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Alexander v. Carolina Fire Control Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

July 24, 2015

MANDI MARIE ALEXANDER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLINA FIRE CONTROL INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

THACKER, Circuit Judge, sitting by designation

This case is brought by Mandi Marie Alexander ("Plaintiff") against Carolina Fire Control Inc. ("Defendant").[1]Plaintiff alleges interference with the rights afforded her by the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). At the conclusion of Plaintiff's evidence, Defendant moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Because Plaintiff has not presented evidence sufficient to support her claim, Defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 is GRANTED.

I.

Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate "[i]f a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). As this Court has explained:

This is also a "directed verdict" motion. "[W]hen considering a motion for a directed verdict, [the court] must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party." In this analysis, "[t]he court . . . must [also] determine whether a reasonable trier of fact could draw only one conclusion from the evidence."

Madison River Mgmt. Co. v. Bus. Mgmt. Software Corp., No. 1:03- cv-00379, 2006 WL 1932574, at *2 (M.D. N.C. July 11, 2006) (alterations in original) (quoting Townley v. Norfolk & W. Ry Co., 887 F.2d 498, 499 (4th Cir. 1989)).

A motion for a directed verdict should be granted "when any verdict in favor of the nonmoving party necessarily will be premised upon speculation and conjecture." Gairola v. Commonwealth of Va. Dept. of Gen. Servs., 753 F.2d 1281, 1285 (4th Cir. 1985) (internal quotation marks omitted). So "[t]he question is not whether there is no evidence, but whether there is sufficient evidence upon which a jury can properly proceed to reach a verdict, although a mere scintilla of evidence is not enough to defeat a motion for a directed verdict." Id. (citations omitted).

II.

Plaintiff has alleged that Defendant interfered with her rights provided by the FMLA. Specifically, Plaintiff claims Defendant discouraged her from exercising her right to leave under the FMLA.

Under the FMLA, an employee is entitled to twelve weeks of unpaid leave "[i]n order to care for the spouse, or a son, daughter, or parent, of the employee, if such spouse, son, daughter, or parent has a serious health condition." 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a) (1) (C) . The FMLA also ensures the employee is restored to his or her previous position -- or an equivalent position --after taking leave. See 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(1).[2]

It is unlawful under the FMLA for an employer to "interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise" the right to leave. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a) (1). To prevail on an interference claim, an employee must prove (1) she was entitled to an FMLA benefit; (2) her employer "interfered with the provision of that benefit"; and (3) "that interference caused harm" or prejudice. Adams v. Anne Arundel Cnty. Pub. Schs., No. 14-1608, 2015 WL 3651735, at *3 (4th Cir. June 15, 2015). Plaintiff's claim fails for want of evidence sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude her employer interfered with the provision of FMLA benefits - the second element of her claim.[3]

Interference includes "not only refusing to authorize FMLA leave, but discouraging an employee from using such leave." 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(b). In her complaint, Plaintiff alleged that she "intended to have her physician complete the FMLA paperwork and to apply for intermittent FMLA. However . . . [she] was called into a meeting with Defendant's owners. . . and she was discouraged from completing the FMLA paperwork." Compl. f 10, ECF No. 1. To "discourage" is to "prevent or seek to prevent (something) by showing disapproval or creating difficulties." New Oxford Am. Dictionary 496 (3d ed. 2010); accord Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 357 (11th ed. 2011). Accounting for -- without citing -- this definition, other courts have concluded that interference or discouragement occurs when "an employer provides a powerful disincentive for taking FMLA leave." Coleman v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kan., 487 F.Supp.2d 1225, 1245 (D. Kan. 2007) . This includes, for example, forcing an employee to choose between resigning and working without leave, telling an employee she would lose all accrued sick leave for taking FMLA leave, and denying FMLA leave outright. See id. 1245 n.61 (collecting cases); see also, e.g., Mardis v. Cent. Nat' 1 Bank & Trust of Enid, 173 F.3d 864, at *2 (10th Cir. 1999) (unpublished table decision) ("Informing an employee that she would be irrevocably deprived of all accrued sick leave and annual leave as a condition of taking leave under the FMLA would operate as a powerful disincentive to assertion of that employee's rights under the FMLA."). This is the nature of the conduct the FMLA seeks to prevent. See, e.g., 139 Cong. Rec. E323-01 (daily ed. Feb. 16, 1993) (statement of Rep. Thomas M. Barrett) ("This family oriented legislation ensures American workers that they have a job to come back to if they . experience serious illness in their family. ... It is unfair to ask a parent or a spouse to chose between family obligations and their jobs.").

On the other hand, an employer does not interfere with an employee's FMLA rights when it offers benefits or leave options more beneficial than those provided by the FMLA. See Croy v. Blue Ridge Bread, Inc., No. 3:12-cv-00034, 2013 WL 3776802, at *8 (W.D. Va. July 15, 2013) (finding employers "cannot be punished for offering benefits greater than what is required under the FMLA" (emphasis omitted)) . This is the kind of behavior that is favored and is not prohibited by the FMLA. See Campbell v. Verizon Va., Inc., 812 F.Supp.2d 748, 756 (E.D. Va. 2011) ("In adopting the FMLA, Congress explicitly provided that 'nothing in this Act . . . shall be construed to ...


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