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Jones v. College of Southern Maryland

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

September 23, 2016

REBECCA JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
COLLEGE OF SOUTHERN MARYLAND, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Paul W. Grimm United States District Judge.

         While 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. 22.[1] 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.

         Background[2]

         The 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.

         On or 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.

         On 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.

         Jones 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.

         On 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.

         In 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.

         Standard of Review

         Summary 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.

         Unlawful Interference with FMLA Rights (Count I)

         The 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”).

         Jones 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, ...


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