Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Becknell v. University of Kentucky

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

April 22, 2019

LEE ANNA BECKNELL, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Joseph M. Hood Senior U.S. District Judge.

         Plaintiff Lee Anna Becknell, a former employee of the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, alleges that the University violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654, when it engaged in certain actions and eventually terminated Becknell's employment after she was granted FMLA leave. Becknell alleges both FMLA interference and retaliation.

         In response, the University argues that Becknell's claims are barred based on sovereign immunity and that, in any event, it is also entitled to summary judgment on the substantive claims as a matter of law.

         The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment. Having considered those motions, Becknell's motion for summary judgment [DE 33] is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Similarly, the University's motion for summary judgment [DE 34] is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         First, Becknell's claims are not barred based on sovereign immunity because, in Nev. Dep't of Human Resources v. Hibbs, 538 U.S. 721 (2003), the United States Supreme Court held that Congress expressly abrogated sovereign immunity under the family-leave provision of the FMLA.

         Second, Becknell is entitled to summary judgment on her claim for FMLA interference arising from the University's decision to discipline Becknell for failing to comply with the College od Dentistry's twenty-four-hour notice policy for temporary disability leave. Otherwise, the University is entitled to summary judgment pertaining to FMLA interference for refusal to allow Becknell to use paid leave and requests for Becknell's marriage license and training list.

         Third, summary judgment for both parties is denied on the FMLA retaliation claim because genuine disputes of material fact exist pertaining to whether the University had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Becknell's employment.

         Fourth, and finally, summary judgment on the issue of damages is premature at this point and is denied.

         I. Procedural and Factual Background

         Plaintiff Lee Anna Becknell was employed at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry. Most recently, Becknell served in the position of Account Clerk 3. [DE 34-1 at 4-5, Pg ID 254-55]. In this role, Becknell was responsible for accounts receivable reports (“ARRs”) and explanations of benefits (“EOBs”) for patient accounts. [Id.].

         In the evening on Wednesday, March 8, 2017, Becknell's husband was hospitalized due to an apparent diabetic coma. [Id. at 7, Pg ID 257; DE 33-1 at 5, Pg ID 122]. Becknell contacted her direct supervisor, Adrian Thompson, that same night to notify him of her husband's medical emergency. [DE 33-3 at 13, Pg ID 157]. Becknell was absent from work on the subsequent Thursday and Friday following her husband's hospitalization. [Id. at 14, Pg ID 158].

         Then, Becknell submitted an initial request for FMLA leave on Monday, March 13, 2017. [DE 34-19 at 1, DE 34-11 at 8, Pg ID 329]. Becknell requested FMLA leave from March 9, 2017, until April 3, 2017.[1] [DE 34-19 at 1-5, Pg ID 382-86].

         On March 15, 2017, while Becknell's FMLA request was pending, a representative from the University of Kentucky Medical Center contacted Becknell to notify her that her husband would be released later that day and that she must be present to receive care instructions before he could be discharged. [DE 33-1 at 5-6, Pg ID 122-23]. Becknell submitted an absence request that morning so that she could be at the hospital when her husband was discharged. [DE 33-13 at 1, Pg ID 212].

         Later, on March 22, 2017, Becknell's FMLA request was initially denied by the University of Kentucky because the University claimed their records did not show that Becknell was currently married. [DE 33-14 at 1, Pg ID 213]. Additionally, that same day, Thompson issued a corrective action memorandum due to Becknell's failure to provide twenty-four hours' advance notice when she left work early on March 15, 2017, the day of her husband's discharge from the hospital. [DE 33-17 at 1, Pg ID 218]. According to the memorandum, the College of Dentistry Attendance and Time Reporting Policy requires that scheduled temporary disability leave “be approved by the supervisor no later than 24 hours in advance.” [Id. (emphasis omitted)].

         Subsequently, on March 24, 2017, Becknell's FMLA leave was approved by the University, with a retroactive effective date for FMLA leave beginning on March 8, 2017, and extending until April 3, 2017.[2] [DE 33-19 at 1, Pg ID 221]. Still, retroactive application of Becknell's FMLA leave did not restore her pay for the afternoon of March 15, 2017, because Becknell “had violated the University's time and attendance policy.” [DE 34-1 at 10, Pg ID 260; see also DE 34-8 at 4, Pg ID 315; DE 34-21 at 7, Pg ID 394].

         On April 4, 2017, the day Becknell returned from her approved FMLA leave, the University provided a due process statement to Becknell. [DE 33-20 at 1-2, Pg ID 222-23]. The due process statement inquired about two work related items: (1) EOBs from December 2016 that the University claimed had not been completed, even though Becknell allegedly indicated that they had been completed; and (2) EOBs where the transaction note date and the date of entry into the University's axiUm database did not match. [Id.]. Becknell provided handwritten responses to each of the inquiries. [Id.].

         Ultimately, the University of Kentucky terminated Becknell's employment on April 12, 2017. [DE 33-21 at 1, Pg ID 224]. The employee separation sheet explained that Becknell was “terminated due to falsification of other records.” [Id.]. Of course, the parties dispute the actual reason that Becknell was terminated.

         According to the University, Becknell was terminated because she changed the date field in the transaction notes in the axiUm database system, entering dates that did not represent the actual date that she entered the note into the patient's file. [Id.; see also DE 34-1 at 10-13, Pg Id. 260-63]. The University asserts that Adrian Thompson, Becknell's supervisor, discovered this practice when working on Becknell's accounts while she was on FMLA leave. [DE 34-1 at 10, Pg ID 260]. Additionally, the University states that an audit of Becknell's records, initiated after the University received her responses on the due process statement, found that several other accounts had been falsified. [Id. at 12, Pg ID 262]. The University argues that Becknell's practice of changing the transaction date constitutes falsification of University records in violation of University Policy # 12.0. [DE 33-21 at 2, Pg ID 225].

         Alternatively, Becknell argues that she was terminated because she took FMLA leave. Becknell claims that there was no policy preventing her practice of changing the transaction dates and that her supervisors were aware of her method for inputting patient data. [DE 33-1 at 9, Pg ID 126]. Furthermore, Becknell argues that she was singled out while on FMLA leave because the College of Dentistry failed to investigate whether any other accounts receivable counselors had engaged in the same method of data entry. As such, Becknell asserts she was fired based on her decision to take FMLA leave.

         As a result, Becknell initiated the present lawsuit in Fayette Circuit Court claiming FMLA retaliation, FMLA interference, and a claim for unpaid wages pursuant to K.R.S. § 337.010(1)(c). The action was removed to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, arising under jurisdiction, on December 15, 2017. [DE 1]. After discovery, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. [DE 33; DE 34]. Those motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for review. [See DE 35; DE 37; DE 38; DE 41].

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate only when no genuine dispute exists as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A material fact is one “that might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The moving party has the burden to show that “there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). “A dispute about a material fact is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Smith v. Perkins Bd. of Educ., 708 F.3d 821, 825 (6th Cir. 2013) (internal quotations omitted). The Court construes the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draws all reasonable inferences in the non-moving party's favor. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Hamilton Cty. Educ. Ass'n v. Hamilton Cty. Bd. of Educ., 822 F.3d 831, 835 (6th Cir. 2016).

         III. Analysis

         In the present motion for summary judgment, Becknell argues that she is entitled to summary judgment on her FMLA interference and retaliation claims. Becknell also asserts that she is entitled to summary judgment on Defendant's mitigation of damages defense and that she is entitled to damages under the FMLA as a matter of law.

         Alternatively, the University of Kentucky asserts that it is entitled to summary judgment based on all of Becknell's claims, based on sovereign immunity and because the University had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Becknell's employment. These arguments are addressed in turn below.

         A. Sovereign Immunity

         Initially, the University claims that Becknell's claims for FMLA interference and FMLA retaliation are barred by sovereign immunity. But the University's argument amounts largely to an invitation for this Court to disregard over fifteen-years of binding Supreme Court precedent. In so doing, the University asks this Court to violate the maxim that there are old judges and bold judges, but there are no old, bold judges.

         The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution bars suits by private litigants in federal courts against states and state agencies, including agencies like the University of Kentucky. U.S. Const. amend. XI; Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781, 781-82 (1978); Hutsell v. Sayre, 5 F.3d 996, 999-1003 (6th Cir. 1993) (discussing sovereign immunity and finding that a suit against the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees and University employees in their official capacities was a suit against the state for Eleventh Amendment purposes).

         Still, as the University concedes, sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment is not absolute and is subject to certain limited exceptions. Relevant here, sovereign immunity may be abrogated by Congress with respect to rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 99 (1984) (citing Fitzpatrick v. Bitker, 427 U.S. 445 (1976)). Still, the United States Supreme Court has “required an unequivocal expression of congressional intent to ‘overturn the constitutionally guaranteed immunity of the several States.'” Id. (quoting Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 342 (1979) (holding that 42 U.S.C. § 1983 does not override States' Eleventh Amendment immunity)).

         In Nev. Dep't of Human Res. v. Hibbs, the United States Supreme Court held that Congress clearly explicated an intent to abrogate the sovereign immunity of states for the purposes of the family-care portion of the FMLA and that, in doing so, Congress acted within its authority under the enforcement section of the Fourteenth Amendment. 538 U.S. 721, 726-40 (2003). This abrogation of sovereign immunity by Congress for the family-leave provision of the FMLA has been recognized by the Sixth Circuit and other courts. See, e.g., Diaz v. Michigan Dep't of Corr., 703 F.3d 956, 960-61 (6th Cir. 2013); Touvell v. Ohio Dep't of Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities, 422 F.3d 392, 394, 397-98 (6th Cir. 2005) (discussing Hibbs and stating that the Supreme Court held “that the ‘family-care' provision of the Act, § 2612(A)(1)(C), which entitles employees to take leave to care for seriously ill family members, abrogated state immunity.”); Algie v. Northern Ky. Univ., No. 08-cv-109-DLB-JGW, 2013 WL 624396, at *5 (E.D. Ky. Feb. 20, 2013).

         Here, it is undisputed that Becknell requested FMLA leave under the family-care provision of 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(C). Even so, notwithstanding the status of Hibbs as binding precedent, the University claims it is entitled to sovereign immunity in two ways.

         First, the University invites this Court to adopt the holding of the three dissenting justices in Hibbs. See Hibbs, 538 U.S. at 744-59 (Kennedy, J., joined by Scalia & Thomas, JJ., dissenting). Moreover, the University also points to concurrences in Coleman v. Ct. of App. of Md. to support its contention that Hibbs was incorrectly decided. See 566 U.S. 30, 44-45 (2012) (Scalia, J., & Thomas, J., concurring).

         But, in our common-law legal tradition, courts decide the applicable law by interpreting statutes and applying precedent based on the principle of stare decisis. “Stare decisis ‘promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.'” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 233 (2009) (quoting Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 827 (1991)). Thus, while “[s]tare decisis is not an inexorable command, ” courts must “approach the reconsideration of [their] decisions . . . with the utmost caution.” State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 20 (1997) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In its motion for summary judgment, the University's argument largely amounts to regurgitation of dissents and concurrences from previous cases. [See DE 34-1 at 17-19, Pg ID 267-69]. Additionally, and more importantly, the University has failed to develop a compelling argument the would justify considering departure from the holding in Hibbs. For instance, the University has not argued that abandoning the precedent from Hibbs “would not upset expectations.” See Pearson, 555 U.S. at 233. To the contrary, holding that Hibbs was incorrectly decided would uproot nearly fifteen years of precedent, constituting a major shift in the applicable law. Furthermore, the Supreme Court “has expressed its reluctance to overrule decisions involving statutory interpretation.” Khan, 522 U.S. at 20 (citing Ill. Brick Co. v. Illinois, 431 U.S. 720, 736 (1977)). In Hibbs, the holding rests on the Supreme Court's interpretation of the FMLA statute and the power of Congress to abrogate the sovereign immunity of the states. Finally, the University has not argued that experience has pointed to precedential shortcomings of the Hibbs decision. As a result, the University has not provided a sufficiently compelling justification for this Court to consider departing from the precedent in Hibbs.

         As a result, absent an extremely compelling justification to consider departing from Hibbs, which is lacking here, this Court is bound by the holding of the United States Supreme Court and refuses to consider the propriety of the holding in Hibbs. If the University genuinely believes that there is a compelling reason to depart from the rule of law announced in Hibbs, that argument must be raised before the Supreme Court.

         Second, the University argues that it is entitled to sovereign immunity on Becknell's FMLA retaliation claim because the University argues that Hibbs is limited to FMLA interference claims under 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1). But neither the statutory language in § 2612(a)(1) nor the holding in Hibbs is as limited as the University asserts.

The relevant statutory provision of the FMLA states,
[A]n eligible employee shall be entitled to a total of 12 workweeks of leave during any 12-month period for one or more of the following:
(C) In 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). Nothing in the plain language of this statutory provision pertaining to family-care distinguishes between FMLA interference and retaliation.

         Additionally, the Supreme Court's holding in Hibbs is not limited to situations involving FMLA interference. The holding of the Supreme Court in Hibbs is “that employees of the State of Nevada may recover money damages in the event of the State's failure to comply with the family-care provision of the Act.” Hibbs, 538 U.S. at 725. The Court did not limit its holding to interference with the family-care provision of the FMLA as opposed to retaliation or discrimination under the FMLA. Instead, the Supreme Court held that Congress abrogated sovereign immunity in the event of a state's failure to comply with the family-care provision of the FMLA.

         The Sixth Circuit has acknowledged a similar understanding of the holding in Hibbs. In Diaz, the court explained that “[i]n Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, the Supreme Court held that a state employee may recover money damages in federal court for a state's failure to comply with the family-care provision of the Family Medical Leave Act.” 703 F.3d at 958 (emphasis added).

         Finally, the University has not cited any authority, nor is this Court aware of any binding authority, that interprets Hibbs to be limited to the FMLA interference context. As a result, the University's argument for sovereign immunity on Becknell's FMLA retaliation claim is unavailing.

         In sum, Hibbs constitutes binding precedent that stands for the proposition that Congress expressly abrogated the sovereign immunity of the states for failure to comply with the FMLA family-care provision. As such, the University's claim for summary judgment based on sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment must be denied.

         B. ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.