Rivera-Melendez v. Pfizer Pharm. Inc.

Decision Date21 October 2011
Docket NumberCIVIL NO.: 10-1012 (MEL)
PartiesLUIS A. RIVERA-Meléndez, et. al., Plaintiff, v. PFIZER PHARMACEUTICAL, INC., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Puerto Rico
OPINION AND ORDER
I. PROCEDURAL POSTURE

On August 31, 2010, plaintiff Luis A. Rivera-Meléndez ("plaintiff" or "Rivera") and the conjugal partnership comprised of him and his wife (the "conjugal partnership") filed an amended complaint in the present action against plaintiff's employer, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, LLC ("defendant" or "Pfizer"), asserting claims pursuant to (1) the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act ("USERRA"), 38 U.S.C. §§ 4301-4335, and (2) Articles 1802 and 1803 of the Puerto Rico Civil Code, P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 31 §§ 5141-5142 (Dkt. No. 58.) Defendant filed its answer to the amended complaint on September 3, 2010 (Dkt. No. 66.) On October 19, 2010, this court dismissed all of the conjugal partnership's claims and plaintiff's Article 1802 and 1803 claims (Dkt. No. 74). Pending before the court are defendant's motion for summary judgment requesting to dismiss all of plaintiff's remaining USERRA claims and plaintiff's response in opposition. (Dkt. Nos. 108; 109; 115; 116.)

II. SUMMARY OF UNCONTESTED FACTS.

Luis Rivera-Meléndez has been employed by Pfizer for seventeen years at their pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 1; 115-1, ¶ 1.) He earned his associates degree in Chemistry from the Technological Institute of Manatí in 1993 and a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from the Pontifical Catholic University at Arecibo in 2010. (Dkt. Nos. 115-1, P. 12, L. ¶ 9, ¶ 10; 115-3, P. 20, L. 20-22, P. 21, L. 7-16; 121-1, ¶ 1, 9.) Rivera began at Pfizer as a Chemical Operator Trainee and, after various promotions, became an Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient ("API") Group Leader in 2004. (Dkt. No. 108-1, ¶ 2; 115-1, ¶ 2.) He currently works at Pfizer in the API Department as a Service Coordinator. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 5; 115-1, ¶ 5.)

Rivera is also a member of the United States Naval Reserve ("U.S. Navy"). He has been called to active duty twice during his employment at Pfizer. (Dkt. Nos. 108-8, P. 224, L. 3.; 115-3, P. 224, L. 3.) It was Rivera's second tour of duty, from December 5, 2008 to October 21, 2009, that gave rise to the instant controversy. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 3; 115-1, ¶ 3.)

Plaintiff's Claim for Pre-Deployment Training Pay

On October 11, 2008, plaintiff received an activation notice from the U.S. Navy calling him to serve in Iraq beginning December 5, 2008. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1 ¶ 10; 115-1, ¶ 10.) Rivera promptly brought the notice to Lissette Guerra ("Guerra"), Pfizer's Senior Human Resources Specialist, and informed her that he would need to take military leave. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1 ¶ 11; 115-1, ¶ 11.) Guerra instructed Rivera to periodically send his military payroll records while on leave in order to calculate the differential pay that Pfizer provides to employees on military leave. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 12; 115-1, ¶ 12.) Subsequently, plaintiff received notice from the Navy that he would also need to attend apre-mobilization training on November 10, November 12-26, and December 1. (Dkt. No. 108-1, ¶ 13.)1 While this training was part of his deployment orders, the information about the training was not included in the original activation notice that he had shown to Guerra (Dkt. Nos. 108-6, P. 90-94; 115-3, ¶ 91.) When Rivera informed Guerra about the training and requested paid leave, she asked to see evidence that he was ordered to attend the training to determine whether he was eligible to be compensated for it under Pfizer's policy. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 14; 108-10, P. 70; 115-1, ¶ 14.)2 In her deposition, Guerra clarified that she was not sure if the training was related to his mobilization or whether it was an annual optional training. (Dkt. No. 108-10, P. 70, L. 7-21.) If the training were optional, then Rivera would not be entitled to paid leave under Pfizer's military leave policy. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1 ¶ 14; 115-7, P. 71.) While plaintiff was at the training in November, he sent Guerra the documentation she had requested, showing the dates of training and its purpose. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 15; 115-1, ¶ 15.) Guerra then determined that plaintiff was entitled to pay for the time he attended the training, which he received on or before December 21, 2008. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 19; Dkt. No. 115-1, ¶ 19.)3

Plaintiff's Reinstatement as API Service Coordinator

While plaintiff was serving in Iraq, the API Department at Pfizer's Barceloneta facility underwent a restructuring. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 20; 115-1, ¶ 20.) The company's human resources management team decided to eliminate the API Group Leader position and replace it with two separate positions: the API Team Leader and the API Service Coordinator. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 21; 115-1, ¶ 21.) Pfizer management met with the API Group Leaders at the plant and informed them that their positions were being eliminated, and that they could apply for one of the seven API Team Leader job openings (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 21; 115-1, ¶ 21.) No employee was guaranteed a position; rather, they had to meet the qualifications and present their job applications in an open, competitive process. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 22, 29; 115-1, ¶ 29.)4 The API Group Leaders were informed that if they did not obtain one of the Team Leader positions, they would have three options: (1) to apply for the Service Coordinator position, that would be created at a later date, (2) to be demoted to the Senior API Operator position, or (3) to participate in a voluntary separation option. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 21; 115-1, ¶ 21.) In March 2009, the new job openings were posted, while plaintiff was still on active duty in Iraq. (Dkt. No. 75.)5

According to Pfizer Human Resources employees Camilo Padín-Cruz (" Padín-Cruz") , an HR Senior Specialist, and María del Pilar Sastre, Employee Relations Lead, it is not Pfizer's customor practice to notify employees on leave about new job openings. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 24; 108-13, ¶ 8; 108-3, ¶ 17.) Plaintiff disputes this because, according to his wife, Wanda Otero, Guerra called plaintiff's cell phone in Puerto Rico to inform him that the API Group Leader position was being eliminated. (Dkt. No. 115-1, ¶ 24, 26.) Guerra, however, only mentioned the elimination of the Group Leader position; she did not provide any information about the Team Leader job opening and how to apply for it. (Dkt. No. 115-11, P. 53, L. 18-29, P. 54, L. 6-9.) Otero, who is also a Pfizer employee, had in fact applied for the Team Leader position and informed plaintiff of this while he was in Iraq. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 26; 115-1, ¶ 26.)6

After he was honorably discharged from active military service, plaintiff contacted Pfizer on October 15, 2009 to request reinstatement, and he returned to work on October 22, 2009. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 30; 115-1, ¶ 30.) The parties dispute whether plaintiff was reinstated to his former position as API Group Leader or to a lower-level position. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 4; 115-1, ¶ 4.) Defendant's proffered evidence establishes that plaintiff was indeed reinstated to his prior API Group Leader position as far as his official title was concerned; however, because the position had been effectively eliminated, he was assigned to "special projects," which were essentially the duties of the Service Coordinator position to which he would eventually be transferred. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 4; 108-3, ¶ 21; 108-7, P. 143, L. 16-20, P. 148, L. 12-13; 115-4, P. 57, L. 16-22.) Plaintiff's salary and benefits remained the same, but he had reduced job responsibilities. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 33, ¶ 37; 115-1, ¶ 27; 108-7, P. 163.)

Plaintiff remained an API Group Leader, performing special projects duties while the final details of the Service Coordinator position were decided by Pfizer management. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 34; 115-1, ¶ 34.) Rivera was formally appointed to the Service Coordinator position on May 17, 2010. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 37; 115-1, ¶ 37.) In this position, he also received the same compensation, but fewer responsibilities than he had as an API Group Leader. (Dkt. No. 108-1, ¶ 37; 115-1, ¶ 37; 115-3, P. 164, L. 13-18.) In his deposition, plaintiff stated that he would have liked to have had the opportunity to apply for an API Team Leader position and that he believed he was qualified for the position. (Dkt. Nos. 108-8; 115-3, P. 224, P. 227, L. 5-15, L. 19-24.) In December of 2010, however, a new API Team Leader position became available but Rivera did not apply for it. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 52; 115-1, L. 19-24, ¶.)

Plaintiff's Claim for Benefits of Employment After Reinstatment

Under Pfizer's military policy, plaintiff was entitled to be paid the difference between his military salary and his Pfizer salary if the military pay was lower. (Dkt. No. 108-1, ¶ 39.) While on active duty, plaintiff was paid in accordance with this policy.7 (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 39; 108-7, P. 172, L. 8-24.)

On December 7, 2009, plaintiff sent an e-mail to Padín-Cruz requesting a salary increase for 2009 and a 2009 Christmas bonus, neither of which he had received. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 40; 115-1, ¶ 40.) Subsequently, Rivera received a pay raise retroactive to the date of his reinstatement, October 22, 2009. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 48; 115-1, ¶ 48.) Rivera was informed that he was not entitled to either of the annual Christmas bonuses that Pfizer provides. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 49; 115-1, ¶ 49.)Rivera was ineligible for the annual Christmas bonus mandated by Puerto Rico law ("the statutory bonus") because he had not worked the requisite 700 hours during the past year as required by that law. (Dkt. Nos. 108-1, ¶ 49; 115-1, ¶ 49 .) Defendant claims that Rivera was also ineligible for the one-hundred dollar Christmas bonus provided under Pfizer's Pay Practices Policy ("the Pfizer Christmas bonus") because he was not an "active employee" on September 30, 2009....

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