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Magruda v. Belle Vernon Area School Dist.

February 23, 2009

ROBERT MAGRUDA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BELLE VERNON AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nora Barry Fischer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This case stems from Plaintiff Robert Magruda's ("Magruda") thirty-year employment as a school bus mechanic with Defendant Belle Vernon Area School District ("Belle Vernon"), and turns primarily on a dispute as to whether Plaintiff worked the requisite 1,250 hours during the previous 12-month period to qualify for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601, et seq. Plaintiff claims that he was unlawfully terminated December 20, 2005 after Defendant denied his FMLA request. Both parties have filed motions for summary judgment. (Docket Nos. 37 and 39). For the reasons outlined herein, the Court DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 39), and GRANTS, in part, and DENIES, in part, Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 37).

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The operative facts of the instant case involve a series of disputes over FMLA medical leave between Magruda and Belle Vernon. Magruda was an employee of the Belle Vernon Area School District from 1975 through December 2005. (Docket No. 38 at ¶ 1). During this period, Magruda was first employed as a bus driver, and later as a bus mechanic. (Docket No. 38 at 1). Magruda applied for the bus mechanic job in 1993, but was not immediately awarded the position. (Docket No. 42 at 2). After filing a grievance under his union's collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") that was sustained, Magruda was awarded the position and began work as a bus mechanic in 1995. (Id.). There were no grievances or other disputes between Magruda and Belle Vernon from 1995 through 2002. (Id. at 2).

At some point prior to November 6, 2002, Magruda informed Belle Vernon he would be taking a scheduled leave of absence so that he could undergo gastric bypass surgery. (Docket No. 40-6 at 2). On November 6, 2002, Belle Vernon mailed Magruda a letter acknowledging his planned absence and requesting he fill out a FMLA Health Care Provision Certification. (Id.). Magruda's FMLA application was effective beginning on December 3, 2002, and his surgery was scheduled for December 4, 2002. (Docket No. 40-7 at 2; Docket No. 40-9 at 5).

The period of Magruda's absence for gastric bypass surgery attributable to his FMLA leave request was from January 21, 2003 to March 28, 2003. (Docket No. 40-9 at 5). The total amount of FMLA leave utilized by Magruda for his gastric bypass absence was forty-nine days. (Docket No. 40-9 at 5).

Beginning on December 5, 2003, Magruda took a planned leave of absence from Belle Vernon for a second operation. (Docket No. 40-2 at 16; Docket No. 40-9 at 4; Docket No. 42 at 3). The second operation was to remove excess skin resulting from dramatic weight loss after the gastric bypass surgery. (Docket No. 40-2 at 16; Docket No. 42 at 3). Magruda informed his supervisor of his intentions, and that he planned on utilizing previously accumulated sick days, vacation days, and FMLA leave unused from his first surgery. (Docket No. 40-9 at 4, 6).

From December 5, 2003 to February 6, 2004, Magruda made several calls to Belle Vernon while on leave. (Docket No. 40-9 at 4-6). On February 6, 2004, the Belle Vernon superintendent returned a call from Magruda. (Id. at 4). During this call, the superintendent informed Magruda that he was on unpaid leave and would be billed for his medical expenses. (Id. at 5). Belle Vernon sent Magruda a letter on February 10, 2004, notifying him that he must pay the cost of his medical benefits while on unpaid leave. (Id.). On February 20, 2004, Belle Vernon sent Magruda a memo informing him that he had exceeded his available sick days. (Id.). The Belle Vernon Superintendent of Schools, Robert S. Nagy, sent Magruda a letter on March 2, 2004 informing him that he had "voluntarily abandoned" his position for being on unapproved, unpaid, leave. (Docket No. 40-8 at 2; Docket No. 40-9 at 5).

Magruda responded to the March 2nd letter with a letter dated March 8, 2004. (Docket No. 40-9 at 5). In Magruda's March 8th response, he stated his understanding that he only needed a doctor's excuse to verify his absence and that he would compensate Belle Vernon for his accrued medical benefits. (Docket No. 40-9 at 6). However, the Belle Vernon Board of School Directors terminated Magruda's position on March 15, 2004, and Magruda was informed of his termination on the same day. (Docket No. 40-9 at 6). Magruda then filed a grievance over his termination on March 19, 2004. (Docket No. 40-9 at 6). Magruda's physician medically cleared him for work starting on April 1, 2004. (Docket No. 40-9 at 6).

Magruda's grievance was submitted to arbitration per the collective bargaining agreement between his union and Belle Vernon. (Docket No. 40-9 at 3,8). Central to the arbitration was whether the availability of Magruda's FMLA leave tolled on December 3, 2003, exactly one year after his initial FMLA application, or if he retained the unused portion of his FMLA leave past this date. (Docket No. 40-9 at 15-16). The arbitrator ruled in favor of Magruda on March 3, 2005, and reinstated him with full back pay and benefits effective April 1, 2004. (Docket No. 40-9 at 17; Docket No. 41 at 4). Magruda returned to work at Belle Vernon in April of 2005. (Docket No. 42 at 4; Docket No. 40-2 at 21).

Several months after returning to work, Magruda took a third planned absence from around June 27, 2005 to September 7, 2005. (Docket No. 40-2 at 23; Docket No. 40-21 at 6; Docket No. 42 at 4). This absence occurred so that Magruda could have shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and bicep rupture. (Docket No. 40-2 at 22; Docket No. 42 at 4). Magruda initially planned to use accumulated sick and vacation days to account for his leave. (Docket No. 40-2 at 22-25; Docket No. 42 at 4). Because his accumulated sick and vacation days where insufficient for the entire estimated recuperation time, Magruda intended to supplement them with FMLA medical leave. (Docket No. 40-2 at 22). To this end, Magruda applied a second time for FMLA medical leave on July 27, 2005. (Docket No. 40-2 at 25; Docket No. 40-11 at 4; Docket No. 42 at 4). On September 7, 2005, Magruda was medically cleared to work and returned to his job at Belle Vernon. (Docket No. 40-2 at 28; Docket No. 40-21 at 6). Upon his return to work, Magruda was presented with a letter from the Belle Vernon superintendent that was dated September 1, 2005. (Docket No. 40-12 at 2; Docket No. 40-21 at 6; Docket No. 42 at 4). The September 1, 2005 correspondence denied Magruda's July 27th request for FMLA leave because Belle Vernon reasoned he had not worked the required 1,250 hours in the previous twelve months to be eligible for FMLA leave. (Docket No. 40- 12 at 2; Docket No. 40-21 at 6; Docket No. 42 at 4). The letter also stated that Magruda must reimburse Belle Vernon for benefits accrued during the entire period of Magruda's absence attributable to the rejected FMLA leave, which was approximately from August 4, 2005 to September 7, 2005. (Docket No. 40-12 at ¶ 2; Docket No. 40-21 at 6). In response to Belle Vernon's September 1st letter, Magruda's union president wrote a letter strongly disagreeing with the assessment. (Docket No. 40-13 at 2; Docket No. 42 at 5).

Magruda took an extended absence a fourth time on or around November 14, 2005. (Docket No. 40-21 at 6; Docket No. 42 at 11). The dispute between Belle Vernon and Magruda over the denied August 2005 FMLA leave had not been resolved at the time of Magruda's fourth absence. (Docket No. 42 at 5-6). The November 2005 leave was the result of an ongoing anxiety and depression disorder. (Docket No. 40-14 at 2; Docket No. 42 at 7). As he had no accumulated vacation or sick days, Magruda applied for FMLA leave a third time. (Docket No. 40-14 at 4; Docket No. 40-21 at 5; Docket No. 42 at 7). Under the rationale that Magruda had not worked the required 1,250 hours over the previous twelve months, Belle Vernon denied Magruda's request for FMLA leave in a letter dated November 15, 2005. (Docket No. 40-15 at 2; Docket No. 40-21 at 6; Docket No. 42 at 11). Magruda responded to the November 15th correspondence, with a letter stating that he disagreed with Belle Vernon's position. (Docket No. 40-16 at 2). Belle Vernon did not waiver from its viewpoint, and terminated Magruda's position on December 19, 2005. (Docket No. 40-21 at 6-7; Docket No. 42 at 11).

Magruda learned of the termination via certified mail on December 20, 2005, and filed a grievance on December 21, 2005. (Docket No. 40-17 at 2; Docket No. 40-18 at 2; Docket No. 40-21 at 7; Docket No. 42 at 11). After filing the grievance, Magruda did not contact Belle Vernon until a phone call to his supervisor on February 27, 2006. (Docket No. 40-21 at 7). During the February 27th call, Magruda told his supervisor that he was medically cleared to return to work. (Docket No. 40-21 at 7). Magruda also sent Belle Vernon correspondence on March 1, 2006, and March 17, 2006. (Docket No. 40-21 at 7). These letters emphasized that Magruda was medically capable of returning to work and that he had contacted his supervisor on February 27, 2006 to advise him of his ability to return. (Docket No. 40-21 at 7).

Arbitration regarding the December 21, 2005 grievance was conducted on October 4, 2006. (Docket No. 40-21 at 7). The arbitrator found that Magruda's November 15, 2005, request for FMLA leave was improperly denied. (Docket No. 40-21 at 7). As a result, the arbitrator awarded Magruda full back pay and medical expense reimbursement for a maximum FMLA leave period of twelve weeks. (Docket No. 40-21 at 7). The arbitrator set Magruda's FMLA leave period as beginning on his November 14, 2005 application date, and ending on February 6, 2006. (Docket No. 40-21 at 7). However, because Magruda did not contact Belle Vernon until, at the earliest, February 27, 2006, she found that Magruda was impermissibly absent from work beginning on February 6, 2006. (Docket No. 40-21 at 7). The arbitrator thus ruled on November 30, 2006 that Magruda was terminated for just cause. (Docket No. 40-21 at 7; Docket No. 42 at 13).

III. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On July 26, 2006, Magruda commenced the instant action by filing a Complaint against Belle Vernon in order to recover damages for injuries allegedly sustained pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA"). (Docket No. 1). Belle Vernon filed its Answer to Magruda's Complaint on October 3, 2007. (Docket No. 25).*fn1

Magruda filed the instant Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and Concise Statement of Material Facts on July 11, 2008. (Docket Nos. 37, 38). Belle Vernon filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, a Concise Statement of Material Facts, and an accompanying brief in support that same day. (Docket Nos. 39, 40, 41, 42). Magruda responded to Belle Vernon's Motion for Summary Judgment on September 11, 2008. (Docket Nos. 44, 45). Also on September 11, 2008, Belle Vernon filed a Response to Magruda's Concise Statement of Material Facts, and brief in opposition to the Motion for Partial Summary. (Docket Nos. 47, 48). The instant motion is now fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

IV. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment may only be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED.R.CIV.P. 56(c). Pursuant to Rule 56, the Court must enter summary judgment against the party "who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A motion for summary judgment will not be defeated by the mere existence of some disputed facts, but will be defeated when there is a genuine issue of material fact. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

A dispute of fact is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. McGreevy v. Stroup, 413 F.3d 359, 363 (3d Cir. 2005). In determining whether the dispute is genuine, the court's function is not to weigh the evidence or to determine the truth of the matter, but only to determine whether the evidence of record is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. McGreevy, 412 F.3d at 249. As to materiality, the relevant substantive law identifies which facts are material. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. "Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Id. "Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted." Id.

"The court may consider any material or evidence that would be admissible or usable at trial in deciding the merits of a motion for summary judgment." Turner v. Leavitt, Civ. Action No. 05-942, 2008 WL 828033, at *4 (W.D.Pa. March 25, 2008) (citing Horta v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 2, 8 (1st Cir. 1993) (citing 10 WRIGHT AND MILLER, FEDERALPRACTICE § 2721, at 40 (2d ed.1983))); Pollack v. City of Newark, 147 F.Supp. 35, 39 (D.N.J.1956), aff'd, 248 F.2d 543 (3d Cir.1957), cert. denied, 355 U.S. 964 (1958) ("in considering a motion for summary judgment, the court is entitled to consider exhibits and other papers that have been identified by affidavit or otherwise made admissible in evidence").

In evaluating the evidence, the Court must interpret the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and draw all reasonable inferences in their favor. Watson v. Abington Twp., 478 F.3d 144, 147 (3d Cir.2007). However, the court must not engage in credibility determinations at the summary judgment stage. Simpson v. Kay Jewelers, Div. Of Sterling, Inc., 142 ...


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