Spears v. La. Dep't of Pub. Safety & Corr., Civil Action No. 12–624–SDD–RLB.

Decision Date07 March 2014
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 12–624–SDD–RLB.
Citation2 F.Supp.3d 873
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Louisiana
PartiesJames SPEARS v. LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY AND CORRECTIONS.

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

J. Arthur Smith, III, Adrienne Danielle Rachel, Smith Law Firm, Baton Rouge, LA, for Plaintiff.

Margaret A. Collier, Baton Rouge, LA, for Defendant.

RULING

SHELLY D. DICK, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Defendant, Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (Defendant) 1 and the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment filed by the Plaintiff, James Spears (Plaintiff).2 Both parties have filed Oppositions to the opposing motions.3 For the reasons which follow, the Court finds that the Defendant's motion should be granted in part and denied in part, and Plaintiffs motion should be denied.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND4

Plaintiff was hired by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections on August 2, 2000, in the position of Corrections Master Sergeant at Jetson Center for Youth.5 On May 1, 2011, the Plaintiff notified the Defendant about his second job with Allied Barton Security, which employed Plaintiff as a security officer at the Mall of Louisiana. Plaintiff was required to make this notification by the Report of Actual/Planned Other Employment and Compensation form. On May 2, 2011, the Defendant approved Plaintiffs request to work this second job with Allied Barton Security. 6

On August 23, 2011, Plaintiff was diagnosed with reaction anxiety and depression by his treating physician, Dr. Richard Rathbone.7 Dr. Rathbone prescribed a course of treatment which included prescription medication for anxiety and depression, and Dr. Rathbone recommended that Plaintiff take a leave of absence from Jetson until October 17, 2011.8

Pursuant to Dr. Rathbone's recommendations, Plaintiff submitted a leave request under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to the Defendant on August 31, 2011,9 On the request form, Dr. Rathbone wrote that the Plaintiff could not work due to stress. He also wrote that Plaintiff was “unable to work at all during this time,” and that Plaintiff was “totally incapacitatedduring this time.” 10 The Defendant approved Plaintiff's leave request and Plaintiff began taking FMLA leave.11

On October 17, 2011, the date Plaintiff was to return to Jetson, Dr. Rathbone determined that Plaintiff was unable to return until November 28, 2011. 12 Dr. Rathbone submitted a medical excuse, and the Defendant again granted Plaintiff's leave request.13 During this time, Dr. Rathbone encouraged Plaintiff to work elsewhere as long as he was away from the particular stresses of the work environment at Jetson.14 Thus, Plaintiff continued his job as a security guard for the mall.

Upon Plaintiffs return to work at Jetson, the Defendant investigated whether the Plaintiff had been eligible for FMLA and sick leave. The Defendant had received information that Plaintiff had continued his mall security officer job while on leave from Jetson.15 The investigation revealed that Plaintiff had worked over 400 hours for Allied Barton during the time that he was on FMLA and sick leave from Jetson. Plaintiff was terminated on May 13, 2012 for allegedly violating various Jetson rules, particularly for misrepresenting his inability to work in his FMLA leave request.16

Plaintiff filed suit against the Defendant, arguing that the Defendant violated the FMLA's notice requirements, interfered with Plaintiff's FMLA leave, and retaliated against him for taking FMLA leave. The Defendant moves for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims.

II. LAW AND ANALYSISA. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment should be granted if the record, taken as a whole, “together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” 17 The Supreme Court has interpreted the plain language of Rule 56(c) to mandate “the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” 18 A party moving for summary judgment “must ‘demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact,’ but need not negate the elements of the nonmovant's case.” 19 If the moving party “fails to meet this initial burden, the motion must be denied, regardless of the nonmovant's response.” 20

If the moving party meets this burden, Rule 56(c) requires the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and show by affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file, or other admissible evidence that specific facts exist over which there is a genuine issue for trial.21 The nonmovant's burden may not be satisfied by conclusory allegations, unsubstantiated assertions, metaphysical doubt as to the facts, or a scintilla of evidence.22 Factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the nonmovant, “but only when there is an actual controversy, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” 23 The Court will not, “in the absence of any proof, assume that the nonmoving party could or would prove the necessary facts.” 24 Unless there is sufficient evidence for a jury to return a verdict in the nonmovant's favor, there is no genuine issue for trial.25

B. Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”)

Congress enacted the FMLA to permit eligible employees “to take reasonable leave for medical reasons, for the birth or adoption of a child, and for the care of a child, spouse, or parent who has a serious health condition.” 26 The statute guarantees eligible employees a total of twelve weeks of leave in a one-year period when the leave relates to an employee's serious medical condition.27 Upon the employee's timely return, the employer must reinstate the employee “to the same position as previously held or a comparable position with equivalent pay, benefits, and working conditions.” 28

The FMLA prohibits an employer from interfering with, restraining, or denying the exercise or attempted exercise of an employee's right to take FMLA leave. 29 The statute also makes it unlawful for an employer to discharge or retaliate in any other manner against an individual for opposing the employer's unlawful FMLA practices.30 Plaintiff claims that the Defendant interfered with his right to take leave under the FMLA, failed to comply with the posting and notice requirements set forth by the FMLA, and retaliated against him for requesting and taking FMLA leave. The Court addresses each claim below.

1. FMLA Interference

To establish a prima facie interference case, a plaintiff must show that: (1) he was an eligible employee, (2) the Defendant was an employer subject to the FMLA's requirements, (3) he was entitled to leave, (4) he gave proper notice of his intention to take FMLA leave, and (5) the Defendant denied him the benefits to which he was entitled under the FMLA 31 The Court finds that only prong five is in question in this case.32

In order for Plaintiff to prevail, he must have been terminated while he was availing himself of the FMLA rights to which he was entitled.33 The Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to present summary judgment evidence to establish that the Defendant denied him the benefits to which he was entitled under the FMLA. The record reflects that the Defendant's request for FMLA leave was granted and later extended beyond the allowable time. It was not until Plaintiff returned to work that the Defendant terminated him, allegedly for false representations on his FMLA request and other employee conduct violations.

The Court finds that Plaintiffs interference claim is essentially a retaliation claim, which has already been alleged, styled as an interference claim. Plaintiff argues that he can maintain an interference claim because his “summary judgment evidence in this case is sufficient to set forth triable issues of fact as to whether the employer respected Mr. Spears' statutory right to take FMLA leave or whether it considered his taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in the decision to terminate him.” 34 It is often noted that, [b]ecause of the similarity between the evidence for FMLA retaliation and FMLA interference when the interference claimed is termination or elimination of the position, many courts doubt the validity of these claims when styled as interference claims.” 35 The Court finds that the Plaintiff's interference claim is essentially the same as his retaliation claim; therefore, summary judgment shall be granted in favor of the Defendant on Plaintiff's interference claim.

2. Notice Requirements Under the FMLA

Plaintiff claims that the Defendant violated the posting and notice requirements of the FMLA.36 The FMLA contains a general notice provision requiring that employers “keep posted, in conspicuous places ... a notice ... setting forth excerpts from, or summaries of, the pertinent provisions of this subchapter and information pertaining to the filing of a charge.” 37 The FMLA itself does not contain any more specific requirements governing notice to employees. However, it does contain a provision directing the Secretary of Labor (“Secretary”) to “prescribe such regulations as are necessary to carry out” the FMLA.38 Pursuant to this directive, the Secretary issued regulations requiring employers to provide employees with individualized notice when the employers designate leave as FMLA leave. Specifically, 29 C.F.R. § 825.208(a) provides, [i]n all circumstances, it is the employer's responsibility to designate leave, paid or unpaid, as FMLA-qualifying, and to give notice of the designation to the employee as provided in this section.” Also, 29 C.F.R. § 825.208(b)(1) provides, “Once the employer has acquired knowledge that the leave is being...

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