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Washington v. Honeywell International Inc.

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

August 23, 2018



          John J. McConnell, Jr. United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Janice Washington[1] filed suit against Defendants Honeywell International, Inc. and North Safety Products LLC, for disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"); the Rhode Island Parental and Family Medical Leave Act (RIPFMLA"); the Civil Rights of People with Disabilities Act ("CRPD"); the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act ("RIFEPA"); and the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act of 1990 ("RICRA"). Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 40) and Ms. Washington's Cross-Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 44). For reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES both motions.

         I. Background and Facts

         Ms. Washington worked for Honeywell in various positions from 1999 until Honeywell terminated her on June 2, 2011. In approximately 2002, Ms. Washington began working as a customer service representative. In 2009, Ms. Washington's doctor, Dr. Suzanne McLaughlin, diagnosed her with hypertension, stress, and anxiety. The following year, Ms. Washington notified her direct supervisor Kimberly Richardson and the customer service manager Sandy Silva of her disabilities and requested time off from work to receive medical treatment. Over the next year, specifically in June 2010, February 2011, and April 2011, Ms. Washington applied for and received intermittent FMLA leave. Ms. Washington's intermittent leave allowed her to attend medical appointments up to three hours per day, one day a week. During Ms. Washington's final April intermittent leave, she requested and Honeywell granted her continuous medical leave from March 31, 2011 through April 11, 2011. After her continuous leave ended, Ms. Washington's previously-approved intermittent FMLA continued until May 30, 2011.

         During this period of FMLA leave, Honeywell disciplined Ms. Washington for excessive tardiness in violation of Honeywell's Site Attendance Policy ("SAP"). The SAP details the steps that Honeywell can take to discipline a worker for tardiness, from the "verbal notice" stage to "termination." Ms. Silva testified that Ms. Washington had a history of tardiness and yet, Honeywell never cited or disciplined her for violating the SAP until after she received FMLA leave. For example, on January 31, 2011, Honeywell issued Ms. Washington a "counseling" for arriving to work a few minutes late on five separate occasions that month. On or about March 28, 2011, while she was on approved intermittent leave, Honeywell skipped several SAP steps and issued Ms. Washington a "Final Warning" for being tardy on seven occasions in February and March. Because it deemed Ms. Washington's absences to be "general abusive unauthorized time away," Honeywell asserts that the SAP's progressive steps can be accelerated. Although the SAP permits acceleration, Ms. Washington was the only employee in Honeywell's customer service department terminated for violating the SAP, even though time records show that other employees were tardy.[2] Moreover, Ms. Washington denies that she was late multiple times per month, claiming that the appearance of tardiness was due to issues with the new eCharge time recording system, [3] defects with her badge, or approved medical appointments. She did testify, however, that whenever she noticed an issue with eCharge's accuracy, she would notify Ms. Richardson who corrected the punch times.

         Ms. Washington also claims that Ms. Richardson made multiple discriminatory comments regarding her disabilities during this period. Ms. Washington alleged that after she learned of her disabilities, Ms. Richardson commented at work "don't stroke out on me." In addition, Ms. Richardson questioned why Ms. Washington needed a second MRI after recently having one.

         After her intermittent leave expired, Ms. Washington alleges that she requested an extension of her intermittent leave, but there does not appear to be any documentation in the record and Honeywell denies receiving any such request. There is some testimony that Honeywell had a policy of reaching out to employees on leave or returning from leave to see if they need additional accommodations, but Honeywell disputes that this proactivity binds it. Three days after Ms. Washington's intermittent FMLA medical leave ended, and without initiating a dialogue with Ms. Washington to see if she needed further accommodation per Honeywell policy, Honeywell terminated her employment.

         Ms. Washington applied for unemployment benefits and notified the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training that she was available for full time work, After failing to obtain work after over one year, Ms. Washington applied for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI"). Ms. Washington testified that the only reason that she applied for disability was that she did not think that another employer would accommodate her medical issues, She further testified that she believed that she could still perform her previous job, but would not return because of how Honeywell treated her. Honeywell's customer service manager, Ms. Silva, also testified that Ms. Washington was able to perform all the essential functions of her job. Based on all the relevant testimony provided during Ms. Washington's SSDI hearing, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found that Ms. Washington was not disabled and denied her SSDI application. Ms. Washington then commenced suit against Honeywell.

         II. Standard of Review

         A "court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). "A fact is material only if it possesses the capacity to sway the outcome of the litigation under the applicable law." Vineberg v. Bissonnette, 548 F.3d 50, 56 (1st Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). "A genuine issue exists where a 'reasonable jury could resolve the point in favor of the nonmoving party.'" Meuser v. Fed. Express Corp., 564 F.3d 507, 515 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting Suarez v. Pueblo Int'l, Inc., 229 F.3d 49, 53 (1st Cir. 2000)). When there are cross motions for summary judgment, the Court must "evaluate each motion independently and determine 'whether either of the parties deserves judgment as a matter of law on facts that are not disputed.'" Matusevich v. Middlesex Mut Assur. Co., 782 F.3d 56, 59 (1st Cir. 2015) (quoting Barnes v. Fleet Nat'l Bank, N.A., 370 F.3d 164, 170 (1st Cir. 2004)). Further, in viewing each motion separately, the Court "draw[s] all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party." Cooper v. D'Amore, 881 F.3d 247, 249-50 (1st Cir. 2018) (quoting Fadili v. Deutsche Bank Nat'l Tr. Co., 772 F.3d 951, 953 (1st Cir. 2014)).

         III. Discussion

         A. The FMLA Claim

         The Court will begin its discussion with Ms. Washington's FMLA[4] claim as it encompasses much of the same analysis as the other claims. Congress enacted the FMLA, recognizing that there are times when individuals are incapable of performing their work duties when they are sick. Hodgens v. Gen. Dynamics Corp., 144 F.3d 151, 159 (1st Cir. 1998) (citing Price v. City of Fort Wayne, 117 F.3d 1022, 1024 (7th Cir. 1997)); see 29 U.S.C. § 2601(b)(2)-(3) (purpose of the Act is to "entitle employees to take reasonable leave for medical reasons" "in a manner that accommodates the legitimate interests of employers.").

         FMLA has two entitlements. First, a qualified employee is entitled to up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave per year when she has "a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position." 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D). The FMLA also provides for "intermittent" leave, which allows an employee to take such leave intermittently "when medically necessary" to attend medical appointments. 29 U.S.C. § 2612(b)(1). Second, the employee is entitled to return to the same position with equivalent pay following a qualified absence. 29 U.S.C. § 2614(a)(1)(A)-(B). These protections ensure that employers do not discriminate against employees who have used FMLA leave, and cannot "use the taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions, such as ... disciplinary actions." 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(c). And the FMLA prohibits both interference and retaliation; to assert an interference claim, a plaintiff asserts that "the employer denied [ ] her substantive rights under the FMLA" and for a retaliation claim, she must assert "that the employer retaliated against ...

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