Johnson v. Dollar Gen.

Decision Date15 February 2011
Docket NumberNo. C10–3039–MWB.,C10–3039–MWB.
Citation778 F.Supp.2d 934
PartiesTodd JOHNSON, Plaintiff,v.DOLLAR GENERAL, Dolgencorp, L.L.C. and Michael Williams, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Eric Michael Updegraff, Stoltze & Updegraff, P.C., Des Moines, IA, for Plaintiff.Ellen L. Perlioni, Jason R. Elliott, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, LLP, Dallas, TX, Karin Johnson, Michael A. Giudicessi, Faegre & Benson, Des Moines, IA, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

MARK W. BENNETT, District Judge.

+-------------------+
                ¦TABLE OF CONTENTS  ¦
                +-------------------¦
                ¦                   ¦
                +-------------------+
                
I. INTRODUCTION                                                       936
                
 A. Procedural Background                                           936
                   B. Factual Background                                              938
                
                II. LEGAL STANDARDS                                                   939
                
 A. Standards for Motion to Dismiss                                 939
                
                III. LEGAL ANALYSIS                                                    940
                
 A. Amended Complaint                                               940
                
 1. Arguments of the parties                                   940
                        2. Analysis                                                   940
                
 B. Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)                                 941
                
 1. Arguments of the parties                                   941
                        2. Analysis                                                   943
                
 a. “Eligible employee”                                944
                            b. “Serious health condition”                         946
                            c. “Notice”                                           947
                
 C. Wrongful Discharge                                              949
                
 1. Arguments of the parties                                   949
                        2. Analysis                                                   949
                
 D. Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA)          950
                
 1. Arguments of the parties                                   950
                        2. Analysis                                                   950
                
 E. Punitive Damages                                                951
                
 1. Arguments of the parties                                   951
                        2. Analysis                                                   951
                
                IV. CONCLUSION                                                        952
                
I. INTRODUCTION

In this case, I will determine whether Defendant Dollar General's Motion to Dismiss has enough “cents” to successfully challenge the factual allegations made in Plaintiff Todd Johnson's Complaint claiming a violation of the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993.

A. Procedural Background

On July 26, 2010, the plaintiff, Todd Johnson, initiated this action by filing a Complaint against defendants, Dollar General, Dolgencorp, L.L.C., and Michael Williams (collectively, the defendants). In his Complaint, Johnson alleges that the defendants terminated his employment in retaliation for him missing work because of an illness. This illness, Johnson believes, was related to a heart attack he previously suffered. Johnson claims that his termination by the defendants was in violation of the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2612–2615.1 Johnson further claims that the defendants refused to offer Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (“COBRA”) benefits to him at the end of his employment, in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), as amended by COBRA. As a result of these alleged violations, Johnson seeks damages and injunctive relief from the court.

On October 12, 2010, the defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The defendants argue that Johnson's claims should be dismissed because the Complaint's factual allegations fail to establish that Johnson was an eligible employee under the FMLA. Specifically, the defendants argue that Johnson has not sufficiently alleged that: he suffered from a “serious health condition”; requested leave or made Dollar General aware of his need for leave; or that he was an “eligible employee” covered by the FMLA. Furthermore, the defendants contend that Johnson has failed to state a claim under COBRA, because Johnson never actually requested such benefits from the defendants at the time of his termination. Finally, the defendants claim that Johnson improperly seeks punitive damages, which are not available under either the FMLA or COBRA.

On November 11, 2010, Johnson filed his Resistance to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss. In his Resistance, Johnson argues that all reasonable inferences taken from the factual allegations in the Complaint are sufficient to establish a “serious health condition.” These factual allegations include: Johnson missed work because of an illness; Johnson believed this illness was related to a prior heart attack he suffered; and Johnson subsequently sought medical treatment for this illness. In addition, Johnson claims that the facts alleged in the Complaint are sufficient to demonstrate that the defendants knew or should have known that Johnson may have needed FMLA leave. The defendants should have realized Johnson's need for FMLA leave, Johnson maintains, because he called in sick to work and missed more than three consecutive days of work due to an illness. Johnson also argues that a reasonable inference to be drawn from the factual allegations in the Complaint is that Johnson informed someone, in this case his assistant manager, that he was ill and taking vacation days for his illness. Johnson argues that the defendants were aware of his need for leave because Michael Williams called Johnson and complained about him missing work.

Additionally, Johnson responded to the defendants' claims that he needed to state his hours of work and the number of employees within fifty miles of his workplace in order to show that his cause of action was plausible. Johnson argues that a complaint attacked by a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need such detailed information. Instead, Johnson claims that the United States Supreme Court has only required the plaintiff to state the grounds of his entitlement to relief. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). Johnson stresses that the question before the court is whether it is plausible, from the facts alleged and “reasonable inferences,” that the eligibility requirements under the FMLA were met. Johnson explains that the court could reasonably infer “that Dollar General is an extremely large corporation doing business within the State of Iowa because Dollar General's website advertises that it has approximately 8,000 stores in thirty-five states. Therefore, Johnson argues, it is plausible that there are more than fifty Dollar General employees throughout the area surrounding his workplace. Another inference Johnson asks the court to make concerns the length of his employment with the defendants. Johnson reasons that since he was a store manager, it is obvious he had to have been an employee for over one year and worked more than 1,250 hours. Additionally, Johnson points out that for an employee to be eligible for FMLA they must have been employed for over one year. Therefore, Johnson argues that the court should infer he had worked at Dollar General for more than one year since Johnson had claimed benefits under the FMLA.

Regarding COBRA, Johnson admits that his Complaint alleges the defendants failed to “offer” him COBRA benefits at the end of his employment. Johnson argues that a reasonable interpretation of this statement is that the defendants failed to provide Johnson notice of his COBRA benefits rights post termination and, therefore, makes out a violation of 29 U.S.C. § 1166(a)(2). Johnson declares that he is not required to engage in “hyper-technical pleading” of detail explaining exactly which benefits he believes he is entitled to under law, and that such matters are best left for discovery and trial. In response to the defendants allegations that his claim for punitive damages was improper, Johnson admits that neither the FMLA or COBRA provide for punitive damages. However, Johnson alleges that he actually requested “liquidated damages and/or punitive damages,” and consequently “liquidated damages” are provided for and appropriate under the FMLA in certain circumstances such as in this case. 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(1)(A)(iii). Finally, Johnson provides an amended version of his Complaint and requests leave to amend his original complaint if the court believes more factual detail is necessary.

On November 18, 2010, the defendants filed a Reply in Further Support of their Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). In the Reply, the defendants argue that neither the original or the proposed Amended Complaint offered by Johnson alleges facts or raises a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal that: (1) Johnson was eligible for FMLA leave by virtue of having a “serious health condition;” (2) Johnson put the defendants on notice that he had a “serious health condition” and therefore required leave under the FMLA; or (3) either of the defendants are “plan administrators” such that they could be liable for failure to provide notice of rights for continuation coverage under COBRA. The matter is now fully submitted.

B. Factual Background

As explained more fully below, in considering a Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “a judge must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007). Therefore, for purposes of the defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss, I will set forth the relevant factual background as stated in...

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