Mac Sparks v. Sunshine Mills, Inc.

Decision Date12 September 2014
Docket NumberNo. 13-14922,13-14922
PartiesDAVID MAC SPARKS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. SUNSHINE MILLS, INC., Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit


Non-Argument Calendar

D.C. Docket No. 3:12-cv-02544-IPJ

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama

Before WILLIAM PRYOR, MARTIN, and FAY, Circuit Judges.


David Mac Sparks appeals summary judgment granted to Sunshine Mills, Inc. ("Sunshine") on his retaliatory-discharge claim, brought under Alabama Code§ 25-5-11.1, and his interference and retaliation claims under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2609-19. We affirm.


Sunshine, a pet-food manufacturing company, owns and operates a plant in Red Bay, Alabama. Sparks began working at the Red Bay plant in June 2006. He worked as an Expander Operator there until Sunshine terminated him on August 5, 2010. As an Expander Operator, Sparks was responsible for operating a machine that made pet food. His duties included adding ingredients to a mixer and sending the ingredients to the expander machine. While operating the machine, Sparks monitored the feed continuously, adjusting moisture levels and other variables as necessary. During Sparks's employment, Michael Myrick was his immediate supervisor, Charles "June" Holland was the Plant Superintendent, and Mark Suiter was the Plant Manager.

Sunshine does not have a written disciplinary policy. Instead, it generally follows a "three write-up rule." R. at 208. Under that rule, an employee typically receives three critical write-ups before being terminated. Holland and Suiter testified, however, that employees are not fired automatically after receiving three write-ups, nor are employees guaranteed future employment by virtue of not having violated the three write-up policy. The Plant Manager, Suiter, had discretion to terminate employees based on the nature and severity of theirinfractions. During depositions, Sparks testified he understood that any actions jeopardizing product quality could lead to disciplinary action, including termination.

On September 17, 2009, Holland issued Sparks a write-up for running feed at the wrong density, a production error that could have resulted in termination had Sparks not improved his performance. On April 19, 2010, Sparks allegedly received another write-up after he improperly ran feed and failed to make necessary adjustments, which caused the feed to blow apart. Sparks contested the validity of the write-up, however, because it was unsigned by any supervisor.

While sweeping at work, on June 7, 2010, Sparks stepped backward into a hole and twisted his ankle. He saw a doctor the same day, received an ankle brace and pain medication, and returned to work a few days later with no restrictions. Sparks subsequently filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits.

On July 7, 2010, Sparks returned to the doctor, who directed him to continue using the ankle brace and taking medication. The doctor also directed Sparks to attend physical therapy. During his deposition, Sparks testified he did not discuss the possibility of ankle surgery with his doctor during the July 7 visit. In a later declaration, however, Sparks changed his testimony and stated he had discussed the possibility of surgery with his doctor on July 7.

On July 27, 2010, Sparks received another write-up for failing to adjust the feed flow on the trolley, which caused the bed to run over onto a catwalk and locked up the trolley. Sparks disputed in the district court that the July 27 incident constituted a production error on his part, because the trolley already had been locked up, when he started the machine.

On July 28, 2010, Sparks again saw his doctor, who ordered an MRI and a nerve conduction test to determine whether Sparks would need surgery. Sparks testified that he told Myrick later that day that "it was looking like it was very possible [he was] going to have to have surgery." R. at 253. Sparks asserted he informed Holland of his possible need for surgery the next day, on July 29, 2010. Sparks could not recall whether he informed Suiter of his ankle injury or his possible need for surgery. Sparks testified he did not specifically request FMLA leave for possible surgery.

On August 3, 2010, Sparks was written up for another incident involving feed quality. According to Sunshine, Sparks failed to make proper adjustments to the feed and failed to ensure the bad feed was sent to regrind, which resulted in 35,000 pounds of contaminated pet food. Sparks did not dispute the August 3 incident occurred, but he argued the incident was not his fault.

On August 4, 2010, Sparks took the day off to receive an MRI on his ankle. When he returned to work on August 5, 2010, Sunshine terminated hisemployment. Sunshine asserted it had terminated him for running bad feed and for failing to take steps he had taken as a matter of routine for years.

On April 27, 2011, Sparks executed a Petition to Approve Worker's Compensation Settlement Agreement with Sunshine, which stated the following:

6. Plaintiff and defendant have agreed upon, subject to court approval, a lump sum settlement of $2,200.00. This settlement is based upon the permanent partial disability rating to the leg. This amount shall be accepted by the employee as a full and final settlement of all claims of the employee for compensation benefits, whether in the nature of temporary partial or total; permanent partial or total; and or past, present or future vocational rehabilitation benefits.
. . . .

8. Plaintiff understands that this settlement, if approved, is a compromise of all claims which Plaintiff may now have or may have in the future as a result of this injury, and that no further Worker's Compensation benefits, vocational rehabilitation or vocational rehabilitation expenses will be paid as a result of the aforesaid accident and injury.

R. at 556. An Alabama circuit judge approved the settlement agreement and noted the agreement was a "settlement of all compensation and vocational and rehabilitation benefits due [Sparks] under the Alabama Worker's Compensation Act." R. at 558.

On July 25, 2012, Sparks filed the instant federal complaint against Sunshine, alleging Sunshine had violated Alabama Code § 25-5-11.1, when it discharged him in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim with respect to his on-the-job ankle injury. He further alleged Sunshine had violated the FMLAby (1) interfering with his right to take FMLA leave to have reconstructive ankle surgery, and (2) retaliating against him after he had stated his potential need for FMLA leave.

Sunshine moved for summary judgment on all claims and argued Sparks had released his claims in the settlement of his workers' compensation claim. Alternatively, Sunshine argued Sparks's claims failed on the merits, because he had not established a prima facie case of retaliatory discharge under Alabama law or interference or retaliation under the FMLA.

The district judge found Sparks had released Sunshine of liability for his Alabama Code § 25-5-11.1 retaliatory-discharge claim, because the Alabama Supreme Court, in Gates Rubber Co. v. Cantrell, 678 So. 2d 754, 755-56 (Ala. 1996), and Sanders v. Southern Risk Services, 603 So. 2d 994, 995-96 (Ala. 1992), had held that a general release in a workers' compensation settlement agreement precluded the employee from subsequently asserting a retaliatory-discharge claim against his employer. The judge nevertheless addressed Sparks's retaliatory-discharge claim on the merits and concluded Sparks had failed to establish a prima facie case.

The judge determined Sparks had not released his FMLA claims in his workers' compensation settlement agreement. Relying on Pereda v. Brookdale Senior Living Communities, Inc., 666 F.3d 1269 (11th Cir. 2012), the judge foundthe FMLA entitled Sparks to protection from interference, even if his triggering event never occurred or would not eventually qualify for FMLA leave. Nevertheless, the judge determined the claim failed, because Sparks's statement that "it was very possible that [he] was going to have to have surgery" was insufficient to put Sunshine on notice of Sparks's intent to invoke his right to take FMLA leave. R. at 803. For the same reason, the judge found Sparks could not establish a prima facie case of FMLA retaliation, because he could not prove he had engaged in statutorily protected activity or his termination of employment was causally related to statutorily protected activity. Accordingly, the judge granted Sunshine's motion for summary judgment on all of Sparks's claims and dismissed the case with prejudice.

A. Waiver of Alabama Code § 25-5-11.1 Retaliatory-Discharge Claim

On appeal, Sparks argues the district judge erred by finding that the release in his workers' compensation settlement agreement extended to his retaliatory-discharge claim. He asserts Sanders and Cantrell are distinguishable from his case, because the releases at issue in those cases contained "or otherwise" language and were therefore much broader than the release in his settlement agreement. He further contends the Alabama Supreme Court would not followSanders and Cantrell today, based on its more recent decision in Dudley v. Mesa Industries, 770 So. 2d 1082, 1084 (Ala. 2000).

We review a district judge's granting summary judgment de novo and view all evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Chapter 7 Tr. v. Gate Gourmet, Inc., 683 F.3d 1249, 1254 (11th Cir. 2012). Summary judgment is proper only "when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "A genuine [dispute] of material fact exists when a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id.

In Sanders, the Supreme Court of Alabama examined whether an employee's Alabama Code §...

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