United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
JAMES A. BEATY, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on Defendant Carolina Fire Control, Inc.'s ("Defendant" or "CFC") Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. #24] on Plaintiff Mandi Marie Alexander's ("Plaintiff" or "Alexander") claims of Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") interference, Title VII sex discrimination, and North Carolina state wrongful discharge. Plaintiff opposed Defendant's Motion in a Response [Doc.#30] filed April 2, 2015. Defendant in turn filed a Reply on April 20, 2015. As discussed below, this Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. #24].
I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Defendant is a fire sprinkler installer company owned by brothers Jeffery and John Sossoman. Plaintiff first began working for Defendant in April 2007 as an assistant project manager. In October of 2007, Plaintiff was promoted to a project manager position. Plaintiff continued working in this role until January of 2009, when she was terminated for insubordination. While Plaintiff contends that she was not insubordinate, Defendant asserts that Plaintiff refused to communicate with her direct supervisor, Jack McDowell, the General Manager at the time. Plaintiff does not dispute that she received warnings that she needed to communicate and be courteous to McDowell and others within the company. According to Defendant, Plaintiff once "flipped the bird" at Jack McDowell when his back was turned to her, although Plaintiff denies ever doing so. Although apparently not a reason for her 2009 termination, Defendant highlights in its current briefings that Plaintiff was convicted of a DWI in 2007 which resulted in her driver's license being revoked. She received the DWI charge while driving a company car, after causing several thousand dollars of damage to the car. Plaintiff also has other traffic violations from the period of time during which she worked for Defendant, including a citation for driving with a revoked license sometime in 2009 or 2010. Defendant rehired Plaintiff later on in 2009. The Parties, however, appear to dispute the circumstances that led to Plaintiff's rehiring. Plaintiff asserts that Defendant reached out to her about grooming her to take over Defendant's Virginia office, while Defendant contends that Plaintiff contacted Jeffery Sossoman and asked for her old job back. When Plaintiff did return, it is undisputed that she initially worked as an independent contractor, and not a direct employee of the company. In May of 2009, Plaintiff again became a full-time employee of Defendant, resuming her role as project manager. As she again began working as a direct employee of Defendant, Jeffery Sossoman informed Plaintiff that she needed to improve her communication issues with General Manager Jack McDowell.
The working relationship between Plaintiff and Defendant continued without apparent incident until 2012. In the first few days of August of 2012, Plaintiff's son was diagnosed with cancer. Soon after receiving the news, Plaintiff went to Jeffery Sossoman in his office to tell him about her son's cancer diagnosis. Jeffery Sossoman responded in a "heartfelt" manner, giving Plaintiff a hug and telling Plaintiff that Defendant "would support [her] and to go take care of [her] son and to get in touch with [Jeffery] to let him know what was going on." (Alexander Dep. [Doc. #24-1], at 129:12-19.) Jeffery and Plaintiff exchanged texts and phone calls over the next few days as Plaintiff took her son to doctor appointments and began learning about her son's course of treatment. Jeffery continued to express his and CFC's support and well-wishes for Plaintiff and her family.
On approximately August 8, 2012, Defendant mailed Plaintiff a packet of information about leave options under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). Plaintiff received and reviewed the information in the packet, "but did not read through it specifically to really absorb it." (Id. at 137:22-23.) Around the same time that Plaintiff received the packet, and within approximately two weeks of Plaintiff's son being diagnosed with cancer, Plaintiff met with Jeffery and John Sossoman in John's office to discuss her employment possibilities during Plaintiff's son's cancer treatment. The conversation began with the Sossomans inquiring about Plaintiff's son and expressing their sympathy. Eventually the conversation turned to work expectations for Plaintiff during this time, and as Plaintiff explained in her deposition, the Sossomans "said there was no reason that I needed to fill out the [FMLA] paperwork, that we could come up with a plan outside of that, outside of the FMLA to work for everybody to where I could continue working and also receive my full salary." (Id., at 141:1-5.)
Defendant contends that the Sossomans encouraged Plaintiff to take FMLA leave, but Plaintiff tearfully replied that she could not afford to take unpaid leave. Plaintiff, on the other hand, asserts that she never made any such statement, and that at that point in time, she was financially secure enough between savings and her parents' assistance that she did not need her normal salary. Further, Plaintiff contends that the Sossomans discouraged her from taking FMLA leave by instead developing a "plan" for her to continue working however much she could while still drawing her normal salary. While the Parties present different versions of this meeting, it is undisputed that this meeting occurred and during the course of the meeting, Plaintiff and the Sossomans agreed to a work situation whereby Plaintiff would continue to receive her full salary and benefits while doing whatever amount of work she was capable of during the period of her son's cancer treatment. As Plaintiff explained, "[t]he discussion was that I would work remotely as much as I could.... Jeff and Johnny would have a laptop set up for me to where I could access the company server and emails and things of that manner. I would also continue to use my company cell phone." (Id. at 145:12-18.) After this meeting, Plaintiff never requested FMLA leave nor inquired further about her FMLA options, and she instead "trusted that the plan that was put in place between [her]self, Jeff and Johnny... was going to be sufficient to where it wouldn't result in [Plaintiff] losing [her] job for lack of communication that should have been protected by FMLA." (Id. at 144:23-145:3.)
There were few set expectations for Plaintiff's work under this arrangement. The Sossomans and Plaintiff did not establish how many hours per week Plaintiff was expected to work: "[T]here was no magic number that was set into place. It was basically you put in what you can, and we will go from there." (Id. at 148:13-15.) Plaintiff's remote work arrangement began on August 17, 2012, when Plaintiff picked up a laptop from Defendant's office. During the period from her son's diagnosis on approximately August 1, 2012, up until August 17, 2012, Plaintiff worked a total of five or ten hours, but continued to receive her full salary and benefits. From August 17, 2012, until approximately January 7, 2013, Plaintiff worked remotely on a part-time basis, working approximately five to twenty-five hours per week. Defendant contends that Plaintiff worked slightly fewer hours, closer to an average of 12 hours per week, but neither Plaintiff nor Defendant tracked the number of hours Plaintiff actually worked during this time. Jeffery Sossoman and Plaintiff were in "constant communication" via cell phone and e-mail throughout this period. (Jeffery Sossoman Dep. [Doc. #24-5], at 42:16-43:4.) However, Plaintiff notes that there was no clear line drawn between her time working remotely and her time on leave, highlighting that she always had her work phone on. This arrangement persisted through at least mid-December 2012, or possibly until early January 2013. D efendant's employees recall Plaintiff being in the office full-time in December 2012, while Plaintiff maintains that her first day back on a full-time basis was January 7, 2013.
Plaintiff recalled two phone conversations with Jeffery Sossoman in which he was "upset" with Plaintiff's "lack of communication" or untimeliness in communication during her period of remote, part-time work. (Alexander Dep. [Doc. #24-1], at 154:4-12.) In one of these conversations, which took place in early October, 2012, Jeffrey Sossoman informed her that she needed to copy the then-General Manager, David Kepley, on all e-mails. According to Plaintiff's deposition, this October 2012 conversation was to the effect that she "was not communicating fast enough on my projects and other people needed to be involved if I was not going to communicate quick enough and asked I [copy] David Kepley on all my emails from that point forward, so my items can be handled in a timely manner." (Id. at 94:2-7.) Plaintiff denies that any other meetings took place regarding her communication skills or work performance. In contrast, Jeffery Sossoman recalled at least two separate conversations between himself and Plaintiff that took place between mid-December 2012 and Plaintiff's termination on January 9, 2013. According to Jeffery Sossoman, he informed Plaintiff of specific problems with her work communications and attitude. These problems included that Plaintiff needed to report directly to General Manager David Kepley and communicate with him, as well as needing to copy Kepley and Construction Manager Allen Archer on project-related e-mails.
On January 9, 2013, John Sossoman, Jeffery Sossoman, David Kepley, and Allen Archer held a ten-minute meeting to discuss Plaintiff's employment with Defendant. Everyone in the meeting agreed that Plaintiff should be terminated for insubordination stemming from the alleged communication failures of Plaintiff. Subsequently, Jeffery Sossoman went to Plaintiff's office and explained to her that she was being terminated for insubordination. Plaintiff contends that Jeffery Sossoman did not elaborate on the specifics of her insubordination. However, in her deposition, Plaintiff acknowledged, without agreeing with the reasoning, that Defendant terminated her for an alleged insubordination due to lack of communication, particularly with David Kepley and the project team.
At the time Plaintiff was terminated, four other individuals, all men, were performing sales and project management functions: Patrick Lam, Michael Holbrooks, David Kepley, and Jeffery Sossoman. (Lam Dep. [Doc. #24-2], at 27:25-28:8.) David Kepley and Jeffery Sossoman completed project management duties in addition to their other managerial responsibilities in the company. Upon Plaintiff's departure, her approximately 12 to 14 projects were divided among these remaining four project managers (Kepley Dep. [Doc. #24-4], at 44:9-11, 48:21-24.). In particular, Patrick Lam took over approximately five of Plaintiff's former projects, with the assistance of Jeffery Sossoman. Lam had been working with Defendant since 2009 at that time, and had been performing project management duties since January of 2012.
Plaintiff filed her Complaint [Doc. #1] on January 28, 2014 asserting violations of the FMLA, Title VII, and North Carolina public policy. Defendant filed a Partial Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim [Doc. #5] on March 31, 2014, requesting dismissal of Plaintiff's FMLA claims and requesting that Plaintiff's request for punitive or emotional damages be dismissed or stricken. On July 25, 2014, this Court denied Defendant's Motion to Dismiss as to Plaintiff's FMLA interference claim, but granted the motion as to Plaintiff's FMLA retaliation claim and Plaintiff's claim for punitive and emotional distress damages to the extent Plaintiff claimed such damages for her FMLA interference claim. On February 27, 2015, Defendant filed its present Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. #24]. The motion is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court shall grant summary judgment when there exists no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Zahodnick v. Int'l Bus. Machs. Corp., 135 F.3d 911, 913 (4th Cir. 1997). "In considering a motion for summary judgment, the district court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the' nonmoving party." Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 568 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 (2014) (per curiam)). A court's belief that the movant would prevail on the merits at trial is insufficient to grant a motion for summary judgment. Id. The court cannot make credibility determinations or weigh evidence, and "must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party... that a jury would not be required to believe." Edell & Assocs., P.C. v. Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, 264 F.3d 424, 436 (4th Cir. 2001); see Jacobs, 780 F.3d at 568-69. However, the party opposing summary judgment may not rest on mere allegations or denials, and ...