Martin v. Brevard County Public Schools

Decision Date30 September 2008
Docket NumberNo. 07-11196.,07-11196.
Citation543 F.3d 1261
PartiesAnthony G. MARTIN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. BREVARD COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS, an entity of the State of Florida, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Daniel Arturo Perez, Bogin, Munns & Munns, Melbourne, FL, for Martin.

Michael Harrison Bowling, Bell, Roper & Kohlmyer, P.A., Orlando, FL, for Defendant-Appellee.

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

Before EDMONDSON, Chief Judge, and KRAVITCH and ALARCÓN,* Circuit Judges.

PER CURIAM:

Anthony G. Martin ("Martin") appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment to Brevard County Public Schools (the "School District") on his claims for interference and retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654 ("FMLA"). We vacate the judgment and remand the case for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

In January 2000, the School District hired Martin as a payroll supervisor. Martin worked for the School District on a contractual basis subject to annual renewal by the school board. By its terms, Martin's last contract with the School District expired on 30 June 2004.

During his time with the School District, Martin lived with his wife and daughters. In late 2003, Martin's daughter, Brittany, a student and member of the Army Reserve, gave birth to Hannah: Martin's granddaughter. Martin provided Brittany and Hannah substantial financial support, furnishing them with a home, utilities, transportation, food, money for expenses, and health insurance. Hannah's biological father did not live in Martin's home; Brittany was a single mother.

Michael Degutis, Assistant Superintendent of Finance for the School District, was Martin's immediate supervisor and responsible for evaluating Martin's performance. On Martin's 2001 and 2002 performance reviews, he received a "professional level" rating—the highest rating possible—in the "Overall Evaluation" category. The following year, on his 2003 performance review, Martin received a "professional level" rating in all ten performance categories, including the "Overall Evaluation" category. According to the School District, however, Martin's later performance did not remain at this exemplary level.

On 19 April 2004, Degutis gave Martin an interim performance review. In that evaluation, Martin received a "professional level" rating in three categories, a "needs improvement" rating in five categories, and an "unsatisfactory level" rating in two categories. Degutis also presented Martin with an improvement plan, which afforded Martin through 1 June 2004 "to demonstrate significant progress as outlined ... in the improvement plan."

Around the same time, the Army Reserve informed Brittany that her unit was called to active duty and would soon be deployed overseas. On 29 April 2004, Martin submitted to the School District a written request for twelve weeks of FMLA leave to care for Hannah beginning on 7 May 2004. Martin presented this explanation: "Due to unforeseeable events, I have day-to-day responsibility for caring for my granddaughter and stand `in loco parentis.' These responsibilities include caring for and financially supporting her. She is less than 12-months old...."

Degutis approved Martin's request for FMLA leave from 7 May through 30 June but not beyond the expiration of Martin's contract. Martin's FMLA leave overlapped with the period set out in Martin's improvement plan. According to Martin, he relied on Degutis's approval "as proof that [he] was FMLA[-]eligible and that [his] reasons were FMLA-qualifying." He would not have taken leave had it not been approved as FMLA-qualifying.

After granting Martin FMLA leave, Degutis consulted with several senior School District employees, including the Director of Human Resources, the Director of Compensation/Benefits, and the Deputy Superintendent. Those people informed Degutis that Martin's contract with the School District, which expired on 30 June 2004, would not be renewed if FMLA leave prohibited Martin from fulfilling his improvement plan. Degutis informed Martin of this position on 3 May 2004 and asked that Martin sign a statement to that effect. Martin refused to sign.

On 7 May 2004, Martin took FMLA leave as scheduled. But Brittany was never deployed. Instead, she continued to attend school and to satisfy her occasional Army Reserve obligations, just as she had done before Martin requested FMLA leave. When Brittany was at home, Martin assisted her in feeding and bathing Hannah and changing Hannah's diaper. When Brittany was at school, which occurred about four days a week for three or four hours a day and some evenings, or was periodically away for weekend Army Reserve drills, Martin was solely responsible for caring for Hannah. Martin continued to provide Brittany and Hannah financial support during this period.

While Martin was on FMLA leave, Degutis recommended to the human resources department that Martin's contract not be renewed. The School District followed that recommendation. On 21 June 2004, Martin received a letter from Degutis stating that the School District did not renew Martin's contract because Martin failed to complete his improvement plan. The School District concedes that this notification was in effect a termination of Martin's employment. Martin's last day with the School District was 30 June 2004.

Martin sued the School District for interfering with certain of his FMLA rights and for retaliating against him for taking FMLA leave. The School District moved for summary judgment on Martin's claims, which the district court granted. The district court concluded that Martin was not entitled to FMLA leave, as "no reasonable jury could find that [Martin] stood in loco parentis in this situation," and that the School District was not estopped from challenging Martin's in loco parentis status. The district court, in an abundance of caution, also analyzed the substance of Martin's claims and concluded that they were without merit. Martin appeals.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review de novo an order granting summary judgment. Drago v. Jenne, 453 F.3d 1301, 1305 (11th Cir.2006). In doing so, we view "the evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn from it in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Battle v. Bd. of Regents, 468 F.3d 755, 759 (11th Cir.2006). We will affirm summary judgment only if no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

DISCUSSION

Martin raises several issues on appeal. As an initial matter, Martin contends that he stood in loco parentis to Hannah and was therefore entitled to FMLA leave to care for her. But even if his leave were not FMLA-qualifying, Martin also claims that the School District was estopped from challenging his entitlement to that leave because the School District originally approved his leave request. In addition, Martin points to various supposed errors in the district court's substantive analysis of his FMLA claims. We address each issue in turn.

A. Martin's Entitlement to FMLA Leave

The FMLA affords an eligible employee twelve weeks of unpaid leave in any one-year period "[b]ecause of the birth of a son or daughter of the employee and in order to care for such son or daughter." 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a). A son or daughter "means a biological, adopted, or foster child, a stepchild, a legal ward, or a child of a person standing in loco parentis." Id. § 2611(12). Martin sought FMLA leave to care for Hannah on the basis of in loco parentis status.1

The phrase in loco parentis literally means "in the place of a parent." Black's Law Dictionary 791 (7th ed.1999). According to its generally accepted common law meaning, in loco parentis "refers to a person who has put himself in the situation of a lawful parent by assuming the obligations incident to the parental relation without going through the formalities necessary to legal adoption." Dillon v. Maryland-Nat'l Capital Park & Planning Comm'n, 382 F.Supp.2d 777, 786 (D.Md. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Department of Labor has further defined in loco parentis under the FMLA to include persons with the "day-to-day responsibility to care for and financially support a child .... A biological or legal relationship is not necessary." 29 C.F.R. § 825.113(c)(3).

We cannot agree with the district court that no reasonable jury could find that Martin stood in loco parentis to Hannah while he was on FMLA leave. During that period, Martin provided Brittany and Hannah substantial financial support, including a home, food, and health insurance. Martin also played a significant role in caring for Hannah even though Brittany was never deployed overseas: he helped with Hannah when Brittany was at home; and he assumed sole responsibility for Hannah when Brittany was at school or Army Reserve drills. We cannot say as a matter of law that Martin stood in loco parentis to Hannah; nor can we say that he did not. Martin has presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact, and the district court erred in concluding otherwise.

Martin argues that the School District should be estopped from challenging his entitlement to FMLA leave because it originally approved his leave request. Martin recognizes that this Court has not yet adopted the estoppel doctrine in the FMLA context, but nevertheless asks us to follow the lead of other courts that have done so. We need not accept Martin's invitation, however; the estoppel doctrine, as a matter of law, would not apply here in any event.

The equitable doctrine of estoppel is invoked "to avoid injustice in particular cases." Heckler v. Cmty. Health Servs. of Crawford County, Inc., 467 U.S. 51, 104 S.Ct. 2218, 2221, 81 L.Ed.2d 42 (1984). A party claiming estoppel must show, among other things,2 that the party to be estopped misrepresented material facts despite being aware of...

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