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Antoine v. Amick Farms, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 6, 2017

JEAN ANTOINE, Plaintiff,
v.
AMICK FARMS, LLC, Defendant. MARIE OLIVINCE, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
AMICK FARMS, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Ellen L. Hollander United States District Judge.

         Amick Farms, LLC (“Amick”) was sued by multiple plaintiffs in three separate cases. The plaintiffs all allege that they were terminated by Amick in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq. ECF 1 in ELH-16-783; ECF 1 in ELH-16-2444; ECF 1 in ELH-16-2938. On December 22, 2016, the parties in Monfiston v. Amick Farms, ELH-16-783, filed a stipulation of dismissal, with prejudice. ECF 28 in ELH-16-783. Therefore, that case is now closed. See ECF 29 in ELH-16-783; see also docket. As to the remaining two cases, captioned above, this Memorandum Opinion resolves three motions.

         First, this Memorandum Opinion resolves defendant's “Motion to Dismiss Count III of Plaintiffs' Collective Action and Individual Complaints, ” filed in Olivince, et al. v. Amick Farms, ECF 14 in ELH-16-2938. It is supported by a memorandum. Id., ECF 14-1 (collectively, “Motion to Dismiss”). Plaintiffs Marie Olivince, Leslie Rios, and Alourde Jean Baptiste oppose the motion (id., ECF 19, “Response”), and Amick has replied. Id., ECF 20.

         Second, this Memorandum Opinion addresses the motions to consolidate filed on September 9, 2016, by plaintiff Jean Antoine in ELH-16-2444 (id., ECF 7) and by plaintiffs Olivince, Rios, and Baptiste in Case ELH-16-2938. See id., ECF 8.[1] Each motion is supported by a memorandum (ECF 7-1 and ECF 8-1) (collectively, “Motion to Consolidate”). Defendant opposes the Motion to Consolidate. ECF 8, ELH-16-2444; ECF 9, ELH-16-2938 (collectively, “Opposition”). Plaintiffs replied. ECF 11, ELH-16-2444; ECF 13, ELH-16-2938 (collectively, “Reply”).

         Third, this Memorandum Opinion resolves defendant's motion in Olivince, et al. v. Amick Farms, ELH-16-2938, seeking to sever the cases of plaintiffs Olivince, Rios, and Baptiste. Id., ECF 9 (“Motion to Sever”).[2] Olivince, Rios, and Baptiste oppose the Motion (id., ECF 13), and Amick has replied. Id., ECF 15.[3]

         The motions have been fully briefed and no hearing is necessary to resolve them. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, I shall grant the Motion to Dismiss Count III in ELH-16-2938; I shall grant the Motion to Consolidate; and I shall deny the Motion to Sever.

         I. Procedural and Factual Background[4]

         A. Jean Antoine (ELH-16-2444)

         Antoine v. Amick Farms, ELH-16-2444, was initiated by Jean Antoine on June 29, 2016. ECF 1 in ELH-16-2444. Antoine “speaks and reads Haitian Creole.” Id. ¶ 10. He worked for Amick farms during two periods - one in 2010 and the second from some time in 2012 to July 2014. Id. ¶ 4. Beginning in 2012, Antoine worked in the Sanitation Department, where his job duties included “sanitizing evisceration machines, the floors and equipment in the ‘kill' rooms, and the floors in other areas in the Amick Farms plant.” Id. ¶¶ 14-15.

         Antoine states that on April 18, 2014, while he was at work, he “was on an eight-foot ladder and using a high-pressure hose when he fell several feet to the ground and injured his back, head and the left side of his body.” Id. ¶¶ 16-17. Antoine was taken to the hospital and instructed by his “treating providers at the hospital” not to return to work until he was evaluated further for his injuries. Id. ¶¶ 18, 21. Thereafter, as a result of his injuries, Antoine suffered continuing pain and other ailments, limiting his ability to work from the date of his injury through July 11, 2014. Id. ¶¶ 22-35. During this time, Antoine provided the defendant with notes from medical providers confirming his inability to work. See Id. However, defendant never provided Antoine with a notice of his rights under the FMLA in Haitian Creole at any time after he produced his medical records. See id.

         Antoine received a termination letter from Amick on July 11, 2014. Id. ¶ 37. It stated: “Please consider the following notification of termination of employment from Amick Farms, LLC. Effective June 19, 2014. Reason: No Call in 3 Days.” Id. ¶ 38. Antoine asserts that he was terminated because “Amick Farms maintains a point system whereby an employee receives a ‘point' for any absence, even if the absence is for a medical reason. Under this policy, once an employee reaches a certain number of ‘points, ' they may be subject to discipline, including termination.” Id. ¶¶ 39-40.

         The Complaint contains three counts. Antoine claims: (1) that defendant violated the FMLA by terminating him while he was on protected medical leave (id. ¶¶ 42-51); (2) defendant retaliated against him as a result of his attempt to exercise his rights under the FMLA (id. ¶¶ 52-56); and (3) defendant failed to provide notice of his FMLA rights and eligibility (id. ¶¶ 57-62).

         B. Marie Olivince; Leslie Rios; Alourde Jean Baptiste (ELH-16-2938)

         Olivince et al. v. Amick Farms, ELH-16-2938, was initiated on August 22, 2016, by Marie Olivince, Leslie Rios, and Alourde Jean Baptiste. ECF 1 in ELH-16-2938. The plaintiffs brought individual claims as well as a collective action, pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 2617, on behalf of all similarly situated employees. Id. at 1-2.[5]

         1. Marie Olivince

         Olivince was employed by Amick, or companies acquired by Amick, during two periods: first from 1989 until October 26, 2013, and second from October 29, 2013 until September 9, 2016. Id. ¶¶ 20-23, 49. During the second period, Olivince worked as a “tender clipper” in the “deboning department.” Id. ¶ 25. Olivince “speaks and reads Haitian Creole” and she “is not literate in English.” Id. ¶ 19.

         Olivince claims that, as a result of the requirements of her job, she “developed severe pain in her wrists.” Id. ¶ 28. She notified defendant on “a regular, if not daily basis, between late 2013 and September 9, 2014” of her severe wrist pain. Id. ¶ 29.

         In December 2013, defendant asked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (“NIOSH”) to conduct an “ergonomic evaluation” for its workforce. Id. ¶ 33. According to Olivince, NIOSH informed her that “her results from the nerve conduction test were abnormal.” Id. ¶ 35. NIOSH also recommended that she consult with a doctor. Id.

         Olivince sought treatment from an orthopedic surgeon on August 1, 2014, who diagnosed her with carpel tunnel syndrome. Id. ¶¶ 40-41. Olivince notified defendant of her medical condition on numerous occasions and also provided the defendant with numerous documents supporting her claims. See, e.g., id. ¶ 42. However, defendant never provided her with notice of her rights under the FMLA, in any language. See, e.g., ECF ¶ 38.

         On September 9, 2014, defendant sent Olivince a letter terminating her employment. Id. ¶ 48. It states: “Please consider the following notification of termination of employment from Amick Farms, LLC. Effective September 4, 2014. Reason: Excessive Absence.” Id. ¶ 49. According to Olivince, she was terminated because Amick “maintains a point system whereby an employee receives a ‘point' for any absence, even if the absence is for a medical reason. Under this policy, once an employee reaches a certain number of ‘points, ' they may be subject to discipline, including termination.” Id. ¶ 50-51.

         2. Leslie Rios

         Rios began working for Amick Farms in November 2014. Id. ¶ 53. For approximately one year, she worked in the “‘second cut' leg deboning position” and she was then moved to the “more demanding and strenuous position - ‘first cut' leg deboning.” Id. ¶ 55-56. Rios notes that she “speaks and reads Spanish” and that she “is not literate in English.” Id. ¶ 52.

         Shortly after Rios was moved to the “first cut position” in November 2015, “she started to develop severe pain in her right hand and wrist.” Id. ¶ 57. She subsequently sought medical evaluation and provided defendant with doctors' notes indicating that she should wear a wrist brace and move to a position that did not require the use of scissors or a knife. Id. ¶ 57-59.

         On January 25, 2016, Rios began to rotate between the “first cut” position, which requires the use of a knife, and the “re-work” division, which requires the use of scissors.” Id. ¶ 60. According to Rios, on January 27, 2016, because she “did not have the full capacity of her right hand, she sustained a different injury to her left hand while cutting chicken in the ‘re-work' division.” Id. ¶ 61. Rios reported the injury to defendant and was instructed to see a doctor to treat her left hand. Id. ¶ 62. However, Rios continued working until March 4, 2016. Id. ¶ 64-65. Rios missed work on “at least three occasions to attend doctor's appointments and to get an MRI on her hand.” Id. ¶ 66.

         Amick issued “a warning letter” to Rios on March 30, 2016, noting her absences and suggesting that “further absences would lead to termination.” Id. ¶ 67. Rios then provided doctors notes to defendant confirming that her absences were medically related, but defendant “refused to excuse those absences . . . .” Id. ¶ 68. On June 10, 2016, Rios provided defendant with a doctor's note stating that she could not use her left hand and, on June 14, 2016, Rios's doctor informed her that she needed surgery on her right hand. Id. ¶¶ 69-72. Amick cancelled Rios's medical benefits on June 17, 2016. Id. ¶ 74. And, Rios claims that after she was cleared by her doctor to return to work in a “light duty” status, defendant responded that there were no light duty jobs for her to do and “instructed her to go home.” Id. ¶ 75.

         Rios has not worked since “the beginning of June 2016.” Id. ¶ 76. Furthermore, Rios was never provided with a notice of her rights under the FMLA in any language. Id. ¶ 77.

         3. Alourde Jean Baptiste

         Baptiste worked for defendant, or its predecessor, from 2008 until November 24, 2014. Id. ¶¶ 79-80, 105-107. Baptiste alleges that she speaks Haitian Creole and is not literate in English. Id. ¶ 78.

         Beginning in 2010, defendant moved Baptiste to the “wing deboning” division, “where she deboned chicken wings with a knife, which required repetitive movements with her right hand.” Id. ¶ 80. Baptiste alleges: “Over time, the repetitive cutting movements caused severe pain, numbness and tingling in Ms. Baptiste's right hand.” Id. ¶ 83.

         According to Baptiste, on June 14, 2014, after Amick conducted the NIOSH study, described earlier, she was informed that “her results from the nerve conduction test were abnormal . . . .” Id. ¶ 88. NIOSH recommended that she consult a doctor. Id. Baptiste claims that she provided the results of the NIOSH test to defendant in August 2014, but was not provided with notice of her rights under the FMLA. Id. ¶¶ 89-91.

         Baptiste sought medical treatment for the pain in her right wrist on November 20, 2014. Id. ¶ 99. Her doctor diagnosed her with carpal tunnel syndrome and “lesion of ulnar nerve”, and recommended that she change job duties. Id. ¶ 100.[6] On November 21, 2014, Baptiste informed defendant of her diagnosis and the doctor's recommendation. Id. ¶ 101.

         Although defendant moved Baptiste to the “breast flipping” position, which does not require the use of a knife, she was almost immediately returned to the “wing deboning position.” Id. ¶¶ 103-04. Baptiste claims that when she “attempted to communicate to her supervisor that, per her doctor's request and due to the severe pain in her hand, she could not perform the work in wing deboning”, she was immediately terminated. Id. ¶¶ 105-06. The termination letter, dated November 24, 2014, states: “Please consider the following notification of termination of employment from Amick Farms, LLC. Effective November 21, 2014. Reason: Performance.” Id. ¶ 107.

         Baptiste also states that during 2014, she “missed work to care for her daughter”, who had been “frequently hospitalized” due to a serious medical condition. Id. ¶¶ 92-93. Baptiste alleges that she provided defendant with doctors' notes explaining that her absences were attributable to her daughter's medical issues, but that defendant refused to excuse those absences because they were attributable to Baptiste's daughter. Id. ¶ 95. Defendant warned Baptiste that “frequent absences would not be tolerated.” Id. ¶ 96. But, defendant never informed her of her rights under the FMLA. Id.

         4. Plaintiffs' Claims

         Plaintiffs' Complaint alleges three violations of the FMLA. Count I, brought on behalf of the three individually-named plaintiffs, alleges that defendant interfered with and denied their rights under the FMLA. Id. ¶¶ 121-33. In particular, the Complaint contends: “By refusing to provide Plaintiffs with Notice of their FMLA rights and eligibility, Defendant intentionally and willfully interfered with, restrained, and/or denied Plaintiffs Olivince, Rios, and Baptiste from exercising or attempting to exercise their rights under the FMLA.” Id. ¶ 128.

         Count II, also brought on behalf of the individually-named plaintiffs, alleges retaliatory discharge. Id. ¶¶ 134-38. The Complaint asserts: “Amick Farms improperly prevented Plaintiffs Olivince, Baptiste and Rios from invoking their FMLA rights and [they] were terminated in retaliation for actions that should have been protected under the FMLA.” Id. ¶ 136.

         Count III, the only cause of action brought on behalf of both the individually-named plaintiffs and the collective members, alleges that defendant failed “to post a notice, in a language in which their employees are literate, outlining the FMLA's provisions pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. and 29 C.F.R. § 825.300 et seq.” Id. ¶ 140. According to the Complaint: “Amick Farm's systematic failures to post a notice of FMLA protections prejudiced the Class ...


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