United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division
W. Grimm United States District Judge.
she was working for the College of Southern Maryland (the
“College”) as an assistant English professor,
Rebecca Jones requested FMLA leave in the form of a modified
and reduced course load, first because of her infant
son's separation anxiety, and then simply based on his
birth. The College agreed to a modified and reduced schedule,
but not the one Jones sought, and less than two months after
her second FMLA request, it notified her that it would not be
renewing her contract for the next academic year. Jones filed
suit, claiming interference with her FMLA rights and
retaliation for her attempts to exercise them. The College
has moved for summary judgment on both claims. ECF No.
Because the College did not deny Jones any benefits to which
she was entitled under the FMLA, I will grant its motion as
to her interference claim. But, because Jones has established
a prima facie case of retaliation and identified
evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that the
College's legitimate non-retaliatory reason for not
renewing her contract was pretext for its retaliatory motive,
I will deny the motion as to her retaliation claim.
College hired Rebecca Jones as an assistant professor for the
2011-2012 academic year and renewed her contract for two
additional years. Jones Dep. 48-49, Jt. Ex. 48. Her full
course load was five courses each semester, some of which
were on-line courses. Id. at 68, Jt. Ex. 53. Jones
gave birth to a son, K.P., on June 17, 2013. Id. at
80, Jt. Ex. 56. Prior to his birth, she asked to modify her
teaching schedule so that she only had to be on campus on
Fridays for Fall semester 2013, and the College accommodated
her request. Id. at 73, Jt. Ex. 54.
about November 22, 2013, just before Thanksgiving break,
Jones “requested a schedule” in which she would
work a reduced load of four courses for Spring semester 2014.
Id. at 101-02, Jt. Ex. 61-62. When she was told she
“couldn't teach certain classes” (apparently
online courses and those that fit into the Tuesday/Thursday
schedule she sought, see Id. at 106, Jt. Ex. 64),
she “went to HR so that [she] could find out what [she]
needed to do to fill out and submit FMLA paperwork” to
obtain approval for a reduced load. Id. at 101-02,
Jt. Ex. 61-62. She was told she needed to speak with Jennifer
Rupp, Lead Director of Compensation and Benefits at the
College, who was not available until December 6, 2013, after
Thanksgiving break. Id.; see Rupp Dep. 6,
Jt. Ex. 3.
December 6, Jones “explained to [Rupp] what [her]
circumstances were” and “that [she] could not
work a full load in the Spring.” Jones Dep. 102, Jt.
Ex. 62. Specifically, she told Rupp that she “believed
that [her] son was experiencing separation anxiety” and
that she “needed to take leave because . . . of [her]
son” and the “health condition” he had.
Id. at 102-03, 108, Jt. Ex. 62, 63. Rupp recalled
that Jones “indicated that her child had a medical
condition . . . . separation anxiety.” Rupp Dep. 12,
Jt. Ex. 4.
did not ask “to take the Spring semester off.”
Jones Dep. 104, Jt. Ex. 62. Rather, she “wanted to have
a modified schedule” that “would accommodate
[her] needs” with regard to her “son's
separation anxiety.” Id. at 104-05, Jt. Ex.
62. Rupp informed Jones that, “based on her request
that indicated her child had a medical condition, she needed
to return [a] medical certification form from [her son's]
medical provider.” Rupp Dep. 14, Jt. Ex. 5. Jones's
son's pediatrician did not fill out the form. Jones Dep.
108, Jt. Ex. 64.
about January 15, 2014, Jones revised her request for FMLA
leave, telling Rupp that she “want[ed] to take leave
because of the birth of [her] son.” Id. at
123-25, Jt. Ex. 67; see Rupp Dep. 16, Jt. Ex. 5.
Again, she did not request any length of time off; instead,
she “requested two on-line classes and two face-to-face
classes so [she] would only be short load by one
course.” Jones Dep. 125, Jt. Ex. 67. What she wanted to
do was “use [her] sick leave . . . [t]o not teach a
class.” Id. at 129, Jt. Ex. 68. Her requested
accommodation was denied “because of complaints with
the on-line classes.” Id. at 126, Jt. Ex. 68.
She was allowed, however, to teach fewer classes for “a
reduction in pay.” Id. at 127, Jt. Ex. 68.
But, she “was blocked from what would have been an
optimal schedule” in her opinion, in which she would
“not have had to use [her] leave at all.”
Id. at 128-29, Jt. Ex. 68.
February 2014, Jones met with Barbara Scotland, who at the
time was the Chair of the Language and Literature Department
at the College. Id. at 138-39, Jt. Ex. 71; Scotland
Dep. 6, Jt. Ex. 136. Scotland shared with Jones withdrawals
and negative feedback that students had provided with regard
to Jones's on-line courses. Jones Dep. 138-39, Jt. Ex.
71. Jones testified: “[T]he students say the same
thing, that I don't respond, I don't explain. The
work is too hard, and I don't give enough
feedback.” Id. at 156, Jt. Ex. 75. According
to Jones, “they were not telling the truth, ” but
she did not have the opportunity to explain that to Scotland.
Id. Scotland “recommended that Ms. Jones go on
administrative leave” for Spring semester 2014.
Scotland Dep. 70, Jt. Ex. 152. On February 27, 2014, the
College notified Jones that her contract would not be renewed
after the end of the 2013-2014 academic year. Jones Dep.
131-33, Jt. Ex. 69. Jones testified that she “was
terminated right after using” FMLA leave, “while
she was on it.” Id. at 130, Jt. Ex. 69.
Scotland testified that she did not know that Jones was on
FMLA leave when the termination letter was sent; she did not
learn that Jones was on FMLA leave at that time until her
deposition. Scotland Dep. 71, Jt. Ex. 152.
judgment is proper when the moving party demonstrates,
through “particular parts of materials in the record,
including depositions, documents, electronically stored
information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . .,
admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials,
” 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), (c)(1)(A); see
Baldwin v. City of Greensboro, 714 F.3d 828, 833 (4th
Cir. 2013). If the party seeking summary judgment
demonstrates that there is no evidence to support the
nonmoving party's case, the burden shifts to the
nonmoving party to identify evidence that shows that a
genuine dispute exists as to material facts. See
Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475
U.S. 574, 585-87 & n.10 (1986). The existence of only a
“scintilla of evidence” is not enough to defeat a
motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Instead, the
evidentiary materials submitted must show facts from which
the finder of fact reasonably could find for the party
opposing summary judgment. Id.
Interference with FMLA Rights (Count I)
FMLA was enacted, in part, “to entitle employees to
take reasonable leave for medical reasons.” 29 U.S.C.
§ 2601(b)(1)-(2). Pursuant to the FMLA, “an
eligible employee is entitled to a total of twelve workweeks
of leave during any twelve-month period and, upon return to
work, restoration to the position held when the leave
commenced or to an equivalent position.” Rodriguez
v. Smithfield Packing Co., 545 F.Supp.2d 508, 515 (D.
Md. 2008) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(1)(A)-(B)).
To establish unlawful interference with an entitlement to
FMLA benefits, an employee must prove that: (1) she was an
eligible employee; (2) her employer was covered by the
statute; (3) she was entitled to leave under the FMLA; (4)
she gave her employer adequate notice of her intention to
take leave; and (5) the employer denied her FMLA benefits to
which she was entitled.
Id. at 516 (citations omitted). The employee also
must prove “that the violation prejudiced her in some
way.” Anderson v. Discovery Commc'ns,
Inc., 517 F. App'x 190, 197 (4th Cir. 2013) (citing
Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide, Inc., 535 U.S. 81,
89 (2002); 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(1)); see also
Rodriguez, 545 F.Supp.2d at 523 (stating that no relief
is available if the “violation caused no harm”).
claims that “Defendant unlawfully interfered with
Plaintiff Jones' lawful right to unpaid leave pursuant to
the FMLA when Defendant originally denied Plaintiff's
request for FMLA leave, and did not grant FMLA leave until
over a month later when Plaintiff researched the law on her
own to determine that she was eligible.” Am. Compl.
¶ 42, ECF No. 14. The College challenges Jones'
ability to prove the fifth element, insisting that Plaintiff
was not denied “an FMLA benefit to which any employee
is entitled.” Def.'s Mem. 17. It argues that Jones
did not submit “the required medical certification to
support her [December 6, 2013] request for FMLA leave”
to care for her son because of his health condition, and
therefore she was not entitled to the FMLA leave she
initially sought. Id. at 18. The College also
contends that, ...