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Braden v. County of Washington

April 23, 2010

DEBORAH BRADEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COUNTY OF WASHINGTON AND THE COURT OF COMMON PLEAS OF WASHINGTON COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Donetta W. Ambrose Judge, United States District Court

OPINION AND ORDER

SYNOPSIS

In this civil action, Plaintiff claims that the Defendant County retaliated against her for her taking leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(2), and interfered with her FMLA rights, 29 U.S.C. §2615(a)(1). Specifically, Plaintiff avers that she was a joint employee of the Defendant and the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County ("County Court"), and took FMLA leave for a serious medical condition. She was subsequently discharged, allegedly for unsatisfactory attendance. The County Court has been found immune from Plaintiff's FMLA claims.

Before the Court is the County's Motion for Summary Judgment, which seeks judgment on grounds that Plaintiff was not its employee, and was instead solely employed by the County Court. Therefore, Defendant contends, it cannot be held liable under the FMLA. In addition, Defendant argues that even if it is deemed Plaintiff's employer, it did not violate her FMLA rights as a matter of law.

Plaintiff has filed a cross-Motion for Summary Judgment, seeking a judgment that the County is liable under the FMLA as her employer, and violated her FMLA rights as a matter of law.

For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion will be denied, and Defendant's granted in part.

OPINION

I. Applicable Standards

Summary judgment shall 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 of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). In considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court must examine the facts in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. International Raw Materials, Ltd. V. Stauffer Chem . Co., 898 F. 2d 946, 949 (3d Cir. 1990). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of any genuine issues of material fact. United States v. Onmicare, Inc., 382 F. 3d 432 (3d Cir. 2004). Rule 56, however, mandates the entry of judgment against a 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. Celotex Corp. v. Cattrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed. 265 (1986).

II. FACTS

In this case, the focus is on the relationship between Defendant and the Domestic Relations Section ("DRS") of the County Court, vis-a-vis Plaintiff's employment. Unless otherwise indicated, the following background facts are undisputed.

Plaintiff submitted to the County Human Resources Office an application for employment with the of the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County. Plaintiff interviewed with the Director of DRS, and a County HR employee was present at the interview. Plaintiff was hired in a position at DRS. The Director of DRS told Plaintiff that she was being employed in a court-related office, and that she was a Washington County employee. In the DRS, she was supervised by DRS Deputy Director, who was supervised by the DRS Director, who was in turn supervised by the Court Administrator, who was in turn supervised by the DRS Judge, who was in turn supervised by the President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas.*fn1 The President Judge of the County Court has the authority to hire and fire people.

Plaintiff received her day-to-day work assignments from the Director or Deputy Director of DRS. The County Court adopted, followed, or borrowed certain policies of the County, such as those relating to aspects of vacation, sick leave, and the FMLA, and DRS has certain of its own policies, such as a dress code and political activity policy. Salary increases were approved by the Defendant, and Defendant paid Plaintiff's salary and provided her employee benefits.*fn2 There is no evidence that Defendant made, as opposed to approved, decisions about Plaintiff's compensation.

In October of 2007, Plaintiff received a written warning and a three-day suspension for missing work. The DRS Director told Defendant's HR Director that they were going to issue a written warning, and asked the opinion of the HR Director, who recommended the written warning.*fn3 Due to Plaintiff's continued absenteeism, the DRS Director and Deputy Director recommended that the Deputy Court Administrator terminate Plaintiff. The Deputy Court Administrator also talked to the Defendant's HR Director, who recommended that the Deputy Court Administrator fire Plaintiff. The Deputy Court Administrator, DRS Director, and DRS Deputy Director met with Plaintiff to discuss her absences, and whether she should be terminated. The decision to terminate Plaintiff was made by the Deputy Court Administrator. The Deputy Court Administrator then fired Plaintiff in 2007.

III. THE PARTIES' MOTIONS

A. Does FMLA liability require that Defendant be Plaintiff's employer, or merely "an" employer?

First, I address Plaintiff's threshold argument that Defendant needn't be her employer -- it merely needs to be an employer -- in order to be liable to her under the FMLA.

Plaintiff, appearing to concede that Defendant must be her employer in order to sustain interference liability under the FMLA, does not attempt to buttress her interference claim in this regard. Indeed, to succeed on a FMLA interference claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that she was entitled to and denied some benefit under the FMLA . See Sommer v. The Vanguard Group, 461 F.3d 397, 399 (3d Cir. 2006); Bearley v. Friendly Ice Cream Corp., 322 F. Supp. 2d 563, 570-71 (M.D. Pa. 2004). "An interference action...is only about whether the employer provided the employee with the entitlements guaranteed by the FMLA." Callison v. City of Philadelphia, 430 F.3d 117, 119-20 (3d Cir. 2005). Accordingly, a non-employee is not entitled to FMLA leave, and cannot state a claim for denial of a benefit only available to an employee. Hayduk v. City of Johnstown, 580 F. Supp. 2d 429 480 (W.D. Pa. 2008); Dvorak v. Mostardi Platt Assocs., 289 F.3d 479 (7th Cir. 2002).

As this Court has stated, "to be an eligible employee under the Act, a person must first be employed by the employer against whom he seeks to assert the right." Hayduk, 580 F. Supp. 2d at 472 (citing 29 U.S.C. § 2611(2)(A), (3)). These principles suggest that absent an employment relationship between an employer and an FMLA claimant, the claimant is not entitled to any benefit from the employer. Therefore, she cannot sue the employer for interfering with that benefit. I will proceed under the assumption that Defendant must be Plaintiff's employer in order to support FMLA liability for interference.*fn4

Plaintiff, however, argues that she may maintain an FMLA retaliation claim against an entity that is not her employer. At first glance, the FMLA and correlating Department of Labor ("DOL") regulations appear to support her argument.*fn5 Plaintiff anchors her retaliation claim in 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(2), which makes it illegal for "any employer to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any individual for opposing any practice made unlawful by [the FMLA]." The related regulations, on which Plaintiff relies, use the term "individual" rather than employee, and specify that employee status is not required.*fn6 Accordingly, Plaintiff argues, these provisions permit suit even if Defendant is not her employer.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, however, has held that these provisions are inapplicable to claims such ...


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