Andrews v. Cobb Cnty. Sch. Dist.

Decision Date01 July 2022
Docket Number1:20-cv-4043-MLB
PartiesJeffrey Andrews, Plaintiff, v. Cobb County School District, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Georgia

Jeffrey Andrews, Plaintiff,
v.

Cobb County School District, Defendant.

No. 1:20-cv-4043-MLB

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

July 1, 2022


OPINION & ORDER

MICHAEL L. BROWN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Plaintiff Jeffrey Andrews sued Defendant Cobb County School District for terminating his employment in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Defendant now moves for summary judgment. (Dkt. 35.) The Magistrate Judge recommends granting Defendant's motion. (Dkt. 42.) Plaintiff has filed objections to which Defendant responded. (Dkts. 44; 45.) The Court overrules Plaintiff's objections and adopts the Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation (“R&R”).

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I. Background

Defendant hired Plaintiff in 2015. (Dkt. 38 ¶ 2.) It later promoted him to head custodian of an elementary school. (Id. ¶ 3.) This position required Plaintiff to be on his feet all day (6:00 a.m.-2:30 p.m. or 10:30 a.m.-7:00 p.m.) except for a 30-minute lunch break and “breaks as needed.” (Id. ¶¶ 6, 9.) He could not perform any of his duties while sitting. (Id. ¶ 6.)

In December 2018, Plaintiff took six weeks of FMLA leave to get stents placed in his legs (as apparently he was having some pain in his feet). (Id. ¶¶ 13-15.) He returned to work in February 2018 “with no restrictions or limitations.” (Dkts. 35-3 at 18; 38 ¶ 14.) He told the school principal his surgery “healed” a “blockage” in his legs but he would still have to see his doctor periodically for follow-up appointments. (Dkts. 361 at 15; 38 ¶ 17.)

On September 16, 2019, Plaintiff requested another leave of absence under the FMLA because “his physician wanted him to rest his feet to avoid having surgery on his bunions.” (Dkt. 38 ¶ 20.) In response, Defendant sent Plaintiff “the necessary documents relating to [his] request,” including a “Request for Leave” form and a “Certification of

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Health Care Provider” form. (Dkts. 35-3 at 25; 38 ¶¶ 22-23.) Defendant told Plaintiff this “paperwork should be completed and returned to the Benefits Department” by October 1, 2019. (Dkts. 35-3 at 25; 38 ¶ 22.) Defendant made it clear Plaintiff's leave was “unapproved until [the] documents . . . [were] received by the Benefits Department.” (Dkts. 35-3 at 25; 38 ¶ 22.) Nonetheless, “[Plaintiff] was allowed to immediately begin his FMLA leave on September 16, 2019, pending receipt of his paperwork.” (Dkt. 38 ¶ 21.)

Plaintiff did not return his paperwork by the October 1 deadline. (Id. ¶ 24.) So Defendant sent him a follow-up letter instructing him to “return all required leave of absence paperwork to the Benefits Department by 10/14/19.” (Dkts. 35-3 at 27; 38 ¶ 24.) The letter stressed that, “[u]ntil the department receives all required documents, [Plaintiff's] absence is an unauthorized leave of absence.” (Dkts. 35-3 at 27; 38 ¶ 25.) The letter also warned Plaintiff the Benefits Department would forward his file to the Employee Relations Department if he did not return the necessary paperwork by October 14, 2019. (Dkts. 35-3 at 27; 38 ¶ 25.)

On October 11, 2019, Plaintiff sent Defendant a partially completed version of the Request for Leave form. (Dkt. 38 ¶ 27.) The form required

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Plaintiff to provide a specific start date and a specific end date for his requested leave. (Dkt. 35-3 at 28.) But Plaintiff only provided a start date (September 16, 2019) while leaving the end date blank. (Id.; Dkt. 38 ¶ 27.) Defendant called Plaintiff and left a voicemail asking him to provide an end date. (Dkt. 38 ¶ 30.) Plaintiff never did so. (Id. ¶ 32.)

On October 11, 2019, Plaintiff's physician sent Defendant a completed version of the Certification of Health Care Provider form. (Id. ¶ 28.) The form said Plaintiff was “unable to stand for long period[s] of time due to painful hyperkeratosis on both feet” and that this made him “unable to perform [some] of [his] job functions.” (Dkts. 36-2 at 20; 38 ¶ 28.)[1] Later that day, Jennifer Phillips (an employee in Defendant's Benefits Department) emailed Plaintiff a “Release to Return to Work” form. (Dkts. 35-3 at 29; 38 ¶ 31.) The form required a physician to indicate when the “[e]mployee may return to work without restrictions.” (Dkt. 35-3 at 29.) Ms. Phillips explained in her email that the form “must say you may work without restrictions.” (Dkts. 36-2 at 25; 38 ¶ 31.) Plaintiff's physician returned the form to Defendant on October 14, 2019. (Dkt. 35-3 at 39.)

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The form said Plaintiff could return to work without restrictions on November 13, 2019. (Id.; Dkt. 38 ¶ 33.)

Plaintiff's annual FMLA leave expired on October 25, 2019. (Dkt. 38 ¶ 34.) A week later, Defendant sent Plaintiff a letter explaining he had “failed to submit the necessary paperwork [and] ha[d] not reported to work for twenty-seven (27) consecutive work days.” (Dkts. 35-3 at 30; 38 ¶ 40.) The letter characterized these actions as “job abandonment” and “voluntary resignation:”

[Y]our unauthorized and undocumented extended absence violates Administrative Rule GARH-R: Short-Term Leaves and Absences. This rule clearly states the following: “For classified employees, unauthorized absences and/or absences without notification which last three or more consecutive work days are deemed to be job abandonment and such abandonment will be considered a voluntary resignation of employment.
Based on the foregoing facts and policy, we consider your actions to be job abandonment and a violation of the GARH-R rule. We therefore accept your voluntary resignation and consider the matter of your employment settled.

(Dkts. 35-3 at 30-31; 38 ¶ 41.) The letter was signed by the Director of Defendant's Employee Relations Department. (Dkt. 35-3 at 31.)

Plaintiff filed this lawsuit about a year later. (Dkt. 1.) He asserts claims for FMLA interference (Count 1), FMLA retaliation (Count 2),

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ADA discrimination (Count 3), failure to accommodate a disability in violation of the ADA (Count 4), and ADA retaliation (Count 5). (Id.) Defendant moves for summary judgment on each claim. The Magistrate Judge recommends granting Defendant's motion. Plaintiff objects to the R&R.

II. Standard of Review

A. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows 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). The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing a court, by reference to materials in the record, that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., 357 F.3d 1256, 1260 (11th Cir. 2004). The nonmoving party then has the burden of showing summary judgment is improper by coming forward with “specific facts” demonstrating a genuine dispute. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). Ultimately, “[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact

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to find for the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Salinero v. Johnson & Johnson, 995 F.3d 959, 964 (11th Cir. 2021).

B. R&R

28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) requires district courts to “make a de novo determination of those portions of [an R&R] to which objection is made.” Any such objection “must specifically identify the portions of the [R&R] to which objection is made and the specific basis for objection.” McCullars v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 825 Fed.Appx. 685, 694 (11th Cir. 2020); see United States v. Schultz, 565 F.3d 1353, 1360 (11th Cir. 2009) (“[A] party that wishes to preserve its objection must clearly advise the district court and pinpoint the specific findings that the party disagrees with.”). “Frivolous, conclusive, or general objections need not be considered by the district court.” Marsden v. Moore, 847 F.2d 1536, 1548 (11th Cir. 1988).

“It does not appear that Congress intended to require district court review of a magistrate's factual or legal conclusions, under a de novo or any other standard, when neither party objects to those findings.” Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985). And, in most cases, “[a] party failing to object to [an R&R] waives the right to challenge on appeal the

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district court's order based on unobjected-to factual and legal conclusions.” McGriff v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 654 Fed.Appx. 469, 472 (11th Cir. 2016). Ultimately, whether or not objections are filed, a district court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

III. Discussion

A. FMLA Interference (Count 1)

The FMLA gives employees “the right to take twelve weeks of job leave because of a serious health condition.” White v. Beltram Edge Tool Supply, Inc., 789 F.3d 1188, 1191 (11th Cir. 2015). An employee who takes this leave has “the right to be reinstated to [his] original job (or an equivalent)” when his leave ends. Id. But “an employee returning from FMLA leave who cannot perform the essential functions of his job due to a physical condition need not be reinstated or restored to another position.” Jones v. Gulf Coast Health Care of Delaware, LLC, 854 F.3d 1261, 1268 (11th Cir. 2017) (citing 29 C.F.R. § 825.216(c)).

Plaintiff claims Defendant violated the FMLA by refusing to let him return to work after his leave. (See Dkts. 37 at 7; 44 at 6-7.) The Magistrate Judge found this claim fails because standing for long periods

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was an “essential function” of Plaintiff's job and Plaintiff could not perform that function when his leave expired on October 25, 2019. (Dkt. 42 at 21-23).

The Court agrees. Plaintiff testified his job required him to stand virtually all day, Plaintiff's physician told Defendant on October 11, 2019 that Plaintiff was “unable to stand for long period[s] of time,” and Plaintiff was not cleared to work without this limitation...

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