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Egler v. American Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

February 21, 2019

MARION EGLER, Plaintiff,
v.
AMERICAN AIRLINES, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          LOUISE W. FLANAGAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on defendant's motion for summary judgment (DE 30). Plaintiff has responded in opposition and defendant has replied. In this posture, the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the following reasons, the motion is granted.

         STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Plaintiff, a former employee of defendant, commenced this action on February 10, 2017, asserting that she was terminated due to disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. (“ADA”); that she was discriminated and retaliated against for exercise of her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq. (“FMLA”); and that she was wrongfully discharged in violation of the North Carolina law. Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief returning plaintiff to her prior position, as well as compensatory and liquidated damages.

         On February 22, 2018, the court upon defendant's motion dismissed plaintiff's ADA claim (count I) and North Carolina common law claim (count III). The court entered case management order, as amended, setting deadline for discovery on April 28, 2018, and deadline for dispositive motions on May 27, 2018.

         Defendant filed the instant motion on May 24, 2018, relying upon a memorandum of law, a statement of material facts, and an appendix thereto, containing the following: 1) plaintiff's deposition, with exhibits; 2) declarations by defendant's employees, Tamara Wells (“Wells”), Dee Hart (“Hart”), and Kip Hamilton (“Hamilton”), each with exhibits; and 3) declaration of plaintiff's physician, Dr. Raj Polavaram (“Polavaram”).

         Plaintiff filed a response in opposition, relying upon an opposing statement of facts and appendix thereto, containing the following: 1) a declaration by Polavaram; 2) a written statement by plaintiff; 3) a fax cover sheet to Polavaram; 4) faxed correspondence pertaining to FMLA leave; 5) excerpts of plaintiff's deposition; and 6) excerpts of Polavaram's deposition.

         Defendant filed a reply on July 13, 2018.

         STATEMENT OF UNDISPUTED FACTS

         The undisputed facts pertinent to the instant motion may be summarized as follows. American Airlines, Inc. (herein referenced in the statement of the facts as “American Airlines” or the “Company”) employed plaintiff as a Reservations Agent at the South Eastern Reservations Office (“SERO”). (Def's Stmt. (DE 32) ¶1).[1] As an American Airlines employee, plaintiff was subject to the Company's Rules of Conduct which, among other things, prohibit the “[m]isrepresentation of facts or falsification of records, ” “[d]ishonesty of any kind in relation with the Company . . ., ” and “misrepresentation in obtaining employee benefits or privileges, ” and warn that violations of any kind can lead to discipline up to and including termination. (Id. ¶2).

         Between 2006 and 2013, plaintiff applied for, and American Airlines granted, at least thirty-four separate requests for FMLA leave. (Id. ¶3). American Airlines' FMLA Certification Forms caution employees that “misrepresentation of any kind” in the FMLA application process violates the Company's Rules of Conduct and can lead to termination. (Id. ¶ 4). Likewise, the Letter of Understanding American Airlines sends to employees for whom it approves FMLA leaves (and sent to plaintiff at least thirty-four times) reiterates that “[m]isrepresentation of any kind in your application for and/or use of FMLA Leave is a direct violation of the American Airlines Rules of Conduct” that is “subject to corrective action, up to and including termination.” (Id. ¶5).[2]

         On December 7, 2014 and January 6, 2015, plaintiff submitted two FMLA Leave of Absence Certification Forms designating absences on November 17-22, 2014, and December 17-24, 2014. (Hart Decl. Exs. 1 at 2). These forms include certification signatures in the space designated for plaintiff and her treating health care provider, specified on the forms as Polavaram. (Id.). Hart, a nurse in the Medical Department, states that she “noticed that the physician office visit dates, the start- and end-dates for the requested leave, and the medical provider's execution date appeared to have been whited-out and/or written over, and the physician's signature looked identical on both forms.” (Hart Dec. ¶ 6). Hart states that she “pulled [plaintiff's] Certification Form for leave she took on November 2-5, 2014, and found that it too had the exact same physician signature.” (Id.). Hart states that she “asked Dr. Polavaram to authenticate the three forms” for the November 2-5, November 17-22, and December 17-24 absences. (Id.). Polavaram responded with the following letter:

         (Image Omitted)

(Hart Decl., Ex. 4). In the meantime, on January 19, 2015, plaintiff submitted an additional FMLA Certification Form for absence from January 16-21, 2015, and, upon inquiry from Hart, Polavaram sent a similar letter stating that the form was “not completed or signed by this provider or anyone else in this office.” (Id, Exs. 5-6).

         While the Company's investigation was pending, however, American Airlines allowed plaintiff to take the leave she requested, and returned plaintiff to work in her Reservations Agent position following each period of FMLA leave. (Def s Stmt. (DE 32) ¶ 15). Hart informed Leave of Absence Administrator, Wells, that Polavaram denied completing or signing the four FMLA Certification Forms plaintiff had presented to the Company. (Id. ¶ 16). On February 9, 2015, Wells and Reservation Service Manager Kandice Pedley met with plaintiff regarding the discrepancies on plaintiffs FMLA Certification Forms. (Id. ¶ 17).

         At the meeting with Wells and Pedley, plaintiff "was asked if she knew anything about the forms appearing to be altered to which she replied 'no.'" (Pl.'s Stmt. (DE 38) ¶ 18). Plaintiff wrote the following statement at the meeting:

         (Image Omitted)

(Pl's Stmt. (DE 3 8) ΒΆ 18; Pl.'s Ex. 2 (DE 37-2). According to plaintiff, she "was forced to write" this statement "under duress and not allowed to leave this meeting until she wrote it while Tamara Wells suggested what to write in the ...


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