Walker v. Trinity Indus., Inc.

Decision Date21 May 2012
Docket NumberNo. 1:11CV93 SNLJ,1:11CV93 SNLJ
PartiesTRACY WALKER, Plaintiff, v. TRINITY INDUSTRIES, INC., et al. Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Missouri

TRACY WALKER, Plaintiff,

No. 1:11CV93 SNLJ


Date: May 21, 2012


This matter is before the Court on defendant's motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint, #6. The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

I. Procedural and Factual Background

For purposes of defendants' motion, the factual allegations pled in plaintiff's complaint are assumed true. Plaintiff filed her complaint claiming that her former employer, Trinity Marine Products, Inc. ("Trinity Marine"), and its parent company, Trinity Industries, Inc., violated the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq. ("FMLA"), by requiring her to take FMLA leave, requiring her to obtain fit-for-duty examinations and opinions from three separate physicians, refusing to allow her to return to work, and terminating her employment. See Compl. ¶¶ 27-29. Plaintiff worked at defendants' Caruthersville, Missouri facility as a welder, a physically demanding position, from 2007 until May 2009.

In May 2009, Trinity Marine believed that she had a serious medical condition and required her to take leave from work under the FMLA. Plaintiff was cleared to return to work, without any physical restrictions, by three, separate physicians, but defendants refused to permit

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her to return to work and later informed her that her FMLA leave had expired. Defendant terminated plaintiff's employment in either August or September 2009.

Plaintiff claims that defendants interfered with her FMLA rights and/or discriminated against her in violation of the FMLA by refusing to allow her to return to work, refusing to accept the multiple medical opinions stating that she was physically capable of performing her job, and by terminating her employment following her FMLA leave. Defendants argue that plaintiff has failed to state a cause of action because she did not qualify for relief under the FMLA, since she alleges that she did not actually have a serious medical condition.

II. Legal Standard

The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is to test the legal sufficiency of a complaint so as to eliminate those actions "which are fatally flawed in their legal premises and designed to fail, thereby sparing litigants the burden of unnecessary pretrial and trial activity." Young v. City of St. Charles, 244 F.3d 623, 627 (8th Cir. 2001) (quoting Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 326-27 (1989)). The "tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (pleading offering only "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action" will not do)).

III. Discussion

The Family and Medical Leave Act "provides job security to employees who must miss work because of their own illnesses, to care for family members, or to care for new babies," and

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provides eligible employees up to twelve work-weeks of unpaid leave during any twelve-month period. Stallings v. Hussmann Corp., 447 F.3d 1041, 1050 (8th Cir. 2006) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(A)-(D)). Two types of claims exist under the FMLA:

(1) "interference" or "(a)(1)" claims in which the employee alleges that an employer denied or interfered with his substantive rights under the FMLA and (2) "retaliation" or "(a)(2)" claims in which the employee alleges that the employer discriminated against him for exercising his FMLA rights.

Id. (citing 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1)-(2)). Plaintiff has pled that defendants' actions in refusing to allow her to return to work and in terminating her employment constituted prohibited interference and/or discrimination under the FMLA. Thus, the Court will analyze whether plaintiff has stated a claim under both § 2615(a)(1) and § 2615(a)(2).

A. Plaintiff's FMLA Interference Claim

The Court first turns to whether plaintiff has stated a claim under § 2615(a)(1) for interference with her FMLA rights. Under the FMLA, an employer is prohibited from denying, restraining, or interfering with an employee's exercise of, or attempt to exercise, any right afforded thereunder. Rabe v. Nationwide Logistics, Inc., 530 F.Supp.2d 1069, 1074 (E.D. Mo. 2008) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1)). Interference claims may be based on an employer refusing to authorize FMLA leave, discouraging an employee from using such leave, and/or avoiding the responsibilities imposed by the FMLA. Stallings, 447 F.3d at 1050 (citing 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(b)). This Court and others in this circuit have provided that, in order to establish an interference claim, a plaintiff must prove: (1) she was an eligible employee, (2) the defendant was plaintiff's employer, (3) she was entitled to leave under the FMLA, (4) she gave the defendant notice of her intent to take such leave, and (5) the defendant denied plaintiff an FMLA

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benefit to which she was entitled. Ruble v. American River Transp. Co., 799 F. Supp.2d 1017, 1022-23 (E.D. Mo. June 29, 2011) (citing Lopez v. St. Paul Public Schools, 2011 WL 13957, *5 (D. Minn. January 4, 2011); see also Ponder v. Verizon North, Inc., 2010 WL 4868080, *4 (E.D. Mo. November 23, 2010) (citing Dollar v. Smithway Motor Xpress, Inc., 2010 WL 3723900, *8 (N.D. Iowa September 15, 2010)).

In her complaint, plaintiff has alleged that she "began a period of FMLA leave for a medical problem that Trinity believed she had, but that she did not have." Compl. ¶ 8. Defendants argue that plaintiff has failed to state an interference claim because she was not entitled to leave under the FMLA in that her complaint states she did not have a serious medical condition. Plaintiff contends that defendants have, by their actions in forcing her to take FMLA leave and undergo multiple medical evaluations, admitted that she was entitled to such leave. In addition, plaintiff states that courts have recognized an interference claim when employers have forced their employees to take involuntary FMLA leave. Defendants counter that the cases do not support a cause of...

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