United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division
J. RANDAL HALL, District Judge.
Plaintiff, Ms. Melissa Pringle, filed this case alleging that Defendant, Family Dollar Stores of Georgia, Inc., terminated her employment as a store manager because of her race and sex in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000(e) et seq., and because of her alleged disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("A.D.A."), as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 12112 et seq. Plaintiff also brings a negligent supervision claim against Defendant under Georgia law.
Before the Court are Defendant's motion for summary judgment (doc. no. 55) as to all Plaintiff's claims on the merits and on the doctrine of judicial estoppel, Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment (doc. no. 56) on her A.D.A. claim, Defendant's request (doc. no. 71) under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 for attorneys' fees and costs incurred in responding to Plaintiff's allegedly frivolous motion for partial summary judgment, and Plaintiff's objection to the declaration of Mr. Todd Jarrett (doc. no. 74.) Upon consideration of the record evidence, the briefs submitted by counsel, and the relevant law, the filings are resolved as set forth below.
This case arises out of the termination of Plaintiff's employment after she failed to return from an eight month medical leave of absence due to bunion-removal surgery. She then brought this suit claiming that she was fired on account of her race, sex and her alleged disability. The facts material to the above motions follow.
A. Factual Background
Defendant is a subsidiary of Family Dollar Stores, Inc. ("Family Dollar") and is an employer as contemplated by Title VII and the A.D.A. (Barkley Decl. ¶ 1; Ans. to Pl.'s Am. Compl. ¶ 3; see Am. Compl. ¶ 3.) Defendant sells items such as clothing, household goods, cosmetics, health and beauty aids, and food at discounted prices. (See Barkley Decl. ¶ 7.) Defendant's stores are organized into numerical districts, which are comprised of between fifteen and thirty individual stores. (Id. ¶¶ 8-9.) Districts are managed by district managers or area operations managers, and individual stores are managed by store managers. (Id. ¶¶ 10-11, 16.)
2) Ms. Stacev Bales
In the summer of 2008, Ms. Stacey Bales ("Bales") became the district manager responsible for the Wrightsville store along with nineteen other stores. She supervised the store manager for each of those twenty stores, including Plaintiff. (Pringle Dep. at 84; Bales Dep. at 7.) She served as district manager until July 2010. (Def.'s Resps. to Pl.'s First Interrogs. at 17-18.) Bales was the ultimate decision maker for Plaintiff's requests for work restrictions, such as a request to work only part-time rather than full-time due to an alleged physical disability, and for Plaintiff's termination. (Halstead Dep., Ex. 50; Bales Dep. at 7, 19.) Bales never disciplined or suspended Plaintiff, and Plaintiff never lodged any complaints against Bales prior to her separation in 2010. (Pringle Dep. at 83-84.) Aside from Plaintiff's complaint, Bales has never been accused of unfair treatment in the workplace or been the subject of complaints of unfair treatment within Defendant's organization. (Bales Dep. at 230-31.) However, Plaintiff did not consider Bales to be a good district manager. (Pringle Dep. at 84.) She stated that Bales regularly failed to answer phone calls, believed that Bales was too demanding of her, was negative, and had an attitude problem. (Id. at 84-85.)
Plaintiff is an African-American female. (Ans. to Am. Compl. ¶ 13; see Am. Compl. ¶ 13.) Defendant hired Plaintiff as an assistant store manager at Defendant's Wadley, Georgia, store in the first quarter of 2005 (Pringle Dep. at 75, 78), then promoted Plaintiff to store manager about one year later and relocated her to Defendant's Wrightsville, Georgia, store. (Id. at 79-80.) She remained at the Wrighstville store until her last day of work for Defendant on June 8, 2009. (Pringle Dep. at 80.) Plaintiff earned a salary of approximately $523.00 per week when Defendant automatically terminated her employment on January 31, 2010, for failure to return from leave. (Barkley Decl. ¶ 17; Bales Dep., Pl.'s Ex. 29; Barkey Dep. at 30, 32)
4) The Store Manager Position
During Plaintiff's employment with Defendant, store managers were responsible for managing the daily operations of a store; employee hiring, development, discipline, supervision, and safety; and administering Defendant's policies found in the store associate handbook. (Barkley Decl. ¶ 11; see Pringle Dep. at 97-99, 101 & Exs. 1-2.) Relevant to this action, store managers were responsible for administering attendance and leave of absence policies for store employees. (Pringle Dep. at 98-99 & Ex. 2.) Defendant's leave of absence policy provides:
All requests for leaves of absence should be made in writing by the associate prior to the beginning of the leave. The written request should be submitted to the Store Manager (or for leaves requested by [the] Store Manager, to the District Manager). If the leave is approved, you will be informed of the terms and conditions of the leave, including the effective date and the ending date of the leave. An associate desiring an extension of his or her leave should submit a written request prior to the ending date of the absence.... It is your responsibility to provide the written information necessary to document the leave of absence.
With proper authorization, you may be permitted to take a leave of absence up to a period of three months. This may be extended by your written request to your immediate supervisor and approval of the Human Resources Department up to an additional three months. Should a period of absence or a period of absences exceed six months, the Associate will be considered terminated.... Additional leave beyond six months will normally be considered on a case-by-case basis as a reasonable accommodation for qualified individuals with disabilities absent undue hardship. However, such leave must be approved by the Human Resources Department to ensure that the Company does not endure an undue hardship due to the job vacancy.
( Id., Ex. 2. If a request for a leave of absence was granted, the employee bore the responsibility to maintain communication at all times with her supervisor and Defendant. (Halstead Dep. at 93.) The associate handbook also provides examples "of situations for which discipline up to and including immediate discharge may be imposed[, ]" including an employee's "failure to contact [her] supervisor when late, absent, and as required during a leave, and at the expected time of return from a leave of absence." (Pringle Dep., Ex. 2.) Defendant has two forms to request leaves of absences, one to be used prior to going on a leave of absence and one during the leave of absence. (Halstead Dep. at 28-29.) Defendant allowed eligible employees to take twelve weeks of leave for their serious health conditions under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). (Pringle Dep., Ex. 2. FMLA leave ran concurrently with Defendant's allowed six months of leave. (Id.
Store managers were also expected to be able to lift up to 55 pounds from floor level to above shoulder height and to meet the demands of frequent walking, standing, stooping, kneeling, climbing, pushing, putting, and repetitive lifting "with or without reasonable accommodation." (Pringle Dep. at 97 & Ex. 1). At the time, store managers were salaried employees expected to work full-time, which was defined as 52 hours per week. (Barkley Decl. ¶ 13.)
When Plaintiff applied for the store manager position, she did not notify Defendant that she had any restrictions on her ability to do the job. (Pringle Dep. at 88.) Nor did Plaintiff identify or request any accommodations with or alterations to the standard duties and responsibilities for a store manager. (Pringle Dep. at 92-93.) At her deposition, Plaintiff confirmed that she did not have any physical limitations in performing her job. (Id.) Prior to her surgery in June of 2009, Plaintiff never reported any medically-related issue with her foot to Defendant. (Id.) Plaintiff described herself as a "good" store manager and indicated that she was able to perform all the functions and responsibilities of her position "satisfactorily." (Id. at 97-98.)
During Plaintiff's employment with Defendant, store managers' salaries were determined on an annual basis by district managers with the aid of a pay modeler. (Barkley Dep. at 14.) The pay modeler suggested salary ranges based on various factors, including geographic location, risk class, and sales volume for a given store. (Id.) Additionally, store managers who transferred laterally to other stores would not see their salary reduced if the pay modeler suggested a lower salary range for the store. (Id.) at ¶ 15.
Defendant did not employ part-time store managers or officially have a "holding manager" position during the times relevant to this action. (See Id., ¶ 12; Barkley Dep. at 44.) Unofficially, Defendant used "holding managers, " also known as "floaters, " to substitute for managers where needed. (Pringle Dep. at 34; Bales Dep. at 69, 140; Barkley Dep. at 44; Halstead Dep. at 45.) For example, a holding manager would occasionally fill in for a manager on a leave of absence or a manager who had suddenly left his or her position. (Bales Dep. at 69.)
5 Plaintiff's Surgery
Plaintiff observed that her right foot swelled and hurt after she spent "a long period of time" working. (Pringle Dep. at 92, 179.) She could stand for more than two hours at a time but could not stand the entire day before she experienced pain in her foot. (Id. at 180.) Plaintiff would occasionally sit down in the store's office when her foot began hurting, but could not recall how often she had to sit down throughout the week. (Id. at 181-82.) Prior to her surgery, Plaintiff had not taken medication for her foot nor had she received medical treatment for her discomfort. (Id. at 181; Smith Dep. at 51.)
On March 31, 2009, Thomas Smith, M.D. ("Dr. Smith"), a podiatrist, diagnosed Plaintiff with abunion on her right foot. (Smith Dep. at 10 & Ex. 1.) A bunion is an "angular deformity on the foot where the bones that make up the great toe stick out on the inside of [the] foot.... [It] can be painful to shoe pressure and... within the joint itself." (Id. at 10-11.) Plaintiff's bunion was a "significant deformity to her great toe" and was exaggerated when she stood on it. (Id. at 67 & Ex. 1.) Dr. Smith observed that Plaintiff's bunion experienced a "slow progression of deformity and pain over time." (Id. at 64 & Ex. 1.) Plaintiff indicated that she had had the bunion since childhood and complained to Dr. Smith of "pain within the joint as well as difficulty with shoe fit." (Id. at 11, 63 & Ex. 1.) However, Dr. Smith noted that Plaintiff walked with a normal gait, did not wear a corrective shoe, and did not limp. (Id. at 23-24, 29 & Ex. 1.)
Days before her surgery, Plaintiff notified Bales that she would be taking a medical leave of absence to undergo a procedure to remove her bunion. (Pringle Dep. at 52; Bales Dep. at 21, 168.) Bales informed Plaintiff that she would place a holding manager in her position and that Plaintiff's job was secure so long as she communicated with Bales and turned in the proper documentation for her leave. (See Bales Dep. at 37.)
Plaintiff had surgery to correct the bunion on or about June 12, 2009, which involved general anesthesia. (Pringle Dep. at 95; Smith Dep. at 16, 66.) Dr. Smith cut the bone at the base of the first metatarsal and inserted two screws to realign the first metatarsal. (Smith Dep. at 65.) He then inserted a "joint release at the level of the joint to straighten the toe on a newly straightened first metatarsal." (Id.)
6 Plaintiff's Leave of Absence
On June 8, 2009, prior to the operation, Plaintiff contacted Defendant and requested to apply for FMLA leave. (Jarrett Decl., Ex. 1.) Defendant opened a claim file for Plaintiff's leave. (Id.) On June 12, 2009, Defendant mailed a letter confirming its receipt of Plaintiff's FMLA leave of absence request to Plaintiff's mailing address of record. ( Id., Ex. 2; Pringle Dep., Ex. 4. A health care provider certification form ("provider certification") was attached to the letter to be submitted to Defendant for approval of Plaintiff's leave. (Jarrett Decl., Ex. 2.) The letter notified Plaintiff that she was required to confirm her return-to-work date with her district manager prior to the end of her leave and to promptly notify her district manager and Defendant if her return-to-work date changed. (Id.) Dr. Smith completed and submitted the certification form on June 12, 2009, which indicated that Plaintiff would be out on leave from June 12, 2009, until September 13, 2009. (Jarrett Decl., Ex. 3; Pringle Dep., Ex. 5.)
By letter dated June 25, 2009, Defendant notified Plaintiff that her request for FMLA leave had been approved through September 3, 2009. (Jarrett Decl., Ex. 4; Pringle Dep., Ex. 6.) The letter advised Plaintiff of her obligations for returning to work, which included confirming her return date with her supervisor and submitting a completed fitness for duty form. (Jarrett Decl., Ex. 4.) Defendant notified Bales of Plaintiff's leave of absence on August 25, 2009. (Jarrett Decl., Ex. 1.)
7 Plaintiff's First Extension of Her Leave of Absence
By letter dated August 25, 2009, Defendant confirmed that Plaintiff was scheduled to return to work on September 14, 2009, and warned that if she did not return to work on this date, that she could be considered to have voluntarily resigned per Defendant's policies. ( Id., Ex. 5; Pringle Dep., Ex. 7.) Plaintiff contacted Defendant the same day seeking an extension of her return-to-work date. Defendant advised Plaintiff that she would need to submit an updated provider certification. (Jarrett Declaration, Ex. 1.) Plaintiff submitted a fitness for duty form, dated September 8, 2009, requesting an extension of ...