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Fields v. Integris Health Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 29, 2019

TAMRA J. FIELDS, Plaintiff,
v.
INTEGRIS HEALTH, INC., d/b/a INTEGRIS HEALTH d/b/a CORPORATE INTEGRIS HEALTH, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TIMOTHY D. DeGIUSTI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56: Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 25]; and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 26]. Both parties seek a summary adjudication of Plaintiff's claim that Defendant terminated her employment in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. Each party also seeks the determination of a discrete issue: Plaintiff, whether Defendant's affirmative defense of failure to mitigate damages lacks factual support; and Defendant, whether an affirmative defense based on the after-acquired evidence doctrine limits Plaintiff's available damages. The Motions are fully briefed and ready for disposition.[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). In appropriate circumstances, a party may obtain summary judgment on a part of a claim or defense. See id.; see also Harrison v. Eddy Potash, Inc., 248 F.3d 1014, 1023 (10th Cir. 2001) (plaintiff “was entitled to summary judgment on three elements of her Title VII claim”). 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.

         The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a dispute of material fact warranting summary judgment. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). 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). If a party who would bear the burden of proof at trial lacks sufficient evidence on an essential element of a claim or defense, all other factual issues concerning the claim or defense become immaterial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

         Statement of Undisputed Facts

         Plaintiff Tamra Fields was employed by Defendant Integris Health, Inc. as an IT applications analyst. Defendant is an FMLA-covered employer, and Plaintiff met the statutory requirements for entitlement to FMLA leave. She was approved to take intermittent FMLA leave to care for each of her two children (a son and a daughter) in October 2015. The approvals for this leave were set to expire in March and April of 2016. Between October 2015 and May 2016, Plaintiff was disciplined for attendance and work performance issues, and she received a performance evaluation with an overall rating of “Needs Improvement.”[2]

         In April and May, 2016, Plaintiff sought to recertify her intermittent FMLA leave. The facts surrounding the paperwork required for recertification are contested. On June 6, 2016, Mr. Jung went to Plaintiff's desk to speak to her about work-related matters and learned that she was not at work. The parties dispute whether Plaintiff's absence on this occasion was excused. Plaintiff has testified that she had a preexisting agreement with Mr. Jung to take her son to counseling sessions; Defendant denies that such an agreement existed. Mr. Jung contacted a human resources employee, Stephanie Curd, about how to treat Plaintiff's absence and whether her FMLA paperwork had been approved. Ms. Curd consulted Defendant's leave specialist, Mechele Berry, about Plaintiff's FMLA leave status. In checking Plaintiff's FMLA papers, Ms. Berry noticed irregularities that caused her to conclude Plaintiff had submitted false or forged certification forms. She informed Ms. Curd of this finding, and Ms. Curd relayed the information to Mr. Jung.

         Mr. Jung terminated Plaintiff's employment on June 7, 2016, for falsification of her FMLA papers. It later became unclear whether Ms. Berry may have been mistaken and a miscommunication of information may have caused the papers to appear false or forged. Defendant contends the facts surrounding the FMLA paperwork support a conclusion that, regardless whether a falsification actually occurred, Defendant held a sincere, honest belief that Plaintiff had been dishonest or untruthful when it terminated her employment. Plaintiff disputes this contention and asserts that this excuse, even if established, is legally insufficient to avoid liability for interfering with Plaintiff's exercise of FMLA rights.

         During discovery, Defendant acquired evidence - consisting of medical records for Plaintiff's son and her deposition testimony - that tends to show her absence from work on June 6, 2016, was not caused by a legitimate FMLA-protected activity. Plaintiff disputes that Defendant can show it would have terminated Plaintiff on this basis if it had known of the evidence on June 7, 2016. Also, as a procedural matter, Plaintiff points out that Defendant has not pleaded an affirmative defense based on the after-acquired evidence doctrine, discussed infra.

         After her termination, Plaintiff was unable to find a comparable job, but she did not try using a temporary employment or staffing agency. Plaintiff currently works part-time as a cafeteria monitor at a public elementary school earning an hourly wage of $8.00. During her employment by Defendant, she earned an annual salary of $83, 433.40 or $40.11 per hour.

         Discussion

         A. FMLA Liability

         The Tenth Circuit “has recognized two theories of recovery under § 2615(a): an entitlement or interference theory arising from § 2615(a)(1), and a retaliation or discrimination theory arising from § 2615(a)(2).” Metzler v. Fed. Home Loan Bank, 464 F.3d 1164, 1170 (10th Cir. 2006). “These two theories of recovery are separate and distinct theories that ‘require different showings[, ] differ with respect to the burden of proof,' and ‘differ with respect to the timing of the adverse action.'” Dalpiaz v. Carbon Cty., 760 F.3d 1126, 1131 (10th Cir. 2014) (quoting Campbell v. Gambro Healthcare, Inc., 478 F.3d 1282, 1287 (10th Cir. 2007)).

         1. Interference

         The Tenth Circuit has explained FMLA liability under an entitlement or interference theory as follows:

To establish a claim of FMLA interference under § 2615(a)(1), an employee must show “(1) that she was entitled to FMLA leave, (2) that some adverse action by the employer interfered with her right to take FMLA leave, and (3) that the employer's action was related to the exercise or attempted exercise of her FMLA rights.” Campbell, 478 F.3d at 1287 (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). To satisfy the second element of an interference claim - adverse action interfering with the right to take FMLA leave - “the employee must show that she was prevented from taking the full 12 weeks[] of leave guaranteed by the FMLA, denied reinstatement following leave, or denied initial permission to take leave.” Id. ...

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