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Hughes v. B/E Aerospace, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 7, 2014

ARTHUR W. HUGHES, Plaintiff,


THOMAS D. SCHROEDER, District Judge.

Before the court in this employment action are motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 filed by all Defendants. Defendant B/E Aerospace, Inc. ("B/E"), moves for summary judgment on Plaintiff Arthur W. Hughes' claims of interference and retaliation in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., disability discrimination in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and wrongful discharge in violation of North Carolina's public policy against age discrimination, as embodied in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-422.2. (Doc. 33.) Defendants Mark B. Dowty, Mark I. Vaughan, and Suzanne K. Helmick (collectively the "individual Defendants"), all employees of B/E, move for summary judgment on the FMLA claims against them. (Doc. 35.) For the reasons stated herein, both motions will be granted.


A. Hughes' employment with B/E

B/E is a Delaware corporation with a place of business in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Doc. 16 ¶ 3.) It is engaged in the business of manufacturing aircraft cabin interior products. (Id.) During the relevant period, Defendant Dowty was B/E's Director of Engineering (Dowty Dep. at 10), [2] Defendant Vaughan was its head of sales and marketing department (Vaughan Dep. at 7), [3] and Defendant Helmick was its human resources ("HR") manager in the seating products group (Doc. 37-9 at 2).

Hughes was hired by B/E on January 21, 2008, as a project engineer in the research and development department of the seating products group in the Winston-Salem office. (Doc. 1 ¶ 7; Doc. 16 ¶ 7.) Though Hughes is a licensed professional engineer, he had no experience in the aerospace industry prior to his employment at B/E. (Hughes Dep. at 37.)[4] Hughes' supervisors in this position were Steve Hastings and Steve Kash. (Id. at 86.) Hughes performed acceptably at first; Kash presented him with a monthly award in February 2009. (Doc. 38-5 (noting that Hughes performed "at a high level" and "has done a great job").) Yet his supervisors rated his performance during the calendar year 2008 at 2.8 on a 4.0 scale (just below the "meets expectations" level, and above the "needs further development" level of 2.0).[5] (Doc. 37-13.) Additionally, Hughes began attending night classes and working toward a Master's degree in Business Administration ("MBA") at Wake Forest University in August 2008. (Hughes Dep. at 38.) Pursuant to a written agreement between Hughes and B/E, B/E reimbursed the entirety of Hughes' tuition payments. (Id. at 39.) Hughes successfully completed the program in August 2010. (Id. at 38.)

In the summer of 2009, Hastings approached Hughes about the possibility of transitioning into the sales and marketing department. (Id. at 88.) According to Hughes, Hastings told him he was doing a good job, and he told Hastings he was interested in the transfer. (Id.) Not long after this conversation, Hughes moved into sales and marketing. (Doc. 37-16 at 3.)[6] Thereafter, Hughes reported directly to Dowty (Hughes Dep. at 10, 86, 88), and his job title was project engineer (Doc. 37-16 at 1). Dowty reported to Vaughan, who was head of the department. (Dowty Dep. at 12.)

Under Dowty's supervision, Hughes' job responsibilities consisted primarily of responding to requests for quotes ("RFQs") that B/E received from account managers representing air carriers and air framers, such as Boeing and Airbus. (Hughes Dep. at 54.) Hughes then developed a layout of passenger accommodations, which is essentially the seating arrangement for an aircraft. (Id.) He was also responsible for ensuring that the products complied with Federal Aviation Regulations. (Id.) Specifically, Hughes' job was to handle this process for four B/E product lines for narrowbody aircraft: Spectrum, Pinnacle, Icon, and Millennium. (Id. at 53.)

Soon after Hughes transitioned into Dowty's group, his workload increased substantially and he began having trouble staying on pace. (Id. at 63.) Although the number of RFQs was increasing for everyone in the group, Hughes perceived that his workload was increasing at a faster rate than that of his coworkers. (Id. at 63-64.) He based this perception on a board maintained in the department that posted incoming RFQs. (Id.) According to "a physical snapshot of the boards, " many of the incoming RFQs were related to narrowbody aircraft and had Hughes' name beside them. (Id. at 64.)

Around this time, Hughes began visiting a series of physicians for symptoms he described as "[c]ognitive issues, short-term memory loss, inability to concentrate, irritability, [and] daytime sleepiness." (Id. at 47.) These symptoms were causing him to fall behind in what he described as a "fast-paced job" and struggle with his assignments in school. (Id. at 49.) Hughes first visited his primary care physician, Dr. Metheney, reporting that he was having difficulty sleeping. (Id. at 48.) Dr. Metheney ordered a sleep study, referring him to Carolina Sleep Medicine in September of 2009. (Id.; Doc. 37-11 at 5.) The results of the study were inconclusive because Hughes was unable to fall asleep. (Hughes Dep. at 52; Doc. 37-11 at 5.) On the day of the sleep study, Hughes arrived at work at around noon and reported to Dowty that he participated in a sleep study but did not share any diagnosis at that time. (Hughes Dep. at 52.) Subsequently, Hughes informed Helmick via e-mail on November 18, 2009, that he had been diagnosed with a condition known as hypoxia[7] and that the condition was beginning to affect his quality of work. (Doc. 38-7 at 1.)[8] Dowty also testified that Hughes first told him sometime during the fall of 2009 that he was having trouble sleeping and experiencing stress. (Dowty Dep. at 44.)

On January 21, 2010, Hughes again initiated e-mail communications with Helmick regarding his medical condition. (Doc. 37-9 at 2.) Hughes indicated that he had consulted with a physician over the Christmas holiday and that the physician had prescribed medication to help treat his increased stress levels at work. (Id.) Hughes further stated that he "felt it was necessary to inform [Dowty] that [Hughes'] heightened stress level was now being addressed with medication." (Id.) He asked for information about "the company's policy regarding employee health conditions and job performance" and indicated that a meeting between himself, Dowty, and Helmick was scheduled for the following Monday, January 25. (Id.) In response, Helmick stated the company's policy of complying with the ADA and FMLA and explained some of the requirements of those statutes. (Doc. 37-10.) She also confirmed the January 25 meeting, writing "[i]t is my understanding that you, Mark Dowty and I will be meeting on Monday to discuss your situation in order for all of us to explore potential options." (Id.)

At the meeting, Hughes requested to be removed from three of the four product lines for which he was responsible, leaving him with only the Spectrum line, which he viewed as his main focus. (Hughes Dep. at 159-60.) Dowty denied this restructuring because it would not be feasible and would create an unnecessary burden on Hughes' coworkers. (Helmick Dep. at 23.)[9] Helmick proposed other possible accommodations: she asked if Hughes thought that either suspending his MBA studies or taking a leave of absence would be helpful. (Id.; Hughes Dep. at 167.) Hughes rejected both options. (Helmick Dep. at 23; Hughes Dep. at 167.) Helmick also talked with Hughes about possibly moving into a manufacturing engineer or process engineer role in another group or department; although Hughes expressed some willingness to transfer, there were no positions open in the company in those areas at the time. (Helmick Dep. at 23-24.)

In February 2010, Dowty scored Hughes' performance during the calendar year of 2009 at 1.7 out of a possible 4.0, below the "needs further development" threshold of 2.0. (Doc. 37-16 at 6.) Hughes received a rating of 1, or "does not meet expectations, " in the category of "Job Knowledge." (Id. at 3.) Dowty commented: "Art transferred into this team in summer 2009 with high expectations due to his assumed experience and academic proficiency.... Art has failed to develop into the asset envisioned." (Id. at 10.) Dowty also indicated that a Performance Improvement Plan ("PIP") had been developed "to allow Art to rapidly improve performance and become successful in this position." (Id.)

Hughes was permitted to comment on the evaluation in a space provided on the last page. He stated that his job performance issues were being caused both by his health issues (characterized as a "[b]reathing disorder resulting in insomnia" as well as "[g]eneral anxiety") and his lack of qualifications relating to his job function. (Id. at 11.) Specifically, he wrote that he was "lacking experience and specialized knowledge, " that the product lines he was responsible for were "specialized in nature and reside in a niche market, " and that he had received no formal training for the position. (Id.) Regarding his health issues, he noted that he remained on medication for anxiety, that he continued under the care of a physician for both insomnia and anxiety, and that the root cause of the breathing disorder was unknown, "with treatment being one of an indefinite timeline." (Id.) He further commented that he observed some improvement as a result of the treatment, that he had requested either a modification of his job responsibilities or a transfer to a more low-stress job, and that he expected his PIP to take effect about February 22, 2010. (Id.)

Regarding Dowty, Hughes wrote that he "found many of the performance review comments from [Dowty] both lacking sensitivity and degrading, [but Hughes was] anticipating that [Dowty's] education about [Hughes'] impairments will improve [Dowty's] lack of sensitivity...." (Id.) Specifically, Hughes testified in his deposition that Dowty assumed a negative tone and demeanor during the review process, threatening to involve Vaughan and Helmick because he did not feel that Hughes was cooperating. (Hughes Dep. at 142.) Dowty once told Hughes to "shut up" after Hughes brought up an objection to something in the evaluation and commented "you don't look sick to me" before the review process began. (Id. at 140-41, 143.)

As outlined in the evaluation, Hughes was placed on a PIP beginning on February 22, 2010. (Doc. 37-20.) The PIP identified five areas of deficiency relating to Hughes' job performance and assigned Hughes a different mentor for each area to help him reach a satisfactory level of performance. (Id.) As part of Hughes' development, the PIP required Hughes to sit for five examinations or assessments and score at acceptable levels. (Id. at 1-2; Dowty Dep. at 69.)[10] The individual mentors in each area were responsible for designing the tests, but Dowty and HR drafted and approved the PIP. (Dowty Dep. at 49-50.) In a final section, titled "Consequences, " the PIP stated that Hughes was required to meet with Dowty weekly to review his progress, that his progress would be formally documented in 30 days, and that failure to meet the expectations set out in the PIP could result in termination. (Doc. 37-20 at 3.)

On March 23, 2010, Hughes received a memorandum from Dowty containing his 30-day progress report. Dowty commented:

Noticeable progress has been made towards correcting the areas of deficiency identified in [the PIP]. Some areas continue to require additional work and additional time is required to address other areas more completely. Generally your progress has been acceptable and on-track with expectations.

(Doc. 37-21 at 1.) However, the PIP still required Hughes to sit for three additional examinations. (Id. at 1-2.) Subsequently, he received another memorandum on June 7, 2010, reviewing the 60 days that had passed since the issuance of the first progress report. (Doc. 37-22.) There, Dowty wrote, "[i]nitial progress you made in the first 30 days has not been followed with an equivalent level of progress." (Id. at 1.) Specifically, Hughes was given three attempts to take the "certification application quiz, " one of the examinations required by the PIP. (Id. at 2.) Dowty stated that "[y]our third attempt on the exam only served to underscore your lack of comprehension of the basic certification application principles needed for [the] position." (Id.) Hughes scored a 38% on the examination, supporting a conclusion that "there is insufficient evidence to support a notion that [Hughes'] engineering estimates for programs involving a certification program would be optimized or valid." (Id.) The update included a warning that Hughes could be terminated within 30 days should his performance not meet expectations. (Id. at 1.)

In his deposition, Hughes expressed objections to certain aspects of the PIP evaluations. Although he admitted that some of the requirements of the PIP were reasonable, he believed others were overwhelming and designed to set him up for failure. (Hughes Dep. at 190.) For example, he testified that the "subjective" tests devised by Dowty and Dennis Hedrick (one of his mentors as part of the PIP) were unfair because he was not tested on what he learned during the training exercises. (Id. at 190, 192.) He was particularly frustrated and skeptical regarding the PIP when Dowty told him to "make up questions" to ask Hedrick during one of the training exercises. (Id. at 191.)[11] He also testified that he unsuccessfully asked Dowty to retake one of his examinations orally, and that upon asking for a retake on another occasion, Dowty responded "I don't have time for that. I'm going on ...

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