Dillon v. Maryland-National Capital Park Planning

Decision Date18 August 2005
Docket NumberNo. CIV.A. DKC 2004-0994.,CIV.A. DKC 2004-0994.
Citation382 F.Supp.2d 777
PartiesCynthia DILLON v. THE MARYLAND-NATIONAL CAPITAL PARK AND PLANNING COMMISSION.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland

Richard Lee Huff, Law Offices of Richard L. Huff, Olney, MD, for Cynthia Dillon.

Devin John Doolan, Jr., Riverdale, MD, for The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

CHASANOW, District Judge.

Presently pending and ready for resolution in this action brought under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq., are the cross-motions for summary judgment by Plaintiff Cynthia Dillon (Paper 13) and Defendant Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission ("MNCPPC") (Paper 16). The issues have been fully briefed and the court now rules, no hearing being deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment will be denied, and Defendant's motion for summary judgment will be denied in part and granted in part.

I. Background

Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are uncontroverted. Plaintiff Cynthia Dillon was hired by Defendant MNCPPC in 1989 as an administrative aid. In 1995, she was transferred to the Payroll Section of Defendant's Finance Department. In August 2002, Plaintiff requested three weeks leave, to be taken from December 12, 2002 through January 2, 2003, in order to take a family vacation with her husband and children to Jamaica, where several of Plaintiff's relatives lived. Plaintiff admits that she purchased the airline tickets before she submitted her request for leave, and, thus, before her request had been approved. See Paper 13, Ex. 1 ("Plaintiff's Decl."), ¶ 7. In response to Plaintiff's request, her second-level supervisor, Ms. Deloris Kirby, informed her that a leave of three weeks during that time of the year would not be possible. Id., ¶ 8; see also Paper 13, Ex. 2 (8/21/02 Kirby e-mail).

On November 6, 2002, Plaintiff submitted a second request for three weeks leave for the same time period. In response to her second request, Plaintiff's third-level supervisor, Ms. Mary Williford, again informed Plaintiff that her leave request for three weeks in December/January could not be approved due to the nature of the Payroll Department's work program at that time of the year. See Paper 13, Ex. 3 (11/7/02 Williford e-mail). However, Ms. Williford suggested that if Plaintiff desired, she could submit a leave request for December 12 through December 20, 2002, which Ms. Williford would recommend for approval. In an e-mail reply, Plaintiff provided why it was important to her that her request be approved:

Mary, unfortunately, I will incur a penalty if I change my ticket. This vacation involve[s] my family. In June of this year I was to go and didn't. Unfortunately, my uncle who was very ill pass[ed] during that same timeframe [sic] and I did not get to go.

Due to the fact that summer is a very difficult time to get three weeks off to spend time with my family, we thought December would be the very next best time. This time off does not just involve me, it involve[s] my family.

See id. In addition to these reasons, Plaintiff wrote:

My grandmother is not in the best of health and is asking for me. I really don't want to go visit with her grave (as I will have to do my uncle's), I want to visit with my grandmother (not that any of us have any control over death, I could very well go before her), that is something I just don't want to live with.

Id.

That same day, Plaintiff met with Defendant's Secretary-Treasurer and head of its Finance Department, Ms. Patricia Barney, in order to discuss her leave request. In an affidavit, Ms. Barney states that Plaintiff cited several reasons for requesting three weeks leave, including that her family had already planned a Christmastime vacation in Jamaica, that they had already purchased airline tickets, that she would incur a penalty if she altered her flight itinerary, and that she wanted to visit her grandmother. See Paper 16, Ex. 1 ("Barney Aff."), ¶ 8. Ms. Barney also attests that Plaintiff stated that she would be taking the requested three weeks leave regardless of whether Defendant approved it. Id., ¶ 10. At that point, Ms. Barney informed Plaintiff that if she stayed beyond the period approved, she would be absent without approved leave (AWOL) and would face termination. Id. 1 In lieu of granting Plaintiff's full request, Ms. Barney informed her that she could approve either a three-week leave request for a different time period, or a shorter amount of leave for December, specifically December 12 through December 20, 2002. After inquiring about transferring out of the Payroll Office, which was not possible at that time, Plaintiff submitted a request for leave for the time period offered by Ms. Barney, which was subsequently approved. See Plaintiff's Decl., ¶ 12; Barney Aff., ¶ 12.

On December 12, 2002, as scheduled, Plaintiff and her family flew to Jamaica. Upon arriving, Plaintiff immediately visited her grandmother, who lived with Plaintiff's aunt. Plaintiff's Decl., ¶ 14; Paper 16, Ex. 2 ("Plaintiff's Dep.") at 17-18. That same day, Plaintiff learned that her grandmother had sustained a "small stroke" a few days earlier. Plaintiff's Dep. at 18. Moreover, upon seeing her grandmother's living conditions, which Plaintiff described as "dilapidated," she decided it was necessary for her to secure another living arrangement for her. Id. at 21-23.

On Thursday, December 19, 2002, at 6:35 p.m., seven days after first arriving in Jamaica, Plaintiff sent an e-mail to Ms. Barney that stated in part, "I am requesting an extension of sick leave because my grandma is very ill and I am in the process of finding a home for her." Plaintiff's Decl., ¶ 16. The following morning, December 20, Ms. Barney responded via e-mail as follows:

Cynthia,

I am sorry to hear about your grandmother; however, as was indicated when you requested your leave, we were unable to approve more than the 12/12 — 12/20 time period due to work program demands. We had offered that you visit at a different time of year, if you desired more time. You agreed to the time approved. If that time is exceeded, you will be absent without leave. As we discussed, that would result in termination of your employment. I am truly sorry that I cannot approved [sic] your request.

See Barney Aff., Attach. 1. Thus, under the original approved leave request, Plaintiff was due to return to work the following Monday, December 23, 2002.

On that Monday, Plaintiff failed to return to work. Rather, Plaintiff responded via e-mail from Jamaica. In her e-mail, Plaintiff stated that when she left for Jamaica she "had no idea the condition" her grandmother was in, that she felt "the need to find a home for [her] grandmother," and that she was "trying to place her in a home." See Barney Aff., Attachs. 2-5. She also stated in this e-mail that her "grandmother actually raised [her]," and that she felt "the need to find her a safe home." Id. At this point, she requested that Ms. Barney check to see if Defendant's Merit Rules would cover an extension of time to take care of her grandmother. Id.

That same day, Ms. Barney responded to Plaintiff's latest e-mail, recounting the discussion they had had in November concerning Plaintiff's original leave request. Ms. Barney reminded Plaintiff that when Plaintiff stated she was "going to take [her] requested annual leave even if it wasn't approved," Ms. Barney informed her that she would be AWOL and would lose her job. She also indicated that although Plaintiff stated at that time she was "close to [her] grandmother," she did not mention that "she had raised [Plaintiff.]" Id. To that assertion, Ms. Barney informed Plaintiff that she believed the Merit Rules "provide for sick leave up to 80 hours for immediate family described as a spouse, a child or parents." She further advised Plaintiff that although she "did not know if this could be applied to [Plaintiff's] grandmother, if she raised [Plaintiff]," she should "contact the Personnel Office to determine that answer." Id. She concluded her e-mail by informing Plaintiff that her status remained AWOL, that the Merit Rules provide for termination if the abandonment continued for a period of three days, but that she would "consider any information" Plaintiff could provide before making an ultimate decision. She also reiterated that Plaintiff "may wish to contact the Personnel Office for additional guidance." Id.

Although Ms. Barney sent the above referenced e-mail on Monday, December 23, Plaintiff did not respond until Saturday, December 28, 2002. In another e-mail sent from Jamaica, Plaintiff stated, apparently in response to Ms. Barney's comment regarding Defendant's Merit Rules and its applicability to a grandparent, "And yes, I grew up with my grandmother." Id., Attachs. 2-5. Plaintiff also sent this e-mail to Ms. Trudye Johnson, Defendant's Executive Director. See id. Of Ms. Johnson, Plaintiff requested that she look into the matter of whether the Merit Rules would cover her situation. Id. She also indicated in her e-mail that she was making final arrangements for her grandmother and that should could be back in the office by January 2, 2003. Id. Because this e-mail was sent on a Saturday, Ms. Barney did not receive it until the next work day, Monday, December 30, 2002.

Plaintiff returned from Jamaica on December 31, 2002. On January 3, 2003, Ms. Barney sent a letter to Plaintiff at her home, both by courier and first-class mail, notifying her of Defendant's intent to terminate her employment. See id., Attach. 6 ("Notice Letter"). In this five-page letter, Ms. Barney thoroughly explained the basis for Defendant's decision, which, in essence, was Plaintiff's absence from work well beyond the approved leave time. It is in this letter that rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which is at the heart of this...

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