Snipes v. The Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority
OPINION and ORDER granting in part denying in part 7 Motion to Dimiss. Signed by Judge James P. Jones on 10/5/18. (ejs)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA
CHRISTOPHER EARL SNIPES,
THE SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA
REGIONAL JAIL AUTHORITY,
Case No. 1:18CV00025
OPINION AND ORDER
By: James P. Jones
United States District Judge
Rodney B. Rowlett, III, Shine & Rowlett, PLLC, Kingsport, Tennessee, and
Gregory M. Stewart, Stewart Law Office, P.C., Norton, Virginia, for Plaintiff;
Joseph A. Piasta and Lori J. Bentley, Johnson, Ayers & Matthews, P.L.C.,
Roanoke, Virginia, for Defendant.
The plaintiff in this action, Christopher Earl Snipes, asserts claims against
defendant The Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority (“Jail Authority”), his
former employer, alleging that the Jail Authority violated the Family Medical
Leave Act (“FMLA”) by interfering with his FMLA rights and retaliating against
him for exercising these rights. The Jail Authority has moved to dismiss Snipes’
Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For the
reasons that follow, I will grant the motion in part and deny it in part.
The Complaint alleges the following facts, which I must accept as true for
the purpose of deciding the Motion to Dismiss.
Snipes began working for the Jail Authority in 2005. Snipes supervised
several other employees, received employee evaluations demonstrating that he was
a commendable employee, and exceeded job performance criteria. Snipes was
promoted to the rank of Lieutenant because he performed his duties skillfully and
In 2015, Snipes’ wife developed a medical condition that was ultimately
diagnosed as Cacchi-Ricci disease. As a result, she underwent inpatient care and
periods of continuous treatment by a healthcare provider, and she experienced
periods of incapacity. In October 2015, she underwent a medical procedure, and
Snipes took intermittent leave under the FMLA so he could assist her with daily
activities. On March 14, 2016, Snipes’ wife underwent another medical procedure,
and her physician completed a Certification of Healthcare Provider for Family
Member’s Serious Health Condition regarding this procedure. The certification
stated that Snipes’ wife would be incapacitated from March 14, 2016, to April 13,
2016, and during this time, she would be unable to rise from a seated position
without assistance, to lift heavy weights, to care for her children, to operate a
motor vehicle, or to perform household duties. The certification was provided to
the Jail Authority on April 5, 2016. Snipes alleges that his supervisors “questioned
his use of leave and exhibited hostility towards him which included but was not
limited to statements that he needed to return to work.” Compl. ¶ 28, ECF No. 1.
On April 26, 2016, Snipes received an Employee Performance Appraisal,
which found that he “Meets Standards.” Id. at ¶ 18. The performance appraisal
also rated his ability to interact with others and maintain a productive relationship
as “distinguished,” which is the highest rating that can be given. Id. at ¶ 19.
Further, the appraisal rated his leadership and staff relations as “commendable,”
the second highest rating that can be given. Id. at ¶ 20.
On May 31, 2016, the Jail Authority terminated Snipes’ employment. As
grounds for his termination, the Jail Authority alleged that his “[l]eadership and
support for staff is not acceptable.” Id. at ¶23. In particular, the Jail Authority
alleged that on May 27, 2016, Snipes had acted inappropriately when he became
upset with and belittled a subordinate. Snipes denies these allegations. Snipes had
not been advised of any deficiencies in his leadership or support before his
Snipes’ Complaint alleges that the Jail Authority violated the FMLA when it
terminated Snipes’ employment. In particular, the Complaint alleges that the Jail
Authority violated the FMLA by interfering with Snipes’ use of FMLA-protected
leave and by retaliating against Snipes for using FMLA-protected leave. The Jail
Authority moved to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 12(b)(6). The Motion to Dismiss has been fully briefed and is now ripe
Federal pleading standards require that a complaint contain a “short and
plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. R.
Civ. P. 8(a)(2). In order to survive a motion to dismiss, the complaint must “state
a plausible claim for relief” that “permit[s] the court to infer more than the mere
possibility of misconduct” based upon its “judicial experience and common sense.”
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). In evaluating a pleading, the court
accepts as true all well-pled facts and construes those facts in the light most
favorable to the plaintiff. Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc., 591
F.3d 250, 255 (4th Cir. 2009). However, “the tenet that a court must accept as true
all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.”
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. “While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a
complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” Id. at 679. A complaint
does not need detailed factual allegations to survive a motion to dismiss; however,
I will dispense with oral argument because the facts and legal contentions are
adequately presented in the materials before the court and argument would not
significantly aid the decisional process.
it must have more than labels and conclusions or a recitation of the elements of the
cause of action. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 555 (2007).
The Jail Authority moves to dismiss Snipes’ interference claim, arguing that
the claim is not plausible because Snipes has not alleged that the Jail Authority
denied his leave requests or that it limited or compromised the leave he took.
Snipes counters that the Jail Authority interfered with his FMLA rights because its
hostile comments had a chilling effect and would discourage employees from
requesting FMLA leave. Snipes also alleges that the Jail Authority interfered with
his FMLA rights when it terminated him, because he would plausibly have
required additional FMLA leave in the future, but the termination prevented him
from exercising this right.
The FMLA makes it unlawful for any employer to “interfere with, restrain,
or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise, any right provided under [the
FMLA].” 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1). To state a claim for FMLA interference,
plaintiffs must show that (1) they were an eligible employee, (2) the defendant was
an FMLA-defined employer, (3) they are entitled to leave under the statute, (4)
they gave notice to the employer that they would take FMLA leave, and (5) the
defendant denied their FMLA rights. Corbett v. Richmond Metro. Transp. Auth.,
203 F. Supp. 3d 699, 709 (E.D. Va. 2016). Interference includes refusing to
authorize FMLA leave and discouraging an employee from taking FMLA leave.
Rodriguez v. Reston Hosp. Ctr., LLC, No. 1:16-cv-623 (JCC/JFA), 2017 WL
772348, at *4 (E.D. Va. Feb. 28, 2017). Plaintiffs must also allege prejudice as a
result of the interference. Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide, Inc., 535 U.S. 81,
An employer’s conduct may constitute interference with an employee’s
FMLA rights if it would have a chilling effect and would discourage employees
from exercising their FMLA rights. See Gordon v. United States Capitol Police,
778 F.3d 158, 164–66 (D.C. Cir. 2015); Rodriguez, 2017 WL 772348, at *5.
Snipes cites to both Gordon and Rodriguez in support of his argument that the Jail
Authority’s actions interfered with his FMLA rights.
In Gordon, the plaintiff requested pre-approval for a bank of FMLA leave
pursuant to her employer’s leave policies, and her employer granted approval. 778
F.3d at 160. The plaintiff was later told that an upper-level manager had said that
he was ‘“mad”’ about FMLA requests generally, and he had vowed to ‘“find a
problem”’ with the plaintiff’s request. Id. After the plaintiff obtained the bank of
leave, but before she used it, her employer ordered her to take a ‘“fitness for duty
examination,”’ and her employer told her that her FMLA leave request was the
reason for the order. Id. When the plaintiff later requested to draw on her bank of
FMLA leave, her manager ‘“became irate”’ and refused the request. Id. The
manager later granted the request. Id. The court found that the employer’s course
of conduct would have a chilling effect on requests for FMLA leave, and thus it
had a reasonable tendency to interfere with an employee’s exercise of FMLA
rights. Id. at 165–66.
In Rodriguez, the employer required the plaintiff to complete a ‘“return to
work”’ plan after the plaintiff notified his employer that he could return from
FMLA leave. 2017 WL 772348, at *2. The plaintiff alleged that this requirement
was not typical at his workplace. Id. The employer also refused to extend one of
the plaintiff’s work deadlines to account for his FMLA leave, and it terminated the
plaintiff after he failed to meet the deadline. Id. at *2. The court found that this
conduct provided sufficient facts to plausibly infer that the employer interfered
with the plaintiff’s FMLA rights by discouraging employees from exercising their
rights. Id. at *5.
There are key distinctions between the case at issue and both Gordon and
Rodriguez. In each of these cases, the plaintiffs alleged facts showing a change in
their working conditions after they exercised their FMLA rights — Gordon had to
take a “fitness for duty” examination that could have found her unfit for duty, and
Rodriguez had to complete an atypical “return to work” plan. The employer
conduct in both cases — making new demands of employees after they requested
or took FMLA leave — makes it plausible that employees would be discouraged
from taking FMLA leave. Here, however, Snipes has not alleged any changes in
his working conditions after he returned from his FMLA leave.
In addition, Snipes has not alleged facts making it plausible that the Jail
Authority’s hostile comments alone discouraged him or other employees from
exercising their FMLA rights, nor has he alleged facts regarding his reaction to the
Jail Authority’s alleged hostility or facts suggesting that other employees heard or
knew of the hostility. Thus, Snipes has not submitted facts sufficient for the court
to infer that the Jail Authority’s conduct interfered with his FMLA rights by
discouraging him or other employees from exercising their rights.
Snipes’ argument that the Jail Authority interfered with his FMLA rights
when it terminated him also fails to allege facts sufficient to state a claim for relief.
Employees who are terminated after taking FMLA leave and being reinstated to
the same position from which they left do not satisfy the fifth element of a claim
for interference. See Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC, 847 F.3d 144, 155–56 (3d
Cir. 2017). They have not been denied their FMLA rights; instead, they have
received all of the benefits to which they are entitled. See id. In addition, Snipes
has not alleged sufficient facts for the court to plausibly infer that his wife’s
condition would require him to take additional leave. Snipes did not allege any
facts about his wife’s prognosis or condition at the time he was terminated. Thus,
Snipes has not alleged facts sufficient for the court to infer that the Jail Authority
interfered with his FMLA rights. Accordingly, I will grant the Motion to Dismiss
as to Snipes’ interference claim.
The Jail Authority also moves to dismiss Snipes’ retaliation claim, arguing
that the claim is not plausible because he has not alleged facts showing a causal
connection between his termination and his use of FMLA leave.
Authority asserts that instead, the facts in the Complaint show that Snipes was
terminated for misconduct and a failure of leadership. The Jail Authority argues
that Snipes’ denial of this misconduct is a bare assertion, and thus the court need
not accept it as true. In contrast, Snipes argues that his denial is a factual statement
that the court must accept as true, and this fact supports a causal connection
between his termination and his use of FMLA leave.
The FMLA 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].” 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(2). FMLA retaliation claims are
analogous to discrimination claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act
(“Title VII”). Laing v. Fed. Express Corp., 703 F.3d 713, 717 (4th Cir. 2013).
Thus, a court will evaluate a plaintiff’s FMLA retaliation claim using Title VII
standards. See id. At the motion to dismiss stage, the ordinary rules for assessing
the sufficiency of a complaint apply.
See McCleary-Evans v. Md. Dep’t of
Transp., 780 F.3d 582, 584–85 (4th Cir. 2015). A plaintiff need not plead facts
sufficient to make out a prima facie case of discrimination. See id. Instead, a
plaintiff must allege facts sufficient to satisfy the elements of a FMLA cause of
action. See id. at 585. Thus, employees must allege facts that permit the court to
plausibly infer that their employer discharged or discriminated against them
because they exercised their FMLA rights.
A close temporal relationship between these two events is sufficient to
establish causality at the motion to dismiss stage. Cf. Laing, 703 F.3d at 720
(finding that the close temporal relationship between the plaintiff’s suspension on
the morning of her return from FMLA leave and her termination within the month
was sufficient to establish a prima facie case of causality at the summary judgment
stage); Williams v. Cerberonics, Inc., 871 F.2d 452, 457 (4th Cir. 1989) (finding
that the plaintiff’s proof that she was fired after her employer became aware that
she had filed a Title VII discrimination charge was sufficient to establish a prima
facie case of causality at the summary judgment stage).
Snipes’ denial of the Jail Authority’s assertions of misconduct is a factual
statement that the court must accept as true. Pursuant to Twombly, Snipes need not
provide detailed factual allegations; he needs only to provide more than labels and
conclusions. His denial of the Jail Authority’s factual assertion remains a factual
Taking this denial and the remaining facts in the Complaint as true, Snipes’
allegations permit the court to plausibly infer that the Jail Authority terminated him
because of his FMLA leave.
As alleged in the Complaint, Snipes was a
distinguished employee who had not been advised of any deficiencies in his
Snipes took a month of FMLA leave, and the Jail Authority
questioned his use of leave, was hostile towards him, and stated that he needed to
return to work. The month after Snipes returned from FMLA leave, the Jail
Authority alleged that he belittled a subordinate, which Snipes denies, and it
terminated him. Snipes had received a positive performance evaluation the month
before he was terminated, and he had not been given any other feedback regarding
his interactions with subordinates before his termination. Moreover, the temporal
relationship between these events is sufficient to plausibly infer causality at the
motion to dismiss stage. Accordingly, I will deny the Motion to Dismiss as to
Snipes’ retaliation claim. 2
Of course, I hold only that Snipes’ retaliation claim alleges facts sufficient to
survive a motion to dismiss. I make no prediction that it would survive a motion for
summary judgment or that Snipes would prevail at trial.
For the foregoing reasons, the Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 7, is GRANTED
IN PART and DENIED IN PART.
It is so ORDERED.
ENTER: October 5, 2018
/s/ James P. Jones
United States District Judge
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