Becknell v. Univ. of Ky.

Decision Date22 April 2019
Docket NumberCase No. 5:17-cv-490-JMH-MAS
Citation383 F.Supp.3d 743
Parties Lee Anna BECKNELL, Plaintiff, v. UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Kentucky

383 F.Supp.3d 743

Lee Anna BECKNELL, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY, Defendant.

Case No. 5:17-cv-490-JMH-MAS

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division at Lexington.

Signed April 22, 2019


383 F.Supp.3d 747

John Louis Bishop, Robert L. Roark, Tyler Zachary Korus, Robert L. Roark, PLLC, Lexington, KY, for Plaintiff.

Joshua Michael Salsburey, Meredith Berge Reeves, Jessica Roberts Stigall, Sturgill, Turner, Barker & Moloney PLLC, Megan K. George, Stites & Harbison PLLC, William Eugene Thro, University of Kentucky Office of Legal Counsel, Lexington, KY, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Joseph M. Hood, Senior U.S. District Judge

Plaintiff Lee Anna Becknell, a former employee of the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, alleges that the University violated the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 - 2654, when it engaged in certain actions and eventually terminated Becknell's employment after she was granted FMLA leave. Becknell alleges both FMLA interference and retaliation.

In response, the University argues that Becknell's claims are barred based on sovereign immunity and that, in any event, it is also entitled to summary judgment on the substantive claims as a matter of law.

The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment. Having considered those motions, Becknell's motion for summary judgment [DE 33] is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART . Similarly, the University's motion for summary judgment [DE 34] is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART .

First, Becknell's claims are not barred based on sovereign immunity because, in Nev. Dep't of Human Resources v. Hibbs , 538 U.S. 721, 123 S.Ct. 1972, 155 L.Ed.2d 953 (2003), the United States Supreme Court held that Congress expressly abrogated sovereign immunity under the family-leave provision of the FMLA.

Second, Becknell is entitled to summary judgment on her claim for FMLA interference arising from the University's decision to discipline Becknell for failing to comply with the College of Dentistry's twenty-four-hour notice policy for temporary disability leave. Otherwise, the University is entitled to summary judgment pertaining to FMLA interference for refusal to allow Becknell to use paid leave and requests for Becknell's marriage license and training list.

Third, summary judgment for both parties is denied on the FMLA retaliation claim because genuine disputes of material fact exist pertaining to whether the University had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Becknell's employment.

Fourth, and finally, summary judgment on the issue of damages is premature at this point and is denied.

I. Procedural and Factual Background

Plaintiff Lee Anna Becknell was employed at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry. Most recently, Becknell served in the position of Account Clerk 3. [DE 34-1 at 4-5, Pg ID 254-55]. In this role, Becknell was responsible for accounts receivable reports ("ARRs") and explanations of benefits ("EOBs") for patient accounts. [Id. ].

In the evening on Wednesday, March 8, 2017, Becknell's husband was hospitalized due to an apparent diabetic coma. [Id. at 7, Pg ID 257; DE 33-1 at 5, Pg ID 122].

383 F.Supp.3d 748

Becknell contacted her direct supervisor, Adrian Thompson, that same night to notify him of her husband's medical emergency. [DE 33-3 at 13, Pg ID 157]. Becknell was absent from work on the subsequent Thursday and Friday following her husband's hospitalization. [Id. at 14, Pg ID 158].

Then, Becknell submitted an initial request for FMLA leave on Monday, March 13, 2017. [DE 34-19 at 1, DE 34-11 at 8, Pg ID 329]. Becknell requested FMLA leave from March 9, 2017, until April 3, 2017.1 [DE 34-19 at 1-5, Pg ID 382-86].

On March 15, 2017, while Becknell's FMLA request was pending, a representative from the University of Kentucky Medical Center contacted Becknell to notify her that her husband would be released later that day and that she must be present to receive care instructions before he could be discharged. [DE 33-1 at 5-6, Pg ID 122-23]. Becknell submitted an absence request that morning so that she could be at the hospital when her husband was discharged. [DE 33-13 at 1, Pg ID 212].

Later, on March 22, 2017, Becknell's FMLA request was initially denied by the University of Kentucky because the University claimed their records did not show that Becknell was currently married. [DE 33-14 at 1, Pg ID 213]. Additionally, that same day, Thompson issued a corrective action memorandum due to Becknell's failure to provide twenty-four hours' advance notice when she left work early on March 15, 2017, the day of her husband's discharge from the hospital. [DE 33-17 at 1, Pg ID 218]. According to the memorandum, the College of Dentistry Attendance and Time Reporting Policy requires that scheduled temporary disability leave "be approved by the supervisor no later than 24 hours in advance." [Id. (emphasis omitted) ].

Subsequently, on March 24, 2017, Becknell's FMLA leave was approved by the University, with a retroactive effective date for FMLA leave beginning on March 8, 2017, and extending until April 3, 2017.2 [DE 33-19 at 1, Pg ID 221]. Still, retroactive application of Becknell's FMLA leave did not restore her pay for the afternoon of March 15, 2017, because Becknell "had violated the University's time and attendance policy." [DE 34-1 at 10, Pg ID 260; see also DE 34-8 at 4, Pg ID 315; DE 34-21 at 7, Pg ID 394].

On April 4, 2017, the day Becknell returned from her approved FMLA leave, the University provided a due process statement to Becknell. [DE 33-20 at 1-2, Pg ID 222-23]. The due process statement inquired about two work related items: (1) EOBs from December 2016 that the University claimed had not been completed, even though Becknell allegedly indicated that they had been completed; and (2) EOBs where the transaction note date and the date of entry into the University's axiUm database did not match. [Id. ]. Becknell

383 F.Supp.3d 749

provided handwritten responses to each of the inquiries. [Id. ].

Ultimately, the University of Kentucky terminated Becknell's employment on April 12, 2017. [DE 33-21 at 1, Pg ID 224]. The employee separation sheet explained that Becknell was "terminated due to falsification of other records." [Id. ]. Of course, the parties dispute the actual reason that Becknell was terminated.

According to the University, Becknell was terminated because she changed the date field in the transaction notes in the axiUm database system, entering dates that did not represent the actual date that she entered the note into the patient's file. [Id. ; see also DE 34-1 at 10-13, Pg Id. 260-63]. The University asserts that Adrian Thompson, Becknell's supervisor, discovered this practice when working on Becknell's accounts while she was on FMLA leave. [DE 34-1 at 10, Pg ID 260]. Additionally, the University states that an audit of Becknell's records, initiated after the University received her responses on the due process statement, found that several other accounts had been falsified. [Id. at 12, Pg ID 262]. The University argues that Becknell's practice of changing the transaction date constitutes falsification of University records in violation of University Policy # 12.0. [DE 33-21 at 2, Pg ID 225].

Alternatively, Becknell argues that she was terminated because she took FMLA leave. Becknell claims that there was no policy preventing her practice of changing the transaction dates and that her supervisors were aware of her method for inputting patient data. [DE 33-1 at 9, Pg ID 126]. Furthermore, Becknell argues that she was singled out while on FMLA leave because the College of Dentistry failed to investigate whether any other accounts receivable counselors had engaged in the same method of data entry. As such, Becknell asserts she was fired based on her decision to take FMLA leave.

As a result, Becknell initiated the present lawsuit in Fayette Circuit Court claiming FMLA retaliation, FMLA interference, and a claim for unpaid wages pursuant to K.R.S. § 337.010(1)(c). The action was removed to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, arising under jurisdiction, on December 15, 2017. [DE 1]. After discovery, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. [DE 33; DE 34]. Those motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for review. [See DE 35; DE 37; DE 38; DE 41].

II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate only when no genuine dispute exists as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A material fact is one "that might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The moving party has the burden to show that "there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). "A dispute about a material fact is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Smith v. Perkins Bd. of Educ. ...

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