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Robertson v. Riverstone Communities, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

May 28, 2019

ROSE ROBERTSON, Plaintiff,
v.
RIVERSTONE COMMUNITIES, LLC, Defendant.

          FINAL REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          JOHN K. LARKINS III UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Rose Robertson formerly worked as a property manager for Defendant Riverstone Communities LLC, a mobile home community management firm. On June 3, 2015 and July 14, 2015, she was reprimanded for poor performance in her management of two of Defendant's properties in metro Atlanta. Then, from July 16 through July 26, 2015, she took a medical leave of absence. Three days after she returned to work, on July 30, 2015, Defendant fired her, ostensibly due to unsatisfactory performance. Plaintiff asserts that she was actually reprimanded and terminated (as well as subjected to a hostile work environment) on the basis of her race (African-American) in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. She also contends that Defendant unlawfully interfered with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., and terminated her in retaliation for exercising her FMLA rights.

         The case is before the Court on Defendant Riverstone Communities, LLC's Motion for Summary Judgment. [Doc. 42.] For the following reasons, it is RECOMMENDED that the motion be GRANTED.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         A court should grant summary judgment when there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of showing that it is entitled to summary judgment. Id. (“The 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.”); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (“Of course, a party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.”); Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991) (holding that Celotex did not change the rule that the movant bore the initial burden, and stating, “Even after Celotex it is never enough simply to state that the non-moving party cannot meet its burden at trial”). The movant may carry its burden by showing the court that there is “an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325.

         “Only when that burden has been met does the burden shift to the non-moving party to demonstrate that there is indeed a material issue of fact that precludes summary judgment.” Clark, 929 F.2d at 608. The nonmovant is then required “to go beyond the pleadings” and to present competent evidence in the form of affidavits, answers to interrogatories, depositions, admissions and the like, designating “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (quotation omitted); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). “[M]ere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005). Resolving all doubts in favor of the nonmoving party, the court must determine “whether a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the plaintiff on the evidence presented.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). In evaluating a summary judgment motion, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [the non-movant's] favor. Id. at 255.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Preliminary Considerations

         The Court has considered Defendant's Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (“DSMF” [Doc. 42-1]), Plaintiff's Statement of Additional Facts (“PSAF” [Doc. 44-2]), and the responses thereto (“R-DSMF” [44-1] and “R-PSAF” [Doc. 51-7]), and where possible, the Court has relied on those statements of facts and responses. In large part, however, the statements and responses are unhelpful. In contravention of the local rules, both parties' statements and responses are lengthy, contain immaterial information, and are argumentative. Plaintiff's statement of additional facts is especially difficult to follow due to its length and because it is organized generally by witnesses, rather than chronologically or by subject matter. The Court will not rule on each and every objection or dispute presented by the parties, and will discuss objections and disputes only when necessary to do so regarding a genuine dispute of a material issue of fact. Additionally, the Court includes some facts drawn from its independent review of the record. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(3).

         B. Facts

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff as the non-moving party, the relevant facts are as follows:

         Defendant is a mobile home property management firm. (Dep. of Hillary Snyder [Doc. 55] at 32.) In October 2012, Defendant hired Plaintiff as the Property Manager for the Deer Creek Mobile Home Community (“Deer Creek”) in Stockbridge, Georgia. (DSMF ¶ 2.) Sarah Riutta, who was serving as Defendant's Director of Property Management at that time, hired Plaintiff for the position. (Dep. of Sarah Maureen Riutta [Doc. 49] at 17.)

         In January 2014, Plaintiff won the Property Manager of the Year award for 2013. (DSMF ¶ 13, R-DSMF ¶ 13.) There is no dispute that she won the award based on objective financial goals, including occupancy rates, accounts receivable rates, [1] and overall profitability. (DSMF ¶ 13, R-DSMF ¶ 13; see also Riutta Dep. at 29-30.) Despite winning the award on her own merit, a property manager named “Nicole” told Plaintiff at the awards ceremony that she won the award because she is black. (Dep. of Pl. [Doc. 59] at 114; DSMF ¶ 14.) Another property manager, René Scott, who was standing next to Nicole, agreed, commenting, “yes, she won it because she was black.” (Pl. Dep. at 114; DSMF ¶ 15.) In response, Plaintiff giggled and walked away; however, she thought the comments were disrespectful and offensive. (Pl. Dep. at 115-16.) Plaintiff reported the comments to Shannon Smith, her supervisor at the time. (Id.; Dep. of Shannon Smith [Doc. 60] at 13.)

         Two months later, in March 2014, Plaintiff assumed property management responsibilities for a second community, Clayton Village Mobile Park Community (“Clayton Village”) in Jonesboro, Georgia. (DSMF ¶ 16; Pl. Dep. at 24-25.) At that time, she reported to Senior Regional Manager Melissa Loeffelbein.[2] (DSMF ¶ 16.) Around five months later, in August 2014, Plaintiff was promoted to Area Manager and took on additional duties of overseeing the management operations at five additional communities in Georgia.[3] (Pl. Dep. at 49-50; Snyder Dep. at 37.) Following her promotion, she continued to report to Ms. Loeffelbein. (DSMF ¶ 18.)

         Less than a year later, on May 4, 2015, Plaintiff was demoted to Property Manager, apparently due to performance issues.[4] (Snyder Dep. at 36, 53; Dep. of Melissa Loeffelbein [Doc. 58] at 45.) Within a week of her demotion, Plaintiff began to report to Ms. Scott, one of the individuals who had commented that Plaintiff won the 2013 property manager of the year award due to her race. (DSMF ¶ 24; PSAF ¶ 13.) On May 10, 2015, Plaintiff received an email from Ms. Scott bearing the subject line “Expectations.” (Pl. Dep. at 75-76, Ex. 8.) The email read as follows:

Rose,
We have to get this property headed in the right direction immediately. Properties that do not show improvement over the span of 3 months (AR or occupancy) are subject to disciplinary action.
Deer Creek
• Occupancy was at 499 in Feb and has been 497 since March
• AR continues to trend around $14, 000 for the last two month[s] (this must improve this month)
We need to get the occupancy back up immediately. The AR needs to show improvement each month. It cannot just continue to stay stagnant.
Please let me know if you have questions.

(Pl. Dep. Ex. 8.) Plaintiff understood from this email that Ms. Scott was not happy with the state of occupancy or accounts receivable at Deer Creek. (DSMF ¶ 30.)

         Problems at the property persisted, however. Over the following month, the occupancy and AR numbers for Deer Creek failed to improve. (DSMF ¶ 31; Pl. Dep. at 79.) In addition, two pools at Deer Creek that Plaintiff was supposed to have opened by Memorial Day remained closed as of June 3, 2015, despite her efforts to open the pools on time.[5] (DSMF ¶ 32; R-DSMF ¶ 32.) On June 3, 2015, Plaintiff was reprimanded for performance issues. (Pl. Dep. at 79-80, Ex. 9.) Her performance deficiencies were detailed in a “Team Member Counseling Summary” which Plaintiff reviewed in a meeting with Ms. Loeffelbein and Ms. Scott. (Id.) As Plaintiff's supervisor, Ms. Scott had input into the contents of the warning. (Scott Dep. at 109; see also Leoffelbein Dep. at 50-51.) The warning noted decreasing occupancy numbers at the Deer Creek and Clayton Village properties and increasing AR at Clayton Village. (Pl. Dep. Ex. 9.) It stated:

The occupancy at Deer Creek has stayed stagnant at 497 for the months of March, April and May. This is a drop from 499 in February. The AR continues to climb each month from $14, 812(March) to $23, 215(May). The occupancy at Clayton Village was at 102 in both March and April and dropped to 100 in May. April's AR was at 9.3%.

(Id.) The warning also addressed Plaintiff's deficiency in opening the pools at Deer Creek:

[Plaintiff] was instructed by the Director of Operations and Senior Regional Manager multiple times that the pools for the property were to be opened no later than Memorial Day. As of 6/2/15 neither pool is open. As of 5/29/2015 [Plaintiff] was still in the process of finding a vendor that could service them. It appears there is no sense of urgency regarding this issue and her Regional Manager had to step in and actually schedule the upcoming appointment.

(Id.) Plaintiff was also counseled for not having housing units connected to electrical, water or sewer services:

The RV's that landed at Clayton Village were continually reported as ready homes week after week. Upon walking the units on my site visit I [presumably, Ms. Scott] found that the electric/water/sewer were not connected. One unit was being used for storage. These units have been at the property since March.

(Id.) She was finally reprimanded for not covering up a sign at “Clayton Retail”[6] or attending to items on a fire inspection, despite having been repeatedly asked to do so by her superiors:

The President, Director of Operations and Senior Regional Manager asked [Plaintiff] to get a sign to cover up the daycare sign at Clayton Retail during a site visit on April 23rd. This was again requested by her Regional at the end of April. During an on site visit the week of May 11th there was still no progress with this task. It ultimately had to be taken care of by [Plaintiff's] Regional Manager. Additionally the items on the fire inspection (dated 3/25/15) have not been corrected. The items needing correction were discussed multiple times between [Plaintiff] and the Senior Regional Manager, however no progress has been made and this is resulting in the property not being able to be rented. Again, there appears to be no sense of urgency on [Plaintiff's] behalf.

(Id.)

         Plaintiff was given the following performance expectations: (1) the pools were to be opened immediately and remain open; (2) AR needed to be lowered to under 3% by July 31, 2015, with improvement in June; (3) month-over-month occupancy needed to grow immediately; (4) three RV units needed to be ready for lease by June 12, 2015; (5) the Clayton Retail signage and fire inspection items needed to be corrected by June 12, 2015; and (6) homes addressed in the warning- reported as ready, but without utilities connects-needed to be immediately readied and reported to management. (DSMF ¶ 39; see also Pl. Dep. Ex. 9.)

         The following day, June 4, 2015, Plaintiff sent an email to Ms. Scott, Ms. Loeffelbein, and Defendant's human resources director Hilary Snyder stating that although she disagreed with the write-up and thought that the criticisms of her performance were unwarranted, “I understand the concerns and with positive support from Riverstone all concerns that are had, will be taken care of effectively and immediately.”[7] (Pl. Dep. Ex. 10.)

         On June 29, 2015, Plaintiff received a performance evaluation for the first half of 2015-covering the period from January 1 to June 1, 2015.[8] (Pl. Dep. at 150-151, Ex. 16.). Plaintiff's former supervisor, Ms. Loeffelbein, completed the evaluation. (Loeffelbein Dep. at 54.) Ms. Loeffelbein noted, among other things, that Plaintiff did not meet expectations with respect to the number of units rented at Deer Creek and Clayton Village. More specifically, Ms. Loeffelbein wrote that although Deer Creek had been ahead of budgeted occupancy for 2015, occupancy had declined from 499 units in February to 497 in March, and had remained at the same level in April and May. (Pl. Dep. Ex. 16 at 1.) Likewise, Clayton Village occupancy levels fell from 102 in January to 100 in May and remained under budget for the months of February, March, April, and May. Ms. Loeffelbein also indicated that the AR rate for Clayton Village during the six-month review period was 5.86%, and the average for Deer Creek was 8.8%. According to her evaluation, those rates exceeded Defendant's target rates for the properties, and Ms. Loeffelbein noted that “AR needs to decrease immediately.” (Id.)

         On July 14, 2015, Ms. Scott issued Plaintiff a second written warning for poor job performance. (DSMF ¶ 46; Pl. Dep. Ex. 17; Scott Dep. at 115.) Ms. Scott drafted the warning and obtained Ms. Loeffelbein's approval before presenting it to Plaintiff. (Scott Dep. at 115.) The warning stated that one of the two pools at Deer Creek had failed inspection on July 1, 2015, and remained closed. (Pl. Dep. Ex. 17.) According to the warning, the pool failed inspection “due to some very basic items that should have been addressed prior to the inspection taking place” including, missing pool rules, the pool phone not working, and a broken gate latch. (Id.) Maintenance staff members were responsible for those items; however, it was ultimately Plaintiff's responsibility as Property Manager to supervise the maintenance staff to ensure that they tended to those items. (Id. at 161-62; see also id. at Ex. 17 (“The [] items were within control of [Plaintiff]'s team and [Plaintiff] should have ensured were completed . . . .”).) Plaintiff does not dispute the content of the warning. (Id. at 157.)

         Two days later, on Thursday, July 16, 2015, Plaintiff left work due to a migraine and visited her doctor, Dr. Rhonda Ross. (Pl. Dep. at 191-92.) Dr. Ross prepared a generic return-to-work statement indicating that Plaintiff's return-to-work date was unknown, pending a follow-up appointment on Wednesday, July 22, 2015. (Id. at 193, Ex. 20.) On the evening of July 16, Plaintiff emailed the return-to-work statement to Ms. Snyder and Ms. Scott. (Id. Ex. 20.) The following day, Ms. Snyder responded that she would be calling Plaintiff on Monday, July 22, to get more information about Plaintiff's health. (Id. Ex. 21.)

         On July 22, Plaintiff returned to Dr. Ross, who recommended that Plaintiff remain out of work until the next Monday, July 27, 2015. (Pl. Dep. at 200, Ex. 22.) Later that day, Plaintiff spoke to Ms. Snyder, who requested that Plaintiff complete a request-for-leave form and that her doctor complete a certification form[9]regarding Plaintiff's health condition. (Id. at 203-04, 207-09.) Plaintiff contends that Ms. Snyder told her to return the paperwork by July 31, 2015.[10] (Id. at 204, 213, 217-18.) During that call, Plaintiff also told Ms. Snyder that she did not want to take FMLA leave, and instead wanted to use accrued paid time off for her absences. (Id. at 209.) On July 27, 2015, Plaintiff returned to work. (Id. at 201.) She did not, however, turn in the requested forms to Defendant by July 31. (Id. at 47.)

         On the afternoon of July, 28, 2015, Ms. Snyder and Ms. Loeffelbein traveled to Georgia, and, the following day, they and Ms. Scott conducted a site visit of Deer Creek. (Snyder Dep. at 58, 82-84.) Discovering that Plaintiff was not present at the property, Ms. Scott, Ms. Snyder, and Ms. Loeffelbein called Plaintiff from their car and asked where she was. (Id. at 58-59; Scott Dep. 121-22; Loeffelbein Dep. at 58-59.) Ms. Scott placed the call and spoke. (Loeffelbein Dep. at 59.) Plaintiff stated that she was at a church function and offered to return to the property; however, Ms. Scott told Plaintiff that would not be necessary. (Scott Dep. at 122; Pl. Dep. at 243.) According to Ms. Scott, at the time, the decision had not yet been made to terminate Plaintiff's employment. (Scott Dep. at 122-23.)

         Later in the day on July 29, 2015, Ms. Scott, Ms. Loeffelbein, Ms. Snyder, and Ms. Riutta[11] held a group discussion about Plaintiff's job performance and termination. (Snyder Dep. at 59-60, 73; see also Loeffelbein Dep. at 55-56.) That evening, Ms. Snyder circulated to Ms. Loeffelbein, Ms. Scott, and Ms. Riutta a draft “Team Member Termination Form” for ...


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