Stallings v. Hussmann Corp.

Decision Date12 May 2006
Docket NumberNo. 05-1882.,05-1882.
Citation447 F.3d 1041
PartiesSamuel STALLINGS, Appellant, v. HUSSMANN CORPORATION; Brian Groninger, Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit
447 F.3d 1041
Samuel STALLINGS, Appellant,
v.
HUSSMANN CORPORATION; Brian Groninger, Appellee.
No. 05-1882.
United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit.
Submitted: November 16, 2005.
Filed: May 12, 2006.

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COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED

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Kurt P. Cummiskey, argued, St. Louis, MO, for appellant.

John J. Gazzoli, Jr., argued, St. Louis, MO, for appellee.

Before SMITH, HEANEY, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

SMITH, Circuit Judge.


Samuel L. Stallings sued his employer, Hussmann Corporation ("Hussmann") and Brian Groninger, for wrongful termination in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). The district court granted summary judgment to Hussmann and Groninger. Stallings argues that the district court erred in applying the doctrine of judicial estoppel; erred in concluding that Hussmann and Groninger were entitled to summary judgment on Stallings's FMLA claims; and erred in denying Stallings's motion for partial summary judgment because Stallings established that Hussmann considered his FMLA leave as a reason to terminate his employment. We reverse the district court's application of judicial estoppel and its entry of summary judgment in Hussmann's favor.

I. Background

Stallings worked as a general laborer for Hussmann. The terms of Stallings's employment, including the rate and method of his compensation, were determined by a collective bargaining agreement between the United States Steelworkers' of America and Hussmann ("Bargaining Agreement"). The Bargaining Agreement provides that an employee shall be terminated if "the employee gives [a] false reason for a leave of absence...." Hussmann allows employees to take medical leave as required under the FMLA. In accordance with the FMLA, Hussmann allows "intermittent" FMLA leave for an employee to care for a family member when "medically necessary." Hussman eventually terminated

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Stallings for giving false reasons for use of leave time.

In December 2001, Stallings requested FMLA leave to care for his father. Stallings requested the leave through the Hussman Human Resources Office ("HRO"), which granted his request. Stallings subsequently submitted a request for an extension of the initial FMLA leave through June 2002, which the HRO also granted. Stallings took intermittent FMLA leave during both the initial period and the extended period.1 In June 2002, Stallings applied to have his prior intermittent FMLA leave extended for another six-month period for "patient care." Stallings submitted a Certificate of Health Care Provider in connection with this request. Hussmann's FMLA policy, consistent with the FMLA, provides that "FMLA leave may be taken intermittently whenever medically necessary to care for a seriously ill family member." The HRO granted his request for a third time.

At Hussmann, supervisors grant vacation time on a seniority basis and on the basis of company production needs. In February of each year, Hussmann policy and the Bargaining Agreement require employees to request vacation time for the entire year, if the employee is to exercise seniority rights for scheduling purposes. Senior workers receive priority when conflicts arise as to requested vacation. In February 2000 and February 2001, Stallings requested and was granted the first three weeks of August as vacation time.

In January or February 2002, Groninger became Stallings's supervisor. In February 2002, Stallings, as in the two prior years, requested the first three weeks of August 2002 for his vacation. Because of Stallings's seniority standing, however, Groninger could only schedule Stallings for one week of vacation in August. Groninger never approved Stallings to take vacation for the second and third weeks of August 2002. Groninger was never involved in deciding whether Stallings was entitled to FMLA leave.

Sometime prior to August 2002, Stallings met with Groninger to again request the second and third weeks of August as vacation time. Groninger denied his request because there were no available slots. Stallings then told Groninger that he intended to take off the second and third weeks of August 2002 anyway as FMLA leave. Stallings contends that he told Groninger that he would use the leave to provide care for his father who was unable to care for himself. Groninger contends that Stallings only told him he was using the leave to help his father move. Groninger reminded Stallings that he would have to call in each workday to an automated answering system to report his absence.

Stallings did not report to work for the first three weeks of August. The first week of work was scheduled vacation, and Stallings called the Hussmann automated answering system each day he was off work from August 12-26, 2002, and reported that he was using FMLA leave.

After Stallings returned to work, Louis Stralka, a Human Resources Generalist in the HRO, summoned Stallings to a meeting through Groninger. The parties dispute what transpired at this meeting. Stallings denies telling Stralka that he moved his father while off work from August 12-26, 2002. Stallings does admit that he "stated [his] reason why [he] was out on family medical leave" and that he

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told Stralka that he "was moving, providing for his [father's] needs, painting, cutting the grass, et. cetera." During the meeting, Stallings admitted that he did not help his father move because the move was cancelled in early August, only a few days before his vacation time began. When Stralka asked Stallings why he did not return to work when he learned that he was not going to help his father move, Stallings responded, "Because I was on vacation."

Stallings told Stralka that he spent the two weeks he was on FMLA leave performing maintenance on his father's home because the City of St. Louis had issued a citation to his father to get the house up to Code. The City, however, dismissed the citation against Stallings's father in June 2002. In addition, the citation did not relate to painting or yard maintenance but to open storage containers on the property. Stallings admitted that he had siblings and his father's wife in the area who could also help his father, that he could have performed these tasks on the weekends and at night, and that he did not need to take time off work to perform the tasks around his father's house.

Stralka reported to Richard Kurt, the Director of the HRO, that he believed Stallings was lying about the reason he was absent for two weeks. Kurt made the decision to terminate Stallings for "calling in FMLA for non-FMLA reasons, fraudulent and [sic] misuse of the leave of absence policy, violation of company policies in connection therewith and causing falsification of the company's records in this regard." Stallings admitted that he had no evidence that Groninger decided to terminate him or that anyone other than Kurt made the decision to terminate him on October 1, 2002.

Following his termination, Stallings filed a grievance with the union, but the union eventually withdrew the grievance. Stallings then filed a complaint on December 18, 2002, with the United States Department of Labor, alleging that his termination violated the FMLA. The Department of Labor, however, found in favor of Hussmann, concluding that Stallings was properly terminated for fraudulently taking leave.

At the time of Stallings's termination on October 1, 2002, he was a debtor in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceeding pending in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. At no time during the pendency of Stallings's bankruptcy case did he disclose his claims against Groninger or Hussmann to the bankruptcy court. On March 11, 2003, the bankruptcy court granted the bankruptcy trustee's motion to dismiss the case. The bankruptcy case was closed on June 25, 2003.

On September 12, 2003, Stallings filed suit against Hussmann and Groninger, alleging an interference claim and a retaliation claim under the FMLA. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The district court granted Hussmann's and Groninger's motion for summary judgment, holding that (1) Stallings's claims were barred by the doctrine of judicial estoppel because Stallings failed to disclose his cause of action against Hussmann and Groninger in his bankruptcy proceedings; (2) even if his claims were not barred by the doctrine of judicial estoppel, Stallings failed to rebut Hussmann's and Groninger's non-discriminatory reason for terminating him; and (3) Stallings could not show that his FMLA rights were interfered with, restrained, or denied in any way by Hussmann and Groninger.

II. Discussion

Stallings raises three arguments on appeal: (1) that the district court erred in dismissing all of his claims based upon the

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doctrine of judicial estoppel; (2) that the district court erred in concluding that had it not dismissed all of Stallings's claims based on the doctrine of judicial estoppel, it would have granted Hussmann's and Groninger's motion for summary judgment because Stallings failed to prove pretext for the FMLA claims; and (3) that the district court erred in denying Stallings's motion for partial summary judgment because Stallings established that his use of FMLA leave to care for his father was considered as a reason to terminate his employment.

A. Judicial Estoppel

Stallings first argues that the district court erred in dismissing all of his claims based upon the doctrine of judicial estoppel because application of the three factors delineated in New Hampshire v. Maine, 532 U.S. 742, 750, 121 S.Ct. 1808, 149 L.Ed.2d 968 (2001), weighs against the application of the doctrine.

1. Applicable Standard of Review

We have not previously articulated the proper standard of review when reviewing a district court's application of the judicial estoppel doctrine. Leonard v. Southwestern Bell Corp. Disability Income Plan, 341 F.3d 696, 700 (8th Cir.2003). A majority of our sister circuits...

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