261 F.3d 90 (1st Cir. 2001), 00-1856, Navarro v. Pfizer Corp

Docket Nº:00-1856
Citation:261 F.3d 90
Party Name:GLADYS NAVARRO, A/K/A GLADYS NAVARRO POMARES, ET AL., Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. PFIZER CORPORATION, Defendant, Appellee.
Case Date:August 20, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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261 F.3d 90 (1st Cir. 2001)

GLADYS NAVARRO, A/K/A GLADYS NAVARRO POMARES, ET AL., Plaintiffs, Appellants,

v.

PFIZER CORPORATION, Defendant, Appellee.

No. 00-1856

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

August 20, 2001

Heard March 5, 2001

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO

[Hon. Jaime Pieras, Jr., Senior U.S. District Judge]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Manuel Porro-Vizcarra for appellants.

Pedro J. Manzano-Yates, with whom Fiddler Gonzalez & Rodriguez, LLP was on brief, for appellee.

Before Torruella, Circuit Judge, Campbell, Senior Circuit Judge, and Selya, Circuit Judge.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

Faced with the arduous demands of legislating for an increasingly complex society, Congress often leaves interstitial details to selected administrative agencies. Congress followed this praxis when it enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654, delegating implementation to the Secretary of Labor (the Secretary). See id. § 2654.

Responding to this directive, the Secretary promulgated extensive regulations. See 29 C.F.R. §§ 825.100-825.800. At one point in the process, however, she caught the nearest way; in lieu of tailoring the definition of terms such as "impairment," "major life activities," and "substantially limits" to suit the peculiar needs of the FMLA, the Secretary simply co-opted existing definitions designed by a different agency -- the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for use in connection with a different statute -- the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.113(c)(2). Some perplexing difficulties lurk in the shadows cast by this cross-reference, including questions about the extent to which the EEOC's informal interpretations of the borrowed definitions are binding in the FMLA context.

This appeal brings those difficulties into sharp focus. It requires us to explore terra incognita -- to date, no other court of appeals has grappled with the meaning of the term "disability" under the FMLA and set the parameters of a mother's right to take an unpaid leave of absence in order to care for her seriously ill adult child. The able district judge, considering himself bound to defer unhesitatingly to an EEOC interpretive guidance devised with the ADA in mind, found that the mother had no such entitlement in the circumstances of this case and, accordingly, granted the employer's motion for summary judgment. Navarro Pomares v. Pfizer Corp., 97 F.Supp.2d 208, 214 (D.P.R. 2000). We think that the court below acquiesced too readily in this interpretive guidance. For FMLA purposes, the guidance neither merits Chevron deference, see Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842-43

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(1984), nor possesses persuasive force. The objectives and structure of the FMLA, and the scope of the relief that it provides, require us to give effect instead to the regulation as written. Doing so, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

I. BACKGROUND

Because the district court determined this case on summary judgment, we recount the essential facts in the light most favorable to the summary judgment loser. Suarez v. Pueblo Int'l, Inc., 229 F.3d 49, 53 (1st Cir. 2000).

Plaintiff-appellant Gladys Navarro Pomares (Navarro) began working for Pfizer Corporation as a secretary in 1994. On October 14, 1997, she requested an unpaid leave of absence until January 5, 1998; her plan was to travel to Germany so that she might minister to her adult daughter (Gladys Hernandez) and her two grandchildren. At the time she made this request, the appellant provided Pfizer with a note from her daughter's attending physician which reported that "Mrs. Hernandez is pregnant in 36th week. Because of high blood pressure bed rest is recommended to carry the baby to full term. So she cannot watch her other children."

Pfizer denied the appellant's request. She implored the company to reconsider. On October 25, having received no further response from her employer, the appellant departed for Germany. On November 6, she received correspondence from Pfizer directing her to return to work forthwith. The appellant remained at her daughter's bedside and Pfizer terminated her employment within the week.

Eleven months later, the appellant sued.1 She asserted that Pfizer had denied her leave to which she was entitled under the FMLA and then had added insult to injury by cashiering her for attempting to exercise her rights. When, thereafter, Pfizer moved for brevis disposition, the district court determined that the appellant was not entitled to FMLA leave and granted the motion. Navarro Pomares, 97 F.Supp.2d at 214.

On appeal, we consider the appellant's asseveration that she raised a trial worthy issue anent her entitlement to FMLA leave. Because she has not renewed her retaliation charge, we deem that claim abandoned. See United States v. Zannino, 895 F.2d 1, 17 (1st Cir. 1990).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review orders granting or denying summary judgment de novo. Suarez, 229 F.3d at 53. The decisional path is well-trodden, so we borrow an earlier description of how the operative rule, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, functions:

Once a properly documented motion has engaged the gears of Rule 56, the party to whom the motion is directed can shut down the machinery only by showing that a trial worthy issue exists. As to issues on which the summary judgment target bears the ultimate burden of proof, she cannot rely on an absence of competent evidence, but must affirmatively point to specific facts that demonstrate the existence of an authentic dispute. Not every factual dispute is sufficient to thwart summary judgment; the contested fact must be "material" and the dispute over it must be "genuine." In this regard, "material" means that a contested fact has the

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potential to change the outcome of the suit under the governing law if the dispute over it is resolved favorably to the nonmovant. By like token, "genuine" means that the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in favor of the nonmoving party.

McCarthy v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 56 F.3d 313, 315 (1st Cir. 1995) (citations and some internal punctuation omitted).

Applying these tenets in a given case requires the court to scrutinize the summary judgment record "in the light most hospitable to the party opposing summary judgment, indulging all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Griggs-Ryan v. Smith, 904 F.2d 112, 115 (1st Cir. 1990). If no genuine issue of material fact emerges, then the case may be ripe for summary adjudication.

III. THE FMLA: AN OVERVIEW

The FMLA applies to private sector concerns that employ fifty or more persons. 29 U.S.C. § 2611(4). Congress enacted it as a means of alleviating the tension that so often exists between the demands of earning a living and the obligations of family life. See Hodgens v. Gen. Dynamics Corp., 144 F.3d 151, 159 (1st Cir. 1998); Price v. City of Fort Wayne, 117 F.3d 1022, 1024 (7th Cir. 1997). To achieve this objective, the FMLA seeks to balance authentic family needs and legitimate employer interests. See 29 U.S.C. § 2601(b)(1), (3). This accommodation entails a set of entitlements for employees and a matched set of rules for employers.

An employee becomes eligible for FMLA leave if he or she has been employed by a covered employer for no less than a year and has worked at least 1250 hours during the preceding twelve months. Id. § 2611(2)(A). Once eligible, an employee may take reasonable periods of unpaid leave for medical reasons, for childbirth or adoption, or for the care of a spouse, parent, or child who suffers from a serious health condition. Id. § 2601(b)(2). Leave periods are circumscribed: an eligible employee may take a maximum of twelve workweeks of FMLA leave in any twelve-month span. Id. § 2612(a)(1). Following such a leave, an employee is entitled to reclaim his or her former job (or some other position with equivalent pay, benefits, and conditions of employment). Id. § 2614(a)(1).

Ministering to sick children falls within a section of the FMLA that permits a period of leave "[i]n order to care for the . . . son [or] daughter of the employee, if such . . . son [or] daughter . . . has a serious health condition." Id. § 2612(a)(1)(C). In providing this protection, the FMLA differentiates between children under eighteen years of age and children eighteen years of age and older, defining a son or daughter as

a biological, adopted, or foster child, a stepchild, a legal ward, or a child of a person standing in loco parentis, who is --

(A) under 18 years of age; or

(B) 18 years of age or older and incapable of self-care because of a mental or physical disability.

Id. § 2611(12).2

The rules for employers are straightforward. In writing the FMLA, Congress

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took pains to proscribe employers from "interfer[ing] with, restrain[ing], or deny[ing] the exercise of or the attempt to exercise, any right provided" by the law. Id. § 2615(a)(1). To this end, an employer may not discharge or otherwise unfairly discriminate against an individual for opposing practices made illegal by the FMLA. Id. § 2615(a)(2). An employer who flouts these rules can be held liable for compensatory damages and, unless the violation occurred in good faith, additional liquidated damages. Id. § 2617(a)(1)(A). Appropriate equitable relief, such as reinstatement, also may be available. Id. § 2617(a)(1)(B).

IV. FRAMING THE THRESHOLD LEGAL ISSUE

In this case, it is undisputed that Pfizer was a covered...

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