PagáN–ColóN v. Walgreens of San Patricio, Inc.

Decision Date04 September 2012
Docket Number11–1091.,Nos. 11–1089,s. 11–1089
Citation697 F.3d 1
PartiesJuan C. PAGÁN–COLÓN; Ada I. Renta–Bonilla; Conjugal Partnership Pagán–Renta, Plaintiffs, Appellees, Cross–Appellants, v. WALGREENS OF SAN PATRICIO, INC., Defendant, Appellant, Cross–Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Gregory T. Usera, with whom Natalia Villavicencio and Usera, Figueroa & Giner, P.S.C. were on brief, for appellant.

Jorge Martínez–Luciano, with whom Alfredo Acevedo–Cruz was on brief, for appellees.

Before LYNCH, Chief Judge, TORRUELLA and LIPEZ, Circuit Judges.

LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.

This case arises from the termination of the plaintiff-appellee, Juan Pagán–Colón, from his job as an assistant manager at a Walgreens store in Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico. Although the parties disagree as to the reason for Pagán's termination, there is no dispute that he was fired after a two-week absence from his job due to a medical condition that required one week of hospitalization and another week of recuperation. Following Pagán's termination, he and his wife, Ada Renta–Bonilla, brought claims in federal district court against Walgreens alleging that he was fired in retaliation for conduct protected by the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601–54; that his termination was wrongful under Puerto Rico law; and that the loss of Pagán's job caused Renta to suffer emotional distress compensable under Puerto Rico law. After the district court granted summary judgment for Walgreens on Renta's claim and the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the other Puerto Rico law claim, the FMLA claim went to trial and a jury found in Pagán's favor, awarding compensatory damages.

On appeal, Walgreens argues that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the FMLA claim and that the district court erred in denying a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) motion to amend the judgment. In turn, Pagán and Renta argue that the court erred in denying liquidated damages on the FMLA claim and in granting Walgreens summary judgment on Renta's Puerto Rico law claim.

For the reasons described below, we affirm the judgment of the district court in all respects, save its rejection of Renta's Puerto Rico law claim. That claim presents an important and unresolved issue of Puerto Rico law that we decline to address in the first instance. Accordingly, we certify the question to the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico and reserve judgment on this particular issue pending its response. Additionally, as a matter of first impression, we conclude that a backpay award under the FMLA may include overtime compensation.

I.
A. Factual Background

As we are called upon to review the denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law, we review the evidence “in the light most favorable to the verdict” in favor of Pagán. Alvarado–Santos v. Dep't. of Health, 619 F.3d 126, 132 (1st Cir.2010).

1. Pagán's Hospitalization and Discharge

Pagán began working for Walgreens in September 2000. By the time of his discharge in 2008, he had been promoted to assistant manager of the Walgreens store in Juana Díaz. On May 10, 2008, Pagán reported for work at 4 a.m., but shortly thereafter he began to experience chest pains, heart palpitations, and sweating. His symptoms worsened that morning, and during his 9 a.m. break he went to the emergency room at a local hospital. Already suffering from type II diabetes, he was found to have high blood sugar and high blood pressure, and he asked hospital staff to contact his wife, Renta.

When Renta arrived, Pagán asked her to contact Edwin Figueroa, the manager of the store at which he worked, and tell Figueroa that he was in the hospital and unsure when he could return to work. She did so immediately after leaving the emergency room at approximately 10 a.m. She also called the store twice more that day to give updates on Pagán's condition and inform those at the store of his admission to the hospital. Pagán was hospitalized from May 10 to 17, and he underwent a cardiac catheterization surgical procedure on May 16. During his hospitalization, he was in contact with co-workers, including another assistant manager whom he told of his upcoming surgical procedure.

Pagán was discharged from the hospital on May 17. That day, he went to the Walgreens store at which he worked to pick up prescription medication and deliver a medical certificate explaining his absence. He met with assistant manager Mariel Colón, who was the most senior employee present at the time, and bookkeeper Wanda Santiago. During this meeting, he told Colón that his doctors had ordered him to rest at home for one week and he presented the medical certificate to Santiago, a fact verified by that day's surveillance video footage from the store and stipulated by the parties at trial. However, Figueroa, the store's manager, testified that news of Pagán's hospitalization, physician-ordered recuperative rest, and delivery of the medical certificate was not communicated to him.

2. Pagán's Termination

After consultation with the Walgreens district supervisor and corporate legal counsel, Figueroa sent a letter dated May 19 to Pagán, stating that he had not heard from Pagán and had no explanation for his extended absence. The letter asked that Pagán contact Walgreens management to determine his eligibility for disability leave, and stated that if he did not do so within 48 hours there might be “negative consequences for [his] job.” Pagán did not receive this letter until May 28,1 well after the expiration of the 48–hour deadline, and Figueroa never called Pagán or made any other attempt to get in touch with him. On May 23, having not heard from Pagán, Figueroa again consulted with the district supervisor and legal counsel, and the decision was made to terminate Pagán's employmentwith the understanding that he had abandoned his job.

Unaware of this decision, Pagán went to the store that same day to let others know that he was available to return to work the following day and to determine what his work schedule would be. He spoke with assistant manager Ivelisse López, who agreed to speak with other managers and let Pagán know when she learned of his schedule. After Figueroa became aware of Pagán's visit, he asked López to contact Pagán with instructions to come into the store to meet with him at 8 a.m. the following day. When Pagán came to work on May 24, Figueroa told him that he was fired and asked him to return his keys to the store. Figueroa offered no explanation for the termination. When Pagán asked for one, Figueroa simply told him to contact Walgreens' corporate offices. After trying unsuccessfully for several days to contact someone at Walgreens' corporate offices by phone, Pagán went to the office in person and was able to meet with Miriam Díaz of Walgreens' Human Resources Department. Díaz was also unable to explain his termination, but she said that she would look into the matter and give Pagán an answer.

Upon realizing that Pagán had documentation of his hospitalization and doctor-ordered rest, Figueroa, in consultation with the Walgreens district manager and Walgreens legal counsel, decided to reconsider his termination. On June 3, Figueroa called Pagán to ask him to come to the store to be interviewed. The next day, Pagán met with Figueroa and another Walgreens employee and described to them the circumstances of his hospitalization and attempts to notify Walgreens of his absence. After this meeting, Figueroa attempted to verify Pagán's account by talking with the Walgreens employees that Pagán claimed that he or his wife had contacted. According to Figueroa, at least one individual that Pagán claimed his wife had contacted had no recollection of the call, and neither of the individuals that Pagán met with on May 17 recalled receiving a medical certificate from him. Accordingly, Figueroa concluded that Pagán had lied to him during the investigation and, again in consultation with the district manager and legal counsel, Figueroa decided to terminate Pagán for his dishonesty—a decision that Walgreens insists was entirely independent of Pagán's hospitalization and related absence. Accordingly, on June 6, Pagán was notified that his termination was confirmed, but the basis was changed from his two-week absence to his alleged dishonesty during the investigation.

B. Procedural History

Shortly after his discharge, Pagán and his wife filed a complaint against Walgreens in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. They raised several claims, including: 1) retaliation under the FMLA, 2) wrongful termination in violation of Puerto Rico Law 80, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 29, §§ 185a–185m, and 3) damages under Articles 1802 and 1803 of the Puerto Rico Civil Code, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31, §§ 5141–5142. The district court granted summary judgment for Walgreens on the Article 1802 and 1803 claims, and the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their Law 80 claim during the course of the trial. Accordingly, only the FMLA claim was submitted to the jury.

At the close of evidence, Walgreens moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, but the court denied the motion and submitted the case to the jury. The jury rendered a judgment in favor of Pagán, awarding him $100,000 in damages. Sua sponte, the court ordered remittitur, reducing the award to $47,145 to match Pagán's estimated lost wages (including overtime) and account for earnings at a new job that mitigated damages. The court also denied Pagán's request for additional liquidated damages under the FMLA.2 Finally, the court considered dueling Rule 59(e) motions to amend the judgment. It allowed Pagán's motion to grant prejudgment interest on the award, but denied Walgreens' motion seeking to eliminate or reduce the overtime pay included in the damages award.

On appeal, Walgreens challenges the district court's denial of its Rule 50 and 59(e) motions. With regard to the...

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