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Erdman v. Nationwide Insurance Co.

June 12, 2007

BRENDA L. ERDMAN, PLAINTIFF
v.
NATIONWIDE INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the court is a motion for summary judgment (Doc. 42), filed by defendant Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company ("Nationwide"), on the claims of plaintiff Brenda L. Erdman ("Erdman"). The dispute in the instant case centers around Nationwide's decision to terminate Erdman's employment. Erdman asserts claims pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654, the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), PA. STAT. ANN. tit. 43, §§ 951-963. Erdman also asserts a state law claim of breach of an employment contract. For the reasons that follow, Nationwide's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 42) will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Statement of Facts*fn1

Erdman began her employment with Nationwide in 1980. (Doc. 15 ¶ 6; Doc. 18 ¶ 7.) In 1993, while still employed at Nationwide, Erdman gave birth to a daughter with a heart condition and Down Syndrome. (Doc. 15 ¶ 7; Doc. 18 ¶ 8.) In 1998, Erdman requested part-time work status "due to the needs of her disabled child." (Doc. 15 ¶ 8.) Erdman's request was granted by Patty Sarno ("Sarno"), who was then Erdman's supervisor. (Doc. 15 ¶ 8; Doc. 18 ¶ 9.) On January 25, 2002, Erdman requested a reduction to a four-day work week. This request was also granted by Sarno. (Doc. 15 ¶ 9; Doc. 18 ¶ 10.)

On April 22, 2002, Stella Getgen ("Getgen") replaced Sarno as Erdman's supervisor. (Doc. 15 ¶ 11; Doc. 18 ¶ 12.) On March 12, 2003, Getgen and others informed Erdman that her part-time position was being revoked and that her job would be eliminated if she did not accept a full-time position. (Doc. 15 ¶ 13; Doc. 18 ¶ 14.) On March 21, 2003, Erdman informed Nationwide representatives of her decision to accept the full-time position. (Doc. 44 ¶¶ 7, 10; Doc. 60 ¶¶ 7, 10.) During her meeting with Nationwide representatives, Erdman "sought confirmation that she would be able to use her previously scheduled vacation in August 2003, to care [for] and supervise her 10-year-old daughter." (Doc. 60 ¶ 7.) Erdman was informed by a Nationwide representative that it was "unlikely" that she would permitted to take the requested vacation. (Doc. 44 ¶ 8; Doc. 60 ¶ 8.) Erdman responded that she would request leave under the FMLA if her previous vacation request was not approved. (Doc. 44 ¶ 9; Doc. 60 ¶ 9.) To solidify her request for leave, Erdman submitted FMLA paperwork to Nationwide on April 22, 2003, seeking a period of leave that was to commence on July 7, 2003. (Doc. 15 ¶ 14; Doc. 18 ¶ 15; Doc. 44 ¶ 30; Doc. 60 ¶ 30.) On May 6, 2003, Erdman sent an email inquiring about the status of her FMLA request and asking that she be notified of Nationwide's decision by May 9, 2003. (Doc. 15 ¶ 15; Doc. 18 ¶ 16.)

Meanwhile, on May 8, 2003, Getgen was monitoring telephone calls as part of a quality assurance program and discovered one in which Erdman stated: "O.K., hold on. This is a personal call and should not be reviewed for quality purposes, assholes."*fn2 (Doc. 44 ¶¶ 18-19; Doc. 60 ¶ 18.) Getgen reported this language to her supervisor. (Doc. 44 ¶ 19.) The next day, Nationwide terminated Erdman's employment. (Doc. 15 ¶ 16; Doc. 18 ¶ 17.)

Nationwide alleges that Erdman's employment was terminated because she engaged in "multiple incidents of inappropriate workplace behavior." (Doc. 43 at 6.) In addition to the recorded telephone conversation quoted above, Nationwide alleges that Erdman engaged in the following inappropriate behavior: (1) accusing Getgen of "lying, retaliating against employees, and creating a hostile work environment," (2) forwarding a copy of an admonishment received from Getgen to other Nationwide employees, (3) attempting to solicit the assistance of a corporate officer in another state with respect to the elimination of her part-time position, (4) inflating the issue of "Friday dress down day" into one involving multiple levels of management, (5) directing other associates to work more slowly to avoid increasing the company's production standards, and (6) questioning other associates about the amount of their salary increases. (Doc. 44 ¶¶ 11, 23, 26.) Erdman denies these allegations and counters that her termination was the culmination of "a focused and insidious campaign by her supervisor and other Nationwide managers . . . to develop pre-textual bases upon which to fire her to prevent her from taking FMLA leave." (Doc. 61 at 6; Doc. 60 ¶¶ 11, 23, 26.)

Erdman commenced the instant action on May 9, 2005 and filed an amended complaint on March 3, 2006. (See Docs. 1, 15.) Erdman alleges that Nationwide:

(1) interfered with her rights under the FMLA, (2) retaliated against her in violation of the FMLA, (3) discriminated against her in violation of the ADA and PHRA, and (4) breached the terms of her employment contract. (Doc. 15.) Nationwide subsequently moved for summary judgment on Erdman's claims.*fn3 (Doc. 42.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

II. Standard of Review

Through summary adjudication the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine issue as to any material fact," and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). It places the burden on the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings," in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c), (e). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. Pappas, 331 F. Supp. 2d at 315.

III. Discussion

Nationwide's decision to terminate Erdman's employment prompted Erdman to assert claims based upon the FMLA, the ADA, the PHRA, and common law breach of contract principles. Nationwide now asks the court to grant judgment in its favor, arguing that Erdman has failed to establish a prima facie case with respect to each of her claims. The court will address Erdman's claims seriatim.

A. FMLA

The FMLA was enacted to "balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families." 29 U.S.C. § 2601(b)(1); Conoshenti v. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 364 F.3d 135, 141 (3d Cir. 2004). It permits eligible employees to take "reasonable leave for medical reasons," including caring for a spouse, child, or parent who suffers from a "serious health condition." 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601(b)(2), 2612(a)(1)(d); see also Chittister v. Dep't of Cmty. & Econ. Dev., 226 F.3d 223, 225 (3d Cir. 2000). Two distinct causes of action may arise under the FMLA: (1) an "interference" claim, alleging that the employer interfered with or denied an employee's FMLA rights,*fn4 and (2) a "retaliation" claim, alleging that the employer took an adverse employment action against the employee in retaliation for exercising a right under the FMLA.*fn5 See Bearley v. Friendly, 322 F. Supp. 2d 563, 570-71 (M.D. Pa. 2004); Parker v. Hahnemann Univ. Hosp., 234 F. Supp. 2d 478 (D.N.J. 2002).

In the action sub judice, Erdman asserts both interference and retaliation claims. To advance either claim, Erdman must first establish that she was eligible to request FMLA leave. An "eligible employee" is an employee who: (1) has been employed by the same employer for at least twelve months, and (2) has provided "at least 1,250 hours of service" to his or her employer during the twelve-month period immediately preceding the commencement of his or her FMLA leave. 29 U.S.C. § 2611(2)(A)(ii). In the instant case, the first eligibility requirement is clearly established by Erdman's two decades of employment with Nationwide. (Doc. 15 ¶ 6; Doc. 18 ¶ 7.) However, Nationwide contends that the second eligibility requirement has not been met because Erdman worked only 1,179.75 hours in the twelve-month period immediately preceding the scheduled commencement of her leave.*fn6 (See Doc. 43 at 11; Doc. 63 at 6 n.2.) Erdman counters that Nationwide's calculation is erroneous because it does not include 118.5 additional hours*fn7 that she worked from her home "on behalf of Nationwide, for which she was not paid, but for which she kept reliable records for her use of comp time and during which she unquestionably furthered the interests of her employer, Nationwide."*fn8 (See Doc. 61 at 15; Doc. 40-5 at 17-18.)

To resolve this dispute, the court must examine the contours of the term "hours of service" as contained in the FMLA. While the FMLA does not expressly define "hours of service," the Act directs the court to calculate hours of service "according to the principles established under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for determining compensable hours of work." 29 C.F.R. § 825.110(c); see also 29 U.S.C. § 2611(2)(C); Koontz v. USX Corp., No. 99-3191, 2001 WL 752656, at *7 (E.D. Pa. July 2, 2001). Whether a given set of facts meets the FLSA's definition of hours of work is a question of law. See Chao v. Tradesmen Int'l, Inc., 310 F.3d 904, 908 (6th Cir. ...


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