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Quigley v. Meritus Health, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 31, 2017

MARGARET QUIGLEY
v.
MERITUS HEALTH, INC., et al.

          MEMORANDUM

          Catherine C. Blake United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Margaret Quigley, proceeding pro se, filed this action alleging interference with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., by her former employer Meritus Health, Inc., Meritus Medical Center, Chris Bumbaugh, and Sherry Mace (collectively, “Defendants”). A bench trial was held on January 20, 2017. After hearing the testimony of the witnesses and considering the exhibits, the court concludes the Defendants did not violate the FMLA.[1] Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a), the following memorandum constitutes the court's findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         BACKGROUND

         Ms. Quigley worked as an ultrasound technician at Meritus Medical Center (“the Hospital”) from 2007 to 2012. Ms. Quigley took FMLA leave in 2010, 2011, and 2012, (Pl.'s Trial Exs., [hereinafter PTX], 16-A, 16-B), and the Hospital granted her leave every time she requested it, (see Def.'s Trial Exs., [hereinafter DTX], 1-A through 1-J).

         The Hospital is a level-three trauma center and is required to have ultrasound coverage available on a 24/7 basis. From sometime in 2008 until December 2011, Ms. Quigley worked the weekend night shift exclusively.[2] She was the only sonographer with such a permanent shift: all other sonographers rotated between day shifts, evening shifts, and those night shifts that Ms. Quigley did not work. In late 2011, Ms. Quigley's schedule was changed to five eight-hour shifts, Wednesday through Sunday, and she agreed to this change. When Ms. Quigley was on FMLA leave in 2012, as explained in more detail below, the Hospital again changed her shift; this time, it implemented a universal rotating shift schedule, meaning that all sonographers - including Ms. Quigley - would rotate between day shifts, evening shifts, and night shifts. (See DTX 8-A).[3] Although this change affected all sonographers, it most dramatically affected Ms. Quigley, who was the only technician not already on a rotating schedule. Ms. Quigley learned of this change at least by May 24, 2012, while she was still on leave and shortly before she was to return to work on May 30, 2012. (DTX 7, 8-A, 8-B). After learning of it, Ms. Quigley objected, (see DTX 10), and did not return to work. She was then separated from employment effective June 4, 2012. (PTX 14).

         This court credits the explanation offered by the defendants of how the universal rotating schedule was developed and implemented. The impetus for the schedule dates back at least to November 25, 2011, when the Hospital failed to secure night-shift ultrasound coverage after the plaintiff called out sick and did not come to work that evening. (See DTX 4-A, 4-B). In response, defendant Sherry Mace, the manager of the imaging department, began contemplating a move to a universal rotating schedule, which in her view would make it easier to ensure coverage in case of last-minute call outs. She discussed this possibility with her superiors in December 2011.[4] By January 2012, Ms. Mace had decided to implement this change. After consulting with defendant Chris Bumbaugh, the director of human resources, about the proposed change in January 2012, Ms. Mace invited all sonographers to a meeting on February 2, 2012, to discuss the universal rotating schedule. (See PTX 6; DTX 6). The Hospital then implemented the new schedule in March 2012, while Ms. Quigley was on leave. Ms. Quigley, who worked on February 2, 2012, but did not attend the meeting, (PTX 5, 6), [5] was on FMLA leave from March 7, 2012, through May 28, 2012.[6] She claims she only learned of the change to a universal rotating schedule in May 2012, shortly before she was scheduled to return to work.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         To establish an FMLA interference claim, [7] an employee must prove that (1) she was an eligible employee; (2) her employer was covered by the FMLA; (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. Rodriguez v. Smithfield Packing Co., 545 F.Supp.2d 508, 516 (D. Md. 2008). This case centers on the fifth prong.

         ANALYSIS

         Upon return from FMLA leave, an employee is generally entitled to be restored to the same position held when the leave commenced or its equivalent. See 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(1); 29 C.F.R. § 825.214. With respect to work schedules in particular, an employee “is ordinarily entitled to return to the same shift or the same or an equivalent work schedule.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.215(e)(2); see Id. § 825.216(a)(2) (if a shift has been eliminated, an employee is not entitled to return to work that shift, but if a shift is merely filled by another employee, the employee on leave “is entitled to return to the same shift on which employed before taking FMLA leave”).

         On the other hand, the right to restoration is not absolute. Yashenko, 446 F.3d at 549. A returning employee “has no greater right to reinstatement or to other benefits and conditions of employment than if the employee had been continuously employed during the FMLA leave period.” Id. at 548 (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 825.216(a)). Accordingly, an employer may deny restoration to a previous position or its equivalent for legitimate business reasons that are unrelated to the exercise of FMLA rights. See Id. at 550 (no liability where plaintiff's position was eliminated in a “legitimate reorganization” of the business while plaintiff was on FMLA leave, and plaintiff would have been discharged even if he had not taken leave); Santorocco v. Chesapeake Holding Co., LLC, 2010 WL 2464972, at *5-7 (D. Md. June 10, 2010)[8] (no liability where employer eliminated plaintiff's part-time position, and offered her a full-time position instead, because the change was part of a business reorganization and was not made because plaintiff had requested FMLA leave); see also Laing v. Fed. Exp. Corp., 703 F.3d 713, 723-24 (4th Cir. 2013) (employer may suspend an employee upon her return from FMLA leave “if it would have taken the same action had the employee never taken leave”).[9]

         FMLA claims concerning restoration to the same or an equivalent position often fail if the evidence “tends to show that the employer made the [employment] decision prior to the request for FMLA leave, especially when coupled with other evidence supporting the proffered reason” for the decision. See Santorocco, 2010 WL 2464972, at *5. In addition, an employment decision may be legitimate - and thus preclude FMLA liability - even if it affects only one employee, see Yashenko, 446 F.3d at 550; Santorocco, 2010 WL 246972, at *1, 6-7, and it is more likely to be legitimate if the employee had been restored to the same position after taking FMLA leave on several prior occasions, see Yashenko, 446 F.3d at 550.

         Even assuming Ms. Quigley was not offered the same position or its equivalent upon her expected return from FMLA leave in May 2012, the evidence shows the Hospital had legitimate business reasons for moving all technicians to a rotating shift schedule. The evidence also shows the Hospital had decided to put all technicians on a rotating schedule at least by the end of January 2012 - before Ms. Quigley notified the Hospital she would take FMLA leave to recover from foot surgery. Accordingly, the court concludes that Ms. Quigley would have been required to join all other technicians on a rotating schedule even if she had not taken FMLA leave in March, April, and May 2012. Although the new schedule most dramatically affected Ms. Quigley, it affected all technicians to some degree and, in any event, legitimate business decisions may affect only one employee. The evidence thus demonstrates that no FMLA violation occurred. That conclusion is bolstered by the fact that the Hospital granted Ms. Quigley FMLA leave every time she requested it and had restored her to a permanent night shift after previous absences.[10]

         Ms. Quigley, by contrast, offers no credible evidence rebutting the assertion that a universal rotating schedule served a legitimate business need, because it would help the Hospital secure coverage in case of last-minute call outs and also, as Ms. Mace testified, ensure that all sonographers were familiar with the particular demands of the night shift. She also is unable to show that the Hospital had not, in fact, decided to implement a universal rotating schedule by January 2012. Although the new schedule affected her more ...


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