Diamond v. American Family Mutual Insurance Company
ORDER denying 24 Defendant's motion for summary judgment. Signed on 11/9/2017 by District Judge Roseann Ketchmark. (Perry, Madison)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
WESTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
DAVID A DIAMOND,
AMERICAN FAMILY MUTUAL
Case No. 4:16-00977-CV-RK
ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Now before the Court is Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff’s
claims arising under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). (Doc. 24.) Plaintiff filed
opposition suggestions (doc. 30), and Defendant filed reply suggestions (doc. 33). After careful
consideration, the motion is DENIED.
With the exception of a break in employment beginning in 2002 and ending in early
2003, Plaintiff was employed by Defendant from January 1999 until his discharge in February
2015. (Doc. 42 at ¶¶ 1, 2, 13.) While Plaintiff was employed by Defendant, he took FMLA
leave on three occasions: prior to 2006; August 31, 2011 through December 19, 2011; and
October 15, 2013 through November 6, 2013. (Id. at ¶¶ 18-21.) Defendant approved each of
Plaintiff’s requests for FMLA leave and reinstated him to the same position with the same salary
and benefits upon his return from FMLA leave. (Id. at ¶ 22.)
On March 24, 2012, Plaintiff was hired by Ray Caudill to transfer to a Senior Catastrophe
Claims Adjustor position. (Id. at ¶ 10.) Caudill was Plaintiff’s manager from March 2012 until
his discharge. (Id. at ¶ 28.) In this role, Plaintiff was responsible for processing catastrophic
property claims for Defendant’s customers. (Id. at ¶ 11.) Plaintiff’s job duties included making
many telephone calls throughout the day to insureds, witnesses, repair contractors, agents, and
others. (Id. at ¶ 12.) Plaintiff made notes of each call in the Defendant’s computer files. (Id.)
Plaintiff remained in this position until his discharge in February 2015. (Id. at ¶ 13.)
On February 12, 2015, Caudill met with and issued Plaintiff his 2014 Performance
Review. (Id. at ¶ 30.) Caudill’s comments in the 2014 Performance Review were positive, and
Caudill wrote that he had seen growth and improvement in many areas over the last year.
(Id. at ¶ 32.) In his 2014 Performance Review, Plaintiff was rated “Above Target” for one
measure and “On Target” for all other measures. (Id. at ¶ 33.) Plaintiff testified that, during his
performance review on February 12, 2015, Plaintiff told Caudill he intended to arrange for
upcoming FMLA leave, and Caudill admits that Plaintiff told him he was planning to arrange for
FMLA leave but that he does not remember the timing of that conversation in relation to
Plaintiff’s performance review. (Doc. 34 at ¶ 161.)
On Friday, February 13, 2015, a report of phone calls made to or from the phone on
Plaintiff’s desk was prepared for Caudill to analyze. (Doc. 42 at ¶ 35.) Caudill testified that he
requested the records because he received complaints, during January and February 2015, from
insureds and agents who reported they had not received follow-up calls or call-backs from
Plaintiff on their claims. (Doc. 26 at ¶ 58.) Caudill pulled Defendant’s claim files in which
Plaintiff had written he called the insureds and compared Plaintiff’s claim file entries to a
30-day phone report from his desk telephone. (Doc. 42 at ¶ 36.) Caudill has never identified to
Plaintiff the customers that allegedly complained of not receiving a call and has never shown
Plaintiff any notes of such complaints.
(Doc. 34 at ¶ 179.)
Plaintiff signed his 2014
performance review on February 16, 2015. (Doc. 42 at ¶ 34.) On February 20, 2015, a final
paycheck was requested from the payroll department. (Doc. 34 at ¶ 167.) On the morning of
February 24, 2015, Plaintiff was at work when he received a call on his cell phone that Caudill
wanted to meet with him; Caudill met with Plaintiff; and Caudill informed Plaintiff that he was
being terminated for falsifying company records. (Doc. 42 at ¶¶ 37 - 39.)
The parties dispute the following: whether Caudill made mocking and disparaging
comments about Plaintiff’s FMLA leave when Plaintiff returned from FMLA leave in 2013;
whether, from 2013 to his termination, Plaintiff was assigned a heavier workload than other
adjustors and senior adjustors; whether Plaintiff was denied help with his files when such help
was provided to other adjustors; whether it was common knowledge among the employees in
Plaintiff’s unit that his computer was often down; whether a senior adjuster would ever use a
phone other than the one on his or her desk for making business phone calls; and whether
Plaintiff offered any explanation for the discrepancy between his file notes and the phone report
from his desk telephone.
“The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine
dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” FED.
R. CIV. P. 56(a). A party who moves for summary judgment bears the burden of showing that
there is no genuine issue of material fact. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256
(1986). An issue of fact is only genuine if it has a real basis in the record, and is material if it
“might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Id. at 248. In applying this
standard, the Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party,
giving that party the benefit of all inferences that may be reasonably drawn from the evidence.
Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986); Tyler v.
Harper, 744 F.2d 653, 655 (8th Cir. 1984), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1057 (1985).
opposing a motion for summary judgment may not simply deny the allegations, but must point to
evidence in the record demonstrating the existence of a factual dispute. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1);
Conseco Life Ins. Co. v. Williams, 620 F.3d 902, 909-10 (8th Cir. 2010).
The FMLA “entitles an employee to twelve weeks of leave from work during any twelvemonth period if the employee meets certain statutory requirements.” Pulczinski v. Trinity
Structural Towers, Inc., 691 F.3d 996, 1005 (8th Cir. 2012). Two subsections of the FMLA
prohibit an employer’s ability to undermine an employee’s permitted leave.
2615(a)(1) “makes it unlawful for an employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of
or the attempt to exercise rights provided under the FMLA,” and section 2615(a)(2) “makes it
unlawful for any employer to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any
individual for opposing any practice made unlawful by the FMLA.” Brown v. Diversified
Distribution Sys., LLC, 801 F.3d 901, 907 (8th Cir. 2015) (quotations and citations omitted).
The Eighth Circuit has recognized three different FLMA claims from these two subsections: (1)
entitlement, (2) discrimination, and (3) retaliation. Pulczinski, 691 F.3d at 1005.
As mentioned above, the Eighth Circuit recognizes three types of FMLA claims:
(1) entitlement, (2) discrimination, and (3) retaliation. Pulczinski, 691 F.3d at 1005-1006. As
recently identified in Teetor v. Rock-Tenn Services, Inc.:
“An entitlement claim arises under § 2615(a)(1) when ‘an employer
refuses to authorize leave under the FMLA or takes other action to avoid
responsibilities under the Act.’” Id. (quoting Pulczinski, 691 F.3d at 1005). In an
entitlement claim, previously called an interference claim, an employee must
show only that he or she was entitled to the benefit denied. Johnson v. Wheeling
Mach. Prods., 779 F.3d 514, 517-18 (8th Cir. 2015).
“Discrimination claims arise under § 2615(a)(1) ‘when an employer takes
adverse action against an employee because the employee exercises rights to
which he is entitled under the FMLA.’” Brown, 801 F.3d at 908 (quoting
Pulczinski, 691 F.3d at 1006); accord 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(c) (“The Act’s
prohibition against interference prohibits an employer from discriminating or
retaliating against an employee ... for having exercised . . . FMLA rights.”);
Massey-Diez, 826 F.3d 1149, 1157 (8th Cir. 2016). . . . To establish a prima facie
case of FMLA discrimination, an employee must show: (1) that he engaged in
activity protected under the Act, (2) that he suffered a materially adverse
employment action, and (3) that a causal connection existed between the
employee’s action and the adverse employment action. Brown, 801 F.3d at 908.
A retaliation claim arises under § 2615(a)(2) if an employer takes ‘adverse
action’ against an employee who ‘opposes any practice made unlawful under the
FMLA—for example, if an employee complains about an employer’s refusal to
comply with the statutory mandate to permit FMLA leave.’” Id. at 909 (quoting
Pulczinski, 691 F.3d at 1005-06).
2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162179, at *8-10 (E.D. Mo. Oct. 2, 2017). Here, Plaintiff asserts two
FMLA claims. (Doc. 23.)
With respect to identifying which FMLA claims Plaintiff is pursuing, “Count I - Family
& Medical Leave Act,” alleges that Plaintiff took FMLA leave; a supervisor criticized and
ridiculed Plaintiff for taking FMLA leave; a supervisor indicated a concern that Plaintiff would
take leave in the future; in early 2015, Plaintiff told his supervisor and others that he intended to
take FMLA leave; shortly after he expressed his intentions to take FMLA leave, he was
terminated; and that Defendant’s purpose for the termination was to interfere with Plaintiff’s
FMLA rights because Defendant was motivated by a concern that Plaintiff would take additional
FMLA leave. (Id. at ¶¶ 37, 39, 40, 41, 42.) This claim, while previously called an interference
claim, is now referred to as an entitlement claim. Pulczinski, 691 F.3d at 1005 (Cases have
described an FMLA claim arising under § 2615(a)(1), which occurs where an employer “refuses
to authorize leave under the FMLA or takes other action to avoid responsibilities under the Act”
as “an ‘interference’ claim, but that terminology may not illuminate, because all prohibited acts
under § 2615(a) appear under the heading ‘Interference with rights.’ For clarity of analysis, we
think it helpful to describe this as an ‘entitlement’ claim—an employee claims the denial of a
benefit to which he is entitled under the statute.”).
Here, Plaintiff claims that Defendant
interfered with his entitlement to FMLA by terminating him after he informed his supervisor of
his intention to take FMLA leave but before he completed the process for taking FMLA leave.
Plaintiff’s second count, “Count II – Retaliation,” alleges that Plaintiff took FMLA leave;
in retaliation for taking that leave, Defendant assigned Plaintiff an excessive and unreasonable
workload and terminated Plaintiff when Plaintiff indicated he intended to take additional FMLA
leave; and that Defendant’s retaliatory actions were motivated and caused by a desire to retaliate
against Plaintiff for taking protected leave.
(Doc. 23 at ¶¶ 50, 52, 53.)
“retaliation,” this is a claim for FMLA “discrimination.” See Peterson v. Martin Marietta
Materials, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64469, at *29 (N.D. Iowa May 17, 2016) (FMLA
discrimination occurs where an employer retaliates against an employee for exercising FMLA
rights, whereas FMLA retaliation occurs when “an employer takes ‘adverse action’ against an
employee who opposes or complains about an employer’s failure to comply with the
requirements of FMLA.) (citing Brown, 801 F.3d at 908-909 and Pulczinski, 691 F.3d at 10051006). Here, Plaintiff claims that Defendant retaliated against him for exercising FMLA rights,
and therefore discriminated against him in violation of FMLA.
Plaintiff has met his burden to establish a prima facie case for interference with his
entitlement to FMLA leave. An employer interferes with an employee’s entitlement to FMLA
not only by refusing to authorize leave and discouraging an employee from using such leave, but
also when it “takes other action to avoid responsibilities under the [FMLA].” Brown, 801 F.3d at
907. “An employee proceeding on this theory need not show that an employer acted with
discriminatory intent.” Pulczinski, 691 F.3d at 1005. It is clearly established in the Eighth
Circuit that “every discharge of an employee while [he or she] is taking FMLA leave interferes
with an employee’s FMLA rights.” Throneberry v. McGehee Desha County Hosp., 403 F.3d
972, 980 (8th Cir. 2005).
It follows that this logic applies to employees “precipitously
terminated for inquiring about, or giving notice of, FMLA leave.” Rabe v. Nationwide Logistics,
Inc., 530 F. Supp. 2d 1069, 1075 (E.D. Mo. 2008); see also Verby v. PayPal, Inc., 2014 U.S.
Dist. LEXIS 59261, at *47 (D. Neb. Apr. 29, 2014) (“The Eighth Circuit has . . . concluded that
terminating an employee, in response to a qualifying employee’s assertion of rights may also
qualify as interference.” “[I]f the plaintiff had evidence that she was fired because she was about
to begin FMLA leave . . . it would arguably support either an [entitlement] claim, or a
[discrimination] claim, or both[.]”) (citing Dollar v. Smithway Motor Xpress, Inc., 710 F.3d 798,
806 (8th Cir. 2013) (other citations omitted).
In Rabe, the Court held that “[w]hether an alleged act occurs prior to, during, or
subsequent to FMLA leave, that which deters an employee from participating in protected
activities constitutes an interference or restraint of the employee’s exercise of his rights.” Id.
(internal quotations and citations omitted) (“[I]t is uncontroverted that (i) on August 17, 2005,
Mr. Rabe gave notice of his intent to take leave; (ii) on August 26, 2005, Mr. Rabe met with
management to further discuss this inquiry; and (iii) on August 30, 2005, Mr. Rabe was
terminated. Taken together, Mr. Rabe has sufficiently stated a prima face case of interference”
with his entitlement to take FMLA leave.) Here, it is uncontroverted that in early 2015, Plaintiff
told his supervisor he intended to take FMLA leave, and that shortly after Plaintiff expressed that
intention he was terminated.
Therefore, Plaintiff has established a prima facie case of
interference with his entitlement to take FMLA leave.
However, the FMLA does not prohibit an employer from terminating an employee for
reasons unrelated to the FMLA. Throneberry v. McGehee Desha Cty. Hosp., 403 F.3d 972, 977981 (8th Cir. 2005). “As long as an employer can show a lawful reason, i.e., a reason unrelated
to an employee’s exercise of FMLA rights, …. the employer will be justified to interfere with an
employee’s FMLA leave rights.” Rabe, 530 F. Supp. 2d at 1075 (quoting Throneberry, 403 F.3d
at 978-979). The parties do not dispute that falsifying records is a lawful reason for termination.
However, there are material factual disputes related to whether Plaintiff falsified records or
Defendant believed Plaintiff falsified records. Viewing all inferences in the light most favorable
to Plaintiff, Plaintiff’s phone records from his desk phone were pulled the day after he expressed
an intention to take FMLA leave, there are no written records of complaints from his customers
regarding failure to make or return calls, he worked at other desks and used his cell phone to
make calls on a regular basis, it was common knowledge that he used phones other than his desk
phone, and Plaintiff offered explanations at his termination meeting for the discrepancy between
his file notes and phone report from his desk telephone. In addition, Plaintiff received favorable
marks during his performance review, the day before his phone records were pulled. Thus, for
summary judgment purposes, Defendant has failed to sufficiently establish the existence of a
lawful reason unrelated to Plaintiff’s assertion that he was planning to take FMLA leave.
When evaluating FMLA discrimination claims in the absence of direct evidence, the
Court uses the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework. Brown, 801 F.3d at 908. Under
this framework, the employee must first make a prima facie case for FMLA discrimination.
Hite v. Vermeer Mfg. Co., 446 F.3d 858, 865 (8th Cir. 2006). If a prima facie case is established,
“the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its
actions.” Id. If the employer articulates such a reason, the burden then shifts back to the
employee to submit evidence that the provided reason is pretext, or in other words, a prohibited
reason, rather than the proffered reason, actually motivated the employer’s action. Id.
To establish FMLA discrimination, “an employee must show: (1) that he engaged in
activity protected under the Act, (2) that he suffered a materially adverse employment action, and
(3) that a causal connection existed between the employee’s action and the adverse employment
Brown, 801 F.3d at 908.
The only element in dispute is whether Plaintiff has
established a causal connection i.e. whether Plaintiff’s protected FMLA activity “played a part”
in Defendant’s decision to terminate Plaintiff. Pulczinski, 691 F.3d at 1007.
that the day after he informed Defendant of his intention to take FMLA leave, Defendant took its
first steps toward fabricating a reason for his termination, and Plaintiff was terminated shortly
after. Although timing alone is typically insufficient to establish causation, given such close
proximity here, coupled with Caudill’s alleged statements about Plaintiff’s previous leave, and
the disputes regarding the veracity of the falsification allegations, explanations, and
investigation, the causation element has been sufficiently established. Hite v. Vermeer Mfg. Co.,
446 F.3d 858, 866 (8th Cir. 2006) (“Even if temporal proximity alone is insufficient to establish
causation, the employee may attempt to prove causation by providing evidence of the employer’s
discriminatory comments.”) (citation omitted).
Because Plaintiff has established a prima facie case, the burden shifts to Defendant to
articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. “The employer’s responsibility
to present proof of a non-discriminatory, legitimate justification for its action is not an onerous
task.” Ebersole v. Novo Nordisk, Inc., 758 F.3d 917, 925 (8th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). As
discussed above, the parties agree that falsifying records is a legitimate reason for termination.
Thus, the burden shifts back to Plaintiff to show that that Defendant’s proffered reason is merely
pretext for discrimination.
Pretext can be shown in a number of ways, for example, “by demonstrating that the
employer’s proffered reason has no basis in fact, that the employee received a favorable review
shortly before he was terminated, that similarly situated employees who did not engage in the
protected activity were treated more leniently, . . . or that the employer deviated from its
policies.” Ebersole, 758 F.3d at 925. Factual disputes preclude the Court from determining
whether Defendant’s reason for terminating Plaintiff – falsifying business records – has any basis
in fact. As previously mentioned, the parties dispute whether adjustors used phones other than
the phones on their desk for making business phone calls; whether it was common knowledge
that Plaintiff used other phones on a regular basis; and whether Plaintiff offered any explanation
for the discrepancy between his file notes and the phone report from his desk telephone.
Moreover, factual disputes preclude the Court from determining whether Defendant conducted
the investigation in good faith, and therefore, whether Defendant honestly believed Plaintiff
falsified records. While the Court does not “sit as a super-personnel department” to review
business decisions, it does review the decisions “to the extent those judgments involve
intentional discrimination.” Rabe, 530 F. Supp. 2d at 1077. Plaintiff argues at length that
Defendant’s investigation was incomplete in certain respects, and Defendant points to cases such
as Edwards v. Hiland Roberts Dairy, Co., which stand for the proposition that “a shortcoming in
an internal investigation alone, without additional evidence of pretext, would not suffice to
support an inference of discrimination on the part of the employer.” 860 F.3d 1121, 1127 (8th
Cir. 2017). However, Plaintiff has provided additional evidence of pretext such as timing and a
positive review. While other facts weigh in Defendant’s favor such as the fact that other
employees were terminated for falsifying records, this does not negate the fact that Plaintiff has
set forth evidence from which a reasonable juror could find that Defendant’s proffered
explanation was merely pretextual. Based on the foregoing, Plaintiff’s claim that Defendant
discriminated against him for exercising FMLA rights survives summary judgment.
Accordingly, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
s/ Roseann A. Ketchmark
ROSEANN A. KETCHMARK, JUDGE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DATED: November 9, 2017
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