Pritchett v. I.G. Burton & Company Inc.
MEMORANDUM. Signed by Judge Gregory M. Sleet on 1/29/2015. (mdb)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF DELAWARE
LG. BURTON & COMPANY, INC.,
a Delaware Corporation,
C.A. No. 14-380-GMS
On March 25, 2014, the plaintiff, Melanie Pritchett ("Pritchett"), filed this lawsuit against
her former employer, defendant LG. Burton & Company, Inc. ("LG. Burton"). (D.I. 1.) In her
complaint, Pritchett alleges a deprivation of her statutory rights under the Family Medical Leave
Act of 1993 ("FMLA"). 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. (Id. at 4-5.) Pritchett also alleges breach of
an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing under Delaware law. (Id. at 5-6.) Pritchett
seeks reinstatement, damages, and injunctive relief to redress the alleged deprivation of her
statutory rights under the FMLA. (Id. at 1.) Presently before the court is LG. Burton's motion to
dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(6). (D.1. 4.) For the reasons below, the court will deny the motion.
On or about October 25, 2010, Pritchett began working for LG. Burton as a bookkeeper
in the Accounting Department. (D.1. 1 at 2,
6.) Although the specific date is not alleged,
sometime before December 15, 2011, Pritchett was diagnosed with cancer and began undergoing
chemotherapy. (Id. at 3,
if 13.) On December 15, 2011, Pritchett requested and was granted
leave under the FMLA. (Id.) By the Court's calculation, Pritchett's twelve weeks of FMLA
leave appears to have expired on March 8, 2012. 1 Pritchett notified LG. Burton that she would
return to work on March 26, 2012. (D.I. 1 at 3,
if 14.) After Pritchett had not yet returned to
work on March 26, 2012-eighteen days past her allotted leave under the FMLA-her
employment with LG. Burton was terminated. (Id., if 16.) Soon thereafter, on April 1, 2012,
Pritchett was removed from LG. Burton's Employer Health Insurance Policy. (Id. at 2, if 9.)
Pritchett alleges that preceding her cancer diagnosis, LG. Burton was renegotiating its
health insurance plan, and "was concerned Pritchett's continued cancer treatment would increase
their insurance costs." (Id. at 4,
27, 29.) Pritchett alleges this was a motivating factor in
terminating her contract. (Id. if 30.)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Rule 12(b )( 6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for dismissal where the
plaintiff "fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). In
considering a motion to dismiss, the court "accept[ s] all factual allegations as true, construe[ s]
the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine[ s] whether, under any
reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Phillips v. Cnty. of
Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008). The issue for the court is "not whether the plaintiff
will ultimately prevail, but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the
claims." Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). As such, the touchstone of the pleading
Per 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(l), "an eligible employee shall be entitled to a total of 12 work weeks ofleave
during any 12-month period .... " Neither Pritchett, nor LG. Burton, discuss March 8, 2012, as the date her FMLA
leave expired. Instead, the parties merely note Pritchett's termination occurred after her FMLA leave expired
without providing a specific date. (D.I. 4 at 2, ii 3; D.I. 5 at 2, ii 3.) As explained below, Pritchett relies on the
temporal proximity between her termination and the expiration of her FMLA leave to show retaliation. Thus, the
court find it important to note that, because Pritchett was granted FMLA leave on December 15, 2011, her allotted
twelve weeks expired on March 8, 2012.
standard is plausibility. Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352 365 (3d Cir. 2012). Plaintiffs must
provide sufficient factual allegations "to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell
At!. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "Determining whether a complaint states a
plausible claim for relief will ... be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to
draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009).
In her complaint against LG. Burton, Pritchett brings (1) an FMLA retaliation claim, and
(2) a claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. (D.I. 1 at 4-6.) The
court will address each in tum.
A. Counts I & II: FMLA Retaliation
The FMLA was enacted to "balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of
families," and "to entitle employees to take reasonable leave for medical reasons." 29 U.S.C.
§ 2601(b)(l), (2); 29 C.F.R. § 825.lOl(b), (c); see also Budhun v. Reading Hosp. & Med. Ctr.,
765 F.3d 245, 251 (3d Cir. 2014); Giddens v. UPS Supply Chain Solutions, No. CV 11-616
(NLH/JS), 2014 WL 4954597, at *8 (D. Del. Sept. 30, 2014). Under the FMLA, eligible
employees are statutorily entitled to "a total of 12 work weeks of leave during any 12-month
period [due to] a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the
functions of the position of such employee." 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(l)(D). Once the twelve weeks
of leave have expired, the employee is entitled to be reinstated to the former position or an
alternate one with equivalent pay, benefits and working conditions. § 2614(a)(l). "The FMLA
provides relief for interference with these FMLA rights as well as for retaliation for exercising
these FMLA rights." Giddens, 2014 WL 4954597, at *8.
As an initial matter, Pritchett incorrectly styles her complaint as separate claims for
"Discrimination" (Count I) and "Retaliation" (Count II). While Pritchett's complaint alleges a
deprivation of her statutory rights under subsections (1) and (2) of§ 2615(a), her arguments only
pertain to subsection (2). (D.I. 1at4-5,
31-41; D.I. 5 at 2-5,
2-5.) Each subsection may
support a separate type of claim:
[Under § 2615(a)(l),] [t]he FMLA declares it "unlawful for any
employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the
attempt to exercise, any right provided" in the FMLA. Such a
claim is typically referred to as an "interference" claim. To assert
an interference claim, the employee only needs to show that he was
entitled to benefits under the FMLA and that he was denied them.
An interference action is not about discrimination, it is only about
whether the employer provided the employee with the entitlements
guaranteed by the FMLA. [Conversely, under § 2615(a)(2)], the
retaliation theory protects employees from suffering discrimination
because they have exercised their rights under the FMLA.
Giddens, 2014 WL 4954597, at *8 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also
Lehmann v. Aramark Healthcare Support Servs., LLC, 630 F. Supp. 2d 388, 392 (D. Del. 2009).
Although Pritchett invokes deprivation under § 2615(a)(l), (D.I. 5 at 3,
3), the complaint
includes no factual assertions that she was denied the benefit of the twelve weeks of leave
provided under the FMLA. Indeed, Pritchett acknowledges that she was afforded her twelve
weeks of leave. Pritchett's complaint only includes facts pertaining to LG. Burton's alleged
retaliation under§ 2615(a)(2). Thus, the court will address Counts I and II as a single retaliation
If an employee's contract is terminated because she took leave under the FMLA, then she
may have an actionable retaliation claim. See Henson v. US. Foodserv., Inc., No. 13-4711, 2014
WL 5151947, at *3 (3d Cir. Oct. 15, 2014) ("Federal regulations prohibit an employer from
retaliating against an employee for taking advantage of FMLA leave."). In particular, section
825.220(c) of the FMLA regulations provides:
An employer is prohibited from discriminating against employees
or prospective employees who have used FMLA leave. For
example, if an employee on leave without pay would otherwise be
entitled to full benefits (other than health benefits), the same
benefits would be required to be provided to an employee on
unpaid FMLA leave. By the same token, employers cannot use the
taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions,
such as hiring, promotions or disciplinary actions; nor can FMLA
leave be counted under "no fault" attendance policies.
29 C.F.R. § 825.220(c) (emphasis added).
"Retaliation claims under the FMLA are analyzed under the burden shifting framework
of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green." Miller v. Aramark Healthcare Support Serv., 555 F.
Supp. 2d 463, 470 (D. Del. 2008) (citing McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792
(1973)). Under McDonnell, a three-step analysis is applied. Id. First, the plaintiff bears the
burden to establish a prima facie case of retaliation. Here, the plaintiff must show: (1) she took
FMLA leave, (2) she suffered an adverse employment decision, and (3) the adverse decision was
causally related to her leave. Conoshenti v. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 364 F.3d 135, 146 (3d
Cir. 2004), modified, Erdman v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 582 F.3d 500 (3d Cir. 2009); Miller, 555 F.
Supp. 2d at 470. "Because FMLA retaliation claims require proof of the employer's retaliatory
intent, courts have assessed these claims through the lens of employment discrimination law."
Lichtenstein v. Univ. of Pittsburgh Med. Ctr., 691 F.3d 294, 302 (3d Cir. 2012). Next, "[a]fter
establishing a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment action." Conoshenti, 364 F.3d at 146.
Finally, if the employer provides a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason, the burden then shifts
again to the plaintiff to present evidence showing the defendant's proffered reasons were not its
true reasons, but were merely a pretext for its illegal action. Schlifke v. Trans World Entm 't
Corp., 479 F. Supp. 2d 445, 452 (D. Del. 2007).
LG. Burton argues Pritchett fails to state a retaliation claim because, as a matter of law,
once her allotted twelve weeks of FMLA leave were exhausted, she was no longer protected by
the statute. (D.I. 6 at 2, ii 2.) InLupyan v. Corinthian Coils. Inc., 761F.3d314, 324-25 (3d Cir.
2014), the Third Circuit specifically rejected this argument when it held that the "nature of
retaliation claims distinctly focuses on employer's conduct and motivations for termination"
rather than the mere expiration of FMLA protection. Thus, Pritchett's retaliation claim is not
precluded as a matter of law even though she did not return to work by March 8, 2012, and in so
doing exceeded her twelve-week FMLA leave.
The court will now determine whether Pritchett's complaint has pled enough factual
matter that, when taken as true, plausibly states a claim of retaliation under the FMLA. The
parties do not dispute Pritchett has adequately alleged that she took FMLA leave and suffered an
adverse employment decision. Therefore, the central question is whether Pritchett's complaint
contains enough factual matter to plausibly show her termination on March 26, 2012, was
causally related to her FMLA leave.
Here, Pritchett asserts that a plausible inference of
causation has been alleged because "[t]he adverse employment decision . . . occurred
immediately after her FMLA leave and prior to her return to work." (D.I. 1 at 5, ii 39.)
When a plaintiff alleges that the temporal proximity between her statutorily protected
employment activity and termination establish a causal link, she generally must show: (1) an
unusually suggestive temporal proximity between the protected activity and the allegedly
retaliatory action, or (2) a pattern of antagonism coupled with timing to establish a causal link.
Budhun, 765 F.3d at 258 (citing Lauren W. ex rel. Jean W. v. DeFlaminis, 480 F.3d 259, 267 (3d
Cir. 2007)); Yovtcheva v. City of Phi/a. Water Dep't, 518 F. App'x 116, 123 (3d Cir. 2013)
(citing Williams v. Phi/a. Hous. Auth. Police Dep't, 380 F.3d 751, 760 (3d Cir. 2004);
Shellenberger v. Summit Bancorp, Inc., 318 F.3d 183, 189 n. 9 (3d Cir. 2003)). The court finds
that Pritchett's factual averments give rise to a plausible inference of retaliation. Having begun
her FMLA leave on December 15, 2011, Pritchett was required to return to work on March 8,
2012. Her termination eighteen days later gives rise to a plausible inference of retaliation.
Moreover, Pritchett's allegation that LG. Burton's renegotiation of its employee health insurance
policies was a motivating factor in her termination, further supports an inference of retaliatory
intent. As such, LG. Burton's motion to dismiss Pritchett's retaliation claim is denied.
B. Count III: Breach of Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing
Count III of Pritchett's complaint alleges breach of an implied covenant of good faith and
fair dealing between the parties. (D.I. 1 at 5,
iii! 42-46.) Under Delaware common law, an
employee is considered "at-will" and may be dismissed from employment without cause and
regardless of motive. Collier v. Target Stores Corp., No. 03-1144-SLR, 2005 WL 850855, at *9
(D. Del. Apr. 13, 2005) (citing Merrill v. Crothall-Am., Inc., 606 A.2d 96 (Del. Super. 1992)).
"Delaware imposes a 'heavy presumption that a contract for employment, unless otherwise
expressly stated, is at-will in nature, with duration indefinite."' Owens v. Connections Cmty.
Support Programs, Inc., 840 F. Supp. 2d 791, 797 (D. Del. 2012) (quoting E.I. DuPont de
Nemours & Co. v. Pressman, 679 A.2d 436, 440 (Del. 1996)). Delaware law does, however,
recognize a limited implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing exception to protect
employees from wrongful termination. Id.; Collier, 2005 WL 850855, at *9.
The Delaware Supreme Court has four situations where an
employee could bring a claim based on the implied covenant of
good faith and fair dealing: (1) where the termination violated
public policy; (2) where the employer misrepresented an important
fact and the employee relied thereon either to accept a new
position or to remain in her present one; (3) where the employer
used its superior bargaining power to deprive an employee of
clearly identifiable compensation related to the employee's past
services; and (4) where the employer falsified or manipulated
employment records to create fictitious grounds for termination.
Owens, 840 F. Supp. 2d at 798. An employee's firing in retaliation for taking FMLA leave, has
been held to violate public policy. Farrell v. Astrazeneca Pharm. LP, No. 04-285-KAJ, 2005
WL 2122678, at *5 (D. Del. Sept. 2, 2005) ("[Plaintiffs] argument that her firing violated public
policy only stands if she was, in fact, terminated as a result of her FMLA leave.")
Pritchett is presumed-under Delaware law-to have been an at-will employee for LG.
Burton. This employment designation allowed LG. Burton to terminate Pritchett's employment
without cause. Nonetheless, Pritchett is still able to bring a claim based on an implied covenant
of good faith and fair dealing, so long as, one of the four situation articulated by the Delaware
Supreme Court is met. See Owens, 840 F. Supp. 2d at 798. Here, because the court finds
Pritchett's complaint alleges sufficient facts, given the plausibility of her claim for retaliation,
the court is persuaded by the reasoning in Farrell that it would be premature to dismiss
Pritchett's claim for breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Farrell, 2005
WL 2122678, at *8. As such, LG. Burton's motion to dismiss Count III is denied.
For the foregoing reasons, the court will deny LG. Burton's motion to dismiss for failure
to state a claim. (D.I. 4.)
Dated: January 11!_, 2015
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?