Hurlbert v. St. Mary's Health Care System, Inc.

Decision Date16 February 2006
Docket NumberNo. 05-10252.,05-10252.
Citation439 F.3d 1286
PartiesBarbara J. HURLBERT, Executor of the Estate of Thomas Hurlbert, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. ST. MARY'S HEALTH CARE SYSTEM, INC., Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Janet E. Hill, Hill & Beasley, LLP, Athens, GA, for Hurlbert.

F. Kytle Frye, III, Rhonda Ruth Wilcox, Fisher & Phillips, LLP, Atlanta, GA, for Defendant-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.

Before BIRCH, WILSON and COX, Circuit Judges.

WILSON, Circuit Judge:

Barbara J. Hurlbert, executor of the estate of Thomas Hurlbert, appeals the district court's order granting summary judgment to Thomas Hurlbert's ("Hurlbert") former employer, St. Mary's Health Care System, Inc. ("St. Mary's"), on Hurlbert's claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA" or the "Act").1 The district court determined that Hurlbert could not establish statutory entitlement to FMLA leave, and that his FMLA interference and retaliation claims must therefore fail. With respect to Hurlbert's retaliation claim, the court further found Hurlbert had failed to present sufficient evidence that St. Mary's proffered reason for his termination was pretextual. We hold that the district court erred in construing pertinent regulatory language, and in assessing the evidence of pretext. As a result, we reverse and remand for further proceedings on both the interference and the retaliation claims.

I. BACKGROUND

Hurlbert started working for St. Mary's in 1989, as a paramedic. In addition to fulfilling his duties at St. Mary's, Hurlbert worked full-time with the Rockdale County Fire Department ("Rockdale"). His duties at Rockdale included firefighting and dealing with hazardous materials, although he was also able to employ his paramedic skills as needed.

Shortly after being hired by St. Mary's, Hurlbert was promoted to a supervisory position that involved the maintenance of St. Mary's emergency medical services ("EMS") vehicles. Approximately five years later Hurlbert's duties changed, and he became responsible for supervising one of St. Mary's three emergency medical technician ("EMT") shifts. Among other things, Hurlbert was required to ensure that EMS units were adequately staffed during his shift, to visit and check on the various duty stations from which the units operated, and to transport linens.

Hurlbert suffered a heart attack in October of 1999. After he underwent a successful angioplasty and stent replacement, he was released by his cardiologist, Dr. Thomas Murphy, to return to work at St. Mary's on November 9th, and at Rockdale on November 16th. Prior to his release, Hurlbert was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, as well as sinusitis. Among the medications he was prescribed was Paxil, for anxiety and stress.2 Hurlbert did return to full-time work, however, at both St. Mary's and Rockdale.

In February of 2002, St. Mary's underwent an internal reorganization. The oversight of EMS was transferred from vice-president Marilyn Hill to executive director Bonnie Butler, who had been directing various other services at St. Mary's for eight years. After conducting a departmental review of EMS, Butler concluded that its director position should be replaced by that of a working manager. In July of 2002, Butler eliminated the position of EMS director held by Frank "Sparky" Wilson, and promoted Jeff Sosby to the new working manager position.3

As part of Butler's departmental review, she reassessed a number of unresolved patient complaints, including one about medical services rendered by Hurlbert to a five-year old child back in late February of 2002. Butler ultimately concluded that Hurlbert had falsified his account of events, and should have been terminated by Sparky Wilson. Given the age of the complaint, however, she issued Hurlbert a disciplinary letter instead of terminating him. Hurlbert, who denied engaging in any falsification, filed a grievance regarding the disciplinary action. During the early stages of the grievance process, Butler decided to have Hurlbert undergo a competency evaluation.4

Around that time Hurlbert also learned that his mother would have to undergo open heart surgery, and used several vacation days in early August to go visit her. On August 14th, the EMS medical director, Dr. Jerome Howell, administered a skills competency test to Hurlbert. Although each of the seven competency areas on the exam was pass/fail only, and Hurlbert passed five, Dr. Howell did not mark either "pass" or "fail" in two of the competency areas. Instead, Dr. Howell commented that Hurlbert (1) seemed "rusty" in his use of the Lifepak 10 and was not familiar with the use of the Lifepak 12, and (2) needed to review the use of drugs contained in the EMS "drug bag," as well as how those drugs are administered. Dr. Howell does not recall discussing the results of the examination with Butler, but did tell education director Mike McElhannon that Hurlbert needed to do some additional review. Hurlbert likewise recalls Dr. Howell telling him to brush up on the drug bag portion of the test.

On September 4th, Hurlbert received a hearing before an internal committee on his grievance. The committee upheld Butler's disciplinary action, but removed her reference to "falsification." Later that same day, Hurlbert met with Dr. Howell to complete the Lifepak and drug bag portions of Hurlbert's earlier competency exam.5 Hurlbert remembers making a mistake in describing one drug, but claims Dr. Howell told him it didn't matter because St. Mary's was going to remove that drug from the drug box altogether. Hurlbert also contends that Dr. Howell never said that Hurlbert failed the test. Dr. Howell's recollection is that Hurlbert had clearly studied and was making his best effort, but had not necessarily established that he was prepared to perform the duties of his position. Dr. Howell was concerned about Hurlbert's ability to perform under stress, and suggested to Hurlbert that he might need to "tak[e] some time off or tak[e] a break or maybe, you know, stay[] off the truck and do[] something else for a while." Similarly, Hurlbert recalls discussing with Dr. Howell the increasing stress and exhaustion created by Hurlbert's heavy workload, the feeling of being singled out for discipline, and his mother's health. Hurlbert remembers stating that he needed to visit his mother, and didn't want to continue working as a paramedic until he had done so. According to Hurlbert, Dr. Howell advised him to relax and assured him that he (Howell) would help Hurlbert get some time off to visit his mom.

After finishing with Hurlbert, Dr. Howell went to speak with Mike McElhannon about Hurlbert's status. Howell explained to McElhannon (and Jeff Sosby, who also was present) that he (Howell) thought Hurlbert "was showing signs that his confidence in his own knowledge and experience was in doubt and I think under stress, he was wavering a little." Howell recalls stating that it would be helpful if Hurlbert could take on a more laid-back job, but denies ever saying that Hurlbert should not serve as a paramedic/EMT, or that Hurlbert should be terminated. At some point after Dr. Howell finished speaking with McElhannon and Sosby, Hurlbert located Sosby and asked about taking leave:

I indicated to him that I wanted to put in for a leave. And he told me he didn't know how to do that, that he was new at that job, which he had just been put into it [sic]. He wasn't really familiar with it and he didn't know if he had paperwork and all this other [sic]. And I says, "Well, okay. Well, I surely would appreciate it if you would make the arrangements because I would just like to take off and get out of here and . . . go see my mom."

Sosby replied that he would look into the matter, and later obtained a leave form for Hurlbert.

At some point between the end of Hurlbert's examination on September 4th and the morning of September 6th, Bonnie Butler met with Dr. Howell. According to Butler, Dr. Howell explained that Hurlbert had improved in his understanding of medications, but became confused about how to use them when given certain scenarios. Butler contends that Dr. Howell could not recommend putting Hurlbert "back on the truck." Dr. Howell did ask, however, whether there were other jobs within St. Mary's system that Hurlbert could perform, and Butler replied that she would check and see. It appears that Butler also met with St. Mary's vice president of human resources and support services, Jeff English, who testified in his deposition that Butler told him Dr. Howell "felt like it wasn't the right thing to do to put Tom [Hurlbert] back on the truck." According to English, Butler also discussed with him several options she had been thinking about regarding Hurlbert: (1) try to help Hurlbert find a different job within St. Mary's system; (2) let Hurlbert resign and provide him thirty days' severance pay; or (3) terminate Hurlbert's employment. English acknowledged that leave was not discussed as an option in his conversation with Butler, but explained that he was not then aware of Hurlbert's desire to go on leave.

On September 6th, Hurlbert again met with Sosby in order to fill out leave-related paperwork. According to Hurlbert, Sosby initially agreed to help with the paperwork, but when Hurlbert returned to Sosby's office after leaving to use the restroom, Sosby informed him that plans had changed: Hurlbert could either resign and receive a month's severance pay, or be fired.6 Hurlbert described his response as follows:

"Mr. Sosby, my answer to that is I'm not going to resign. I absolutely refuse to resign. So I would think by default that I'm terminated, so I suppose my next step, which I'm fixing to go do, is go clock out and I'm going to go home. I don't intend to stay here for free."

When Hurlbert arrived at his home, however, he received a phone...

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