retaliation for Plaintiff taking FMLA leave.

         On March 3, 2015, Thompson initiated an email to Danita McCauley requesting replacing carpet and new paint in the Jay office, and Plaintiff was copied on the email. Plaintiff replied to all and stated: “In addition to all of the below mentioned, there needs to be handicapped support rail installed in each of the private bathrooms in the back of the building.” (Ex. 11 to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J.) The public restrooms in the Jay office, which are approximately ten to fifteen away from the private restrooms, did have a support rail.

         III. FMLA Retaliation

         The FMLA “provides that eligible employees of certain employers have the right to take unpaid medical leave for a period of up to twelve work weeks in any twelve month period for a serious health condition as defined by the Act.” Smith v. Diffee Ford-Lincoln-Mercury, Inc., 298 F.3d 955, 959 (10th Cir. 2002). The FMLA also prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for opposing a practice made unlawful by the FMLA. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(2). To make out a prima facie FMLA retaliation claim, Plaintiff must show that (1) she engaged in protected FMLA activity; (2) DHS took an action that a reasonable employee would have found materially adverse; and (3) there exists a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action. Metzler v. Fed. Home Loan Bank of Topeka, 464 F.3d 1164, 1171 (10th Cir. 2006). DHS challenges Plaintiffs' evidence as to the second element - namely, that she suffered any materially adverse employment action. Plaintiff contends she suffered two adverse employment actions: (1) the Reprimand, and (2) being forced to travel to Jay.

         A. Reprimand

         “Disciplinary proceedings, such as warning letters and reprimands, can constitute an adverse employment action.” Medina v. Income Support Div., N.M., 413 F.3d 1131, 1137 (10th Cir. 2005). “A reprimand, however, will only constitute an adverse employment action if it adversely affects the terms and conditions of the plaintiff's employment - for example, if it affects the likelihood that the plaintiff will be terminated, undermines the plaintiff's current position, or affects the plaintiff's future employment opportunities.” Id.

         Under Tenth Circuit case law in the Title VII and FMLA retaliation contexts, written letters of warning or reprimands are generally not deemed materially adverse employment actions where the record evidence establishes that the employee remains employed and/or that the reprimand has not adversely affected her in any manner. See Id. (written warning did not constitute adverse employment action where plaintiff had already been offered another position and resigned at time written letter was issued); Tapia v. City of Albuquerque, No. 05-2028, 2006 WL 308267, at * 4 (10th Cir. Feb. 10, 2006) (letter of instruction did not constitute adverse employment action where plaintiff continued to work for defendant after receipt of letter, and the “unrealized threat” that plaintiff could be disciplined for future infractions was not enough to make letter itself adverse action); Rennard v. Woodworker's Supply, Inc., No. 03-8031, 2004 WL 1260309, at * 10 (10th Cir. June 9, 2004) (written reprimand did not constitute adverse employment action where reprimand stated that future infractions could result in termination but it was undisputed that defendant took no further action against plaintiff); Young v. White, 200 F.Supp.2d 1259, 1274 (D. Kan. 2002) (written reprimand did not constitute adverse employment action in the absence of evidence that reprimand had any negative effect on plaintiff's employment and plaintiff remained employed by defendant three years after reprimand). Accord Summerlin v. M & H Valve Co., 167 F. App'x 93, 96 (11th Cir. 2006) (“The reprimand of an employee does not constitute an adverse employment action when the employee suffers no ...

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