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Whitfield v. Hart County

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division

April 3, 2015

STACY WHITFIELD, Plaintiff,
v.
HART COUNTY, GEORGIA, Defendant.

ORDER

CLAY D. LAND, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Stacy Whitfield sporadically took time off work to care for her disabled child, and then her former employer, Defendant Hart County, Georgia, terminated her. She now sues the County for interfering with her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. ("FMLA"), and for terminating her in retaliation for exercising her rights under the Act. She also claims that the County discriminated against her because of her association with her disabled child, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. ("ADA"), and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794. The County seeks summary judgment on all these claims. (ECF No. 12). For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies summary judgment on the FMLA claims and grants summary judgment as to Whitfield's ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims.

SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Summary judgment may be granted only "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). In determining whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists to defeat a motion for summary judgment, the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, drawing all justifiable inferences in the opposing party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A fact is material if it is relevant or necessary to the outcome of the suit. Id. at 248. A factual dispute is genuine if the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Viewed in the light most favorable to Whitfield, the record reveals the following.

Whitfield began working for the Hart County Board of Tax Assessors on March 14, 2011. For the majority of her employment, Whitfield's job duties included, among other things, staffing the front desk and interacting with citizens visiting the office. Because of her regular interactions with citizens, the County expected Whitfield to work when the office was open- 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Employees kept timesheets recording the hours they worked, and if an employee worked over forty hours a week, they were entitled to overtime pay or compensation time.

Despite these seemingly well-structured work hours, Whitfield alleges that the office was in fact quite relaxed- employees often left the office during the day to run an errand, and at least one employee brought unrelated philanthropic work to the office. Although employees were required to record their time, employees clocked in and out, according to Whitfield, at the same time every day regardless of when they actually worked. Thus, Whitfield testifies that the timesheets were a mere formality and had little correlation to the time that employees actually worked.

When Whitfield began working for the County, her son, then six years old, was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a type of autism. Because of his autism, Whitfield's son suffered from numerous complications, including gastritis, esophagitis, and acid reflux. To care for her son, Whitfield occasionally came into work late or left in the middle of the day. To make up for her absences, Whitfield worked late or on the weekends.

Whitfield's irregular work hours began to cause conflict in July 2011, when the County's new Chief Appraiser, Wayne Patrick, became Whitfield's supervisor. Shortly after this shift in supervisors, in August 2011, Whitfield explained to her new supervisor that her son had Asperger's syndrome and that she often had to take him to doctor's appointments and special education meetings in the middle of the day. Whitfield told her supervisor that she needed to leave work occasionally in order to care for her son, promising to make up for the lost time by working nights and weekends. Her supervisor approved, according to Whitfield, saying, "[F]amily comes first, do what you need to do." Whitfield Dep. 55:15-16, ECF No. 16. Whitfield's supervisor did not encourage Whitfield to apply for FMLA leave, ask for documentation of her son's disability, or make any further inquiry into whether she was eligible for FMLA leave. With this agreement, Whitfield continued to sporadically leave work in the middle of the day, come in late, or miss days to care for her disabled child.

This arrangement appeared to work well, as just one month later, in September 2011, Whitfield had a performance review. Her supervisor wrote: "Stacy and I talked about some attendance issues and she has done outstanding ever since." Patrick Dep. Ex. 8, ECF No. 28-8.

Issues with Whitfield's work schedule arose, however, later that fall. At a date both parties appear unable to recall (October or November 2011), the supervisor called a meeting with Whitfield and a member of the Board of Assessors. The nature of this meeting is disputed. The County claims that the meeting concerned Whitfield's failure to work regular hours. According to the County, they discussed "the importance of having somebody [at the front counter] every day between the hours of 8:00 and 5:00, " and "the importance of her being there to run the front counter." Patrick Dep. 105:22-25, ECF No. 28.

While Whitfield admits that they discussed her "attendance issues, " she has a different recollection of the tone of the meeting. Whitfield claims that her superiors were concerned with her feeling comfortable with her workload. Whitfield Dep. 66:20-68:5. Both parties agree that Whitfield explained that her attendance issues were caused by her son's health complications. In response, the County did not ask for documentation or proof of her child's disability, but instead suggested that she work part-time. Whitfield declined, insisting on working full-time, but on the condition that she could occasionally leave work to care for her disabled son. In response to this request to deviate from regular office hours, Whitfield testified that the County simply "reiterated [that] their most important thing was to keep the work going and get everything finished on time to move on." Id. at 67:5-7. Whitfield understood this remark as approval, and she left the meeting believing she had permission to work irregular hours.

Unfortunately, in January 2012 Whitfield's son became increasingly ill. Accordingly, Whitfield took leave more frequently. From the time her son became ill in January, until her termination in May, Whitfield estimates that she was absent on at least fifteen occasions. Whitfield believed that this sporadic leave was permissible, based on her prior conversations with her supervisor. At one point, on March 27-28, 2012, the child became so ill that he was hospitalized for two days. Like any caring parent, Whitfield stayed with her son, thus missing two days of work. When that happened, Whitfield called her supervisor and told him that her son was in the hospital for complications resulting from Asperger's syndrome. Whitfield later requested two days of vacation leave to cover this absence, which the County granted.

In May 2012, Whitfield had an incident at work that appears to have hastened her termination. Whitfield was tasked with booking a hotel for her supervisor's business trip on May 6-7. Whitfield mistakenly reserved the wrong hotel. The supervisor initially contacted Whitfield to correct the error, but when he needed additional assistance with the reservation, Whitefield was out of the office. Since Whitfield was unavailable, the supervisor had one of Whitfield's coworkers resolve the problem instead-apparently an indication of his dissatisfaction with Whitfield. Shortly after this incident, on May 17, 2012, the Hart County Board of Tax Assessors voted unanimously to terminate Whitfield. The next day, May 18, Whitfield was terminated for "[f]ailure to comply with request by the Chief Appraiser and Chairman of the Board of Assessors to work requested normal hours." Separation Notice, ECF No. 18-7. When Whitfield was terminated, she had unused vacation and sick time.

Importantly, Whitfield's supervisor testified that he never doubted that Whitfield was absent to care for her sick son.

DISCUSSION

Whitfield brings four claims against the County: (1) an FMLA interference claim; (2) an FMLA retaliation claim; (3) an ADA associational discrimination claim; and (4) a Rehabilitation Act associational discrimination claim. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies summary judgment as to ...


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