Lamonaca v. Tread Corp., Civil Action No. 7:14CV00249

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Western District of Virginia)
Writing for the CourtGlen E. Conrad, Chief United States District Judge
Citation157 F.Supp.3d 507
Parties Valarie Lamonaca, Plaintiff, v. Tread Corporation, Defendant.
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 7:14CV00249
Decision Date21 January 2016

Paul Graham Beers, Emma Maddux Kozlowski, Glenn Feldmann Darby & Goodlatte, Roanoke, VA, for Plaintiff.

Alex E. Hassid, Deborah P. Kelly, Dickstein Shapiro LLP, Washington, DC, Alison Drew Hurt, Steven David Brown, Islerdare PC, Charles Garrison Meyer, III, LeClair Ryan, PC, Richmond, VA, Kevin Philip Oddo, LeClair Ryan, A Professional Corporation, Roanoke, VA, for Defendant.


Glen E. Conrad

, Chief United States District Judge

On July 7, 2015, a jury found in favor of Valarie LaMonaca on her claims of interference and retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”) against her former employer, Tread Corporation (Tread). The case is now before the court on Tread's motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, a new trial; LaMonaca's motion for liquidated damages; and LaMonaca's motion for attorneys' fees and litigation costs. The court held a hearing on the motions on December 7, 2015. For the reasons stated during the hearing and for those set forth below, Tread's motion will be denied, LaMonaca's motion for liquidated damages will be granted, and LaMonaca's motion for attorneys' fees and costs will be granted in part and denied in part.

Factual Background

LaMonaca began working for Tread in 2009. She was promoted to human resources (HR) director on March 10, 2013. LaMonaca remained in that position until April of 2014, when the events giving rise to this action occurred.

In April of 2014, LaMonaca struggled emotionally after being exposed to heightened levels of stress at home and at work. Her husband had lost his job while recuperating from open heart surgery

. Additionally, LaMonaca's relationship with Barry Russell, Tread's chief executive officer, had grown increasingly strained. One source of tension between them was a lawsuit Tread had filed in state court against two former members of its executive leadership team.

On the afternoon of Friday, April 11, 2014, LaMonaca met with Russell to discuss issues related to the lawsuit. The parties dispute what transpired during the meeting. While Tread maintains that LaMonaca resigned during the meeting, LaMonaca contends that she merely informed Russell that she was considering resigning, and that he suggested that she take some time to think about the decision. At trial, LaMonaca testified that Russell told her that he believed that a recent raise process for company employees had “substantially raised [her] stress level,” that he “didn't want [her] to resign,” and that she would “need[ ] to submit [her] resignation in writing” if she ultimately decided to do so. Trial Tr. Vol. I at 139–40.

LaMonaca returned to her office after the meeting. Approximately twenty minutes later, Russell recommended that she leave the office early, because he was concerned about her “odd behavior” and her state of mind. Trial Tr. Vol. II at 93–95. LaMonaca was visibly upset when she passed Kimberly Butler, the HR assistant, on the way out of the building. About an hour later, Butler called LaMonaca. LaMonaca testified that she told Butler that she was considering resigning. Trial Tr. Vol. I at 146.

Later that night, Russell sent LaMonaca two test messages asking if she planned to submit a written resignation. LaMonaca did not respond to the messages that night.

On Saturday, April 12, 2014, LaMonaca scheduled an appointment the following Monday with her physician, Dr. Nina Sweeney. After scheduling the appointment, LaMonaca sent Butler an email indicating that she was “suffering from psychological distress due to prolonged exposure to high levels of stress,” and that she had scheduled to see her physician on Monday afternoon. Pl.'s Trial Ex. 8. LaMonaca asked Butler to send her the company's FMLA forms to take with her to the appointment.

On Sunday, April 13, 2014 at 12:47 p.m., Russell sent LaMonaca another series of text messages which provided as follows:

Valarie—your failure to respond to my last two questions indicates that you have decided to discontinue your employment at Tread immediately. If this is incorrect, please respond immediately. Otherwise, I will assume the resignation you verbally tendered on Friday is effective immediately and I will arrange on Monday to discontinue your pay and benefits.

Pl.'s Trial Ex. 7.

LaMonaca responded an hour later as follows:

Barry, I do not think that this is an appropriate medium to have this conversation. I was preparing to discuss with you on Monday. However, since you demand my immediate response, no I do not plan to tender my resignation. I will send a longer explanation in email.


At 2:01 p.m. that afternoon, LaMonaca sent Russell an email reiterating that she had decided not to resign from Tread. In the same email, LaMonaca advised Russell that she was requesting a medical leave of absence, and that she had scheduled an appointment with her physician:

...As you recognized, even before me, I am suffering from the adverse effects of prolonged exposure to stress. On Friday, you stated that perhaps the very difficult raise process has substantially increased my stress level. A little bit of distance from the situation has given me more perspective and I recognize that I have become increasingly emotionally distressed at work. Both you and my coworkers have observed this on multiple recent occasions demonstrated by my inability to maintain my composure during stressful situations, crying at work, and inability to articulate myself clearly. I believe that this is the result of prolonged exposure to high levels of stress and I am seeking medical treatment for this condition. I have an appointment with my physician on Monday, April 14, 2014 and I will let you know the outcome of the appointment on Tuesday.
In the meantime, I am requesting that Kim [Butler] send me the appropriate FMLA and Short Term Disability paperwork in time for me to take to my appointment on Monday afternoon.

Def.'s Trial Ex. 15. In a reply email sent twenty minutes later, Russell directed LaMonaca to “stay away from the office and off of Tread property until further notice.” Id.

At 3:30 p.m. on Monday, April 14, 2014, LaMonaca was examined by Dr. Sweeney, a board certified family practitioner. Dr. Sweeney diagnosed LaMonaca as suffering from an adjustment disorder with anxious features. Trial Tr. Vol. I at 102. She advised LaMonaca to take a 30–day medical leave of absence and scheduled a follow-up evaluation for May 12, 2014.

LaMonaca contends that she was terminated by email later that day. At 5:35 p.m., Russell sent LaMonaca an email advising her that her employment had ended the previous Friday, and that he had instructed Butler to send her information regarding her accrued leave and COBRA benefits. Pl.'s Trial Ex. 12. A few hours later, Butler called LaMonaca. LaMonaca told Butler that Dr. Sweeney had prescribed a 30–day leave of absence. Trial Tr. Vol. I at 164–65; Trial Tr. Vol. II at 163–64.

LaMonaca testified that she had hoped that Russell would reconsider his termination decision and reinstate her. Trial Tr. Vol. I at 165–66. On April 22, 2014, LaMonaca sent Russell a copy of the work excuse that she had received from Dr. Sweeney and asked that he reconsider the decision to terminate her employment. Pl.'s Trial Ex. 13. In response, Russell advised LaMonaca that her employment ended on April 11, 2014, and that there was no need for her to complete any FMLA paperwork.

Procedural History

LaMonaca filed the instant action against Tread on May 15, 2014, alleging violations of the FMLA. Specifically, LaMonaca claimed that Tread interfered with her rights under the FMLA, and that Tread terminated her in retaliation for exercising, or attempting to exercise, her FMLA rights.

The court denied Tread's motion for summary judgment. On July 6–7, 2015, a bifurcated jury trial was conducted on LaMonaca's claims of interference and retaliation. At the close of LaMonaca's evidence and again before the case was submitted to the jury, Tread moved for judgment as a matter of law. The court denied Tread's motions, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of LaMonaca on both claims. After the jury returned its verdict, LaMonaca and Tread agreed to forego the damages phase of the trial. Instead, the parties stipulated to a back pay award of $54,468.89, including pre-judgment interest, and submitted the issues of liquidated damages, attorneys' fees, and costs to the court for decision. See Docket No. 86.

The case is now before the court on Tread's motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, for a new trial; LaMonaca's motion for liquidated damages; and LaMonaca's motion for attorneys' fees and costs. The court held a hearing on the motions on December 7, 2015. The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for review.

I. Tread's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Tread has moved for judgment as a matter of law on both of LaMonaca's FMLA claims. Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

permits a party to renew its motion for judgment as a matter of law following the jury's verdict. The court may grant such motion only if it finds that “a reasonable jury would not have had a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the [non-moving] party on [a particular] issue.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). The court must view the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Lack v. Wal–Mart Stores, Inc., 240 F.3d 255, 259 (4th Cir.2001). It cannot substitute its judgment for that of the jury by reweighing the evidence or making credibility determinations. Price v. City of Charlotte, 93 F.3d 1241, 1250 (4th Cir.1996). The court should “accord utmost respect to jury verdicts and tread gingerly in reviewing them.” Id. Thus, when a jury has deliberated and returned a verdict...

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