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Brown v. Excelda Manufacturing Company Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

May 31, 2017

SABRINA BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
EXCELDA MANUFACTURING COMPANY, INC., Defendant.

          AMENDED [1]OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (ECF #25)

          MATTHEW F. LEITMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In this action, Plaintiff Sabrina Brown (“Brown”) alleges that Defendant Excelda Manufacturing Company (“Excelda”) unlawfully retaliated against her - by terminating her employment - for taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §2601 et seq. Excelda has now moved for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, the Court GRANTS Excelda's motion.

         I

         A

         From December 28, 1998 to May 2015, Brown worked for Excelda as a production associate. (See Brown Dep. at 29, ECF #25-2 at 10, Pg. ID 186; Termination Letter, ECF # 25-21 at 2, Pg. ID 482.) She reported to production supervisor Robert Harris (“Harris”) from 2012 to August 2014.[2] (See Harris Dep. at 19 and 27, ECF #27-6 at 5 and 7, Pg. ID 628 and 630.) Thereafter, Brown reported to production supervisor Barbara Marie Wolfe (“Wolfe”). (See Wolfe Dep. at 23, ECF #25-3 at 7, Pg. ID 303.) Harris and Wolfe reported to Daniel St. George (“St. George”), the manager of Excelda's production department. (See St. George Dep. at 7, ECF #25-4 at 3, Pg. ID 317.)

         B

         During Brown's employment at Excelda, the company granted her a substantial amount of FMLA leave and other leave without incident. The Court summarizes these periods of leave below.

         1.

         Brown requested FMLA leave on three separate occasions while she worked at Excelda, and the company approved all three requests. First, Brown took FMLA leave for the birth of her son in 2001. (See Brown Dep. at 44-45, ECF #25-2 at 14-15, Pg. ID 189-190; February 2001 FMLA Request Form, ECF #25-12 at 5, Pg. ID 427.) When Brown returned from that FMLA leave, Excelda reinstated her to the same production associate position that she held prior to taking leave. (See Brown Dep. at 52, ECF #25-2 at 15, Pg. ID 191.) Brown admits that she did not have “any issues” with the way Excelda handled her 2001 FMLA leave. (Id.)

         Next, on September 30, 2008, Brown took intermittent FMLA leave to care for her mother. (See id. at 105-107, ECF #25-2 at 29, Pg. ID 205.) When Brown returned from this FMLA leave, Excelda reinstated her to the same production associate position that she held prior to taking leave. (See Id. at 110-11, ECF #25-2 at 30, Pg. ID 206.) Brown concedes that she was “not written up or disciplined as a result of any of [the] FMLA absences” that resulted from caring for her mother. (Id. at 110, ECF #25-2 at 30, Pg. ID 206.)

         Finally, on July 29, 2014, Brown requested intermittent FMLA leave for her own health condition (severe menstrual cramping). (See id. at 150-152, ECF #25-2 at 40, Pg. ID 216.) On August 14, 2014, Excelda approved Brown's request through August 4, 2015. (See id.; August 2014 FMLA Designation Notice, ECF #25-14 at 2, Pg. ID 438.) Brown thereafter used eight days of her intermittent FMLA leave in 2014 and another six days of intermittent FMLA leave during the first five months of 2015. (See Brown Time Card, ECF #25-15.) She admits that she “got all of the FMLA leave that [she] requested and needed as it relates to [her] menstrual cramping” and that she “was not written up for any of the days that [she] used FMLA leave in 2014 or [2015].” (Brown Dep. at 152, ECF #25-2 at 40, Pg. ID 216.)

         2

         Excelda also granted Brown time off for personal reasons. In April 2003, Excelda allowed Brown to take time off when her sister suffered an aneurysm. (See id. at 88, ECF #25-2 at 24, Pg. ID 200.) Because care for a sibling is not an FMLA-qualifying absence, Excelda allowed Brown to “make a one-time transfer of 20 hours of vacation [time] into sick/emergency time” to care for her sister. (Id. at 88-89, ECF #25-2 at 24-25, Pg. ID 200-01.) Brown agreed that this “was a favorable action” by Excelda. (Id.)

         Moreover, in June 2009, Excelda granted Brown an additional 80 hours of unpaid time off because she had exhausted all of her available paid time off (“PTO”) and “accumulated 36.25 additional hours of unpaid time [off]; [comprising of] four excused instances, and three unexcused [instances].” (August 2009 Letter to Brown, ECF #25-17 at 2, Pg. ID 471.[3]) Brown agreed that Excelda did not have to provide her with the additional time off and that doing so was a “favorable action” that “help[ed] prevent [her] from being terminated” for additional attendance problems. (Brown Dep. at 116, ECF #25-2 at 31, Pg. ID 207.)

         C

         Over the course of Brown's employment with Excelda, she had attendance and behavior issues. For instance, she received a total of nineteen disciplinary actions for violating Excelda's “Attendance and Punctuality” policy (the “Attendance Policy”). (See Compilation of Disciplinary Notices, ECF #25-10 at 2-27, Pg. ID 393-419; January 2015 Coaching and Corrective Action Notice, ECF #25-18 at 2-4, Pg. ID 474-76.)[4] Notably, Brown does not claim that any of these actions related to the FMLA-approved absences described above.[5]

         Moreover, Brown was openly hostile toward her supervisors in January 2015. The hostility grew out of an interaction between Brown and Wolfe (her direct supervisor at the time) on January 13, 2015. According to Wolfe, she encountered Brown and a co-worker, Marvin Barnett (“Barnett”), in the kitchen area at 7:35 a.m. (See Wolfe Dep. at 28, ECF #25-3 at 8, Pg. ID 304.) Brown's presence in the kitchen at that time violated the Attendance Policy which required Brown to be at her machine (rather than in the kitchen) by 7:35 a.m. (See January 2015 Disciplinary Notice, 25-18 at 2, Pg. ID 474.) Wolfe wrote Brown up for this violation, and Brown was eventually summoned to a meeting with Wolfe and St. George (Wolfe's supervisor) to discuss her conduct. (See Brown Dep. at 181, ECF #25-2 at 48, Pg. ID 224.). During that meeting, Brown “holler[ed], ” told Wolfe and St. George that she was tired of them “f[uck]ing with [her], ” and “storm[ed] out.” (Id. at 185-86, ECF #25-2 at 49, Pg. ID 225.)

         After storming out of the meeting, Brown went to see Jennifer Oliver (“Oliver”), a generalist in Excelda's human resources department. (See id.; Oliver Dep. at 7, 25-26, ECF #25-5 at 3, 8, Pg. ID 341, 346.) Brown complained that she “didn't want to deal with [Wolfe] anymore” and asked Oliver to “fire” her (Brown). (Oliver Dep. at 25-26, ECF #25-5 at 3, 8, Pg. ID 341, 346.) Oliver did not fire Brown as Brown had requested. (See id.) And although St. George, Wolfe, and Oliver could have disciplined Brown for her behavior that day, there is no evidence in the record indicating that they did so. At the time, Brown had been on intermittent FMLA leave for five months. (See August 2014 FMLA Designation Notice, ECF #25-14 at 2, Pg. ID 438.)

         D

         Brown also had difficulties at Excelda because she relied upon Barnett to drive her to and from work. When Barnett was forced to leave work early, Brown had to leave early as well. Brown's reliance on Barnett caused problems for Excelda, but Excelda nonetheless tried to work with Brown to address the situation.

         Brown's reliance on Barnett first caused concern for Excelda on February 23, 2015. (See Barnett Dep. at 29-30, ECF #25-6 at 9, Pg. ID 363.) That day, Barnett asked Wolfe whether he could leave early due to a family emergency. (See id.) Wolfe granted Barnett's request. (See id.) Brown decided to leave early with Barnett, but she did not seek out Wolfe, her supervisor, to let her know that she was planning to leave work early. Instead, Wolfe later approached Brown and asked Brown whether she was leaving work early with Barnett or whether she had secured a different ride home. (See Wolfe Dep. at 33-34, ECF #25-3 at 10, Pg. ID 306.) Brown told Wolfe that she was going to leave early with Barnett. (See id.) Wolfe allowed Brown to depart early despite Brown's failure to seek permission in advance. (See id.)

         On March 2, 2015, Barnett asked for and was granted permission to leave early because his mother passed away. (See Barnett Dep. at 31, ECF #25-6 at 9, Pg. ID 368.) Brown again left early with Barnett. (See Brown Dep. at 196, ECF #25-2 at 51, Pg. ID 227.)

         On March 5, 2015, St. George held a meeting with Brown to discuss her two early departures due to Barnett's emergencies. (See Brown Dep. at 192-206, ECF #25-2 at 50-54, Pg. ID 226-30.) St. George “explained to [Brown] that attendance is her responsibility, not that of the associate she carpools with, and that having a backup plan in situations where she could get another associate to give her a ride would be a good option.” (Id.) He further advised Brown that “she is currently out of PTO time and that any further time off needed to be pre-planned and excused.” (Id. at 204, ECF #25-2 at 53, Pg. ID 229.)

         During the March 5 meeting, St. George also asked Brown whether she planned on attending Barnett's mother's funeral the next day. (See Id. at 207, ECF #25-2 at 54, Pg. ID 230.) When Brown responded that she did plan to attend the funeral, St. George explained to Brown that this was yet another example of her planning on taking time off without first informing her supervisor. (See id.) Although St. George allowed Brown to attend the funeral, he made clear to Brown that “if [she] need[ed] to take more time off, [she] need[ed] to discuss that with [her] supervisor immediately upon knowing.” (Id. at 208, ECF #25-2 at 54, Pg. ID 230.)

         At the conclusion of the meeting, St. George discussed Brown's behavior during the January meeting at which she hollered and cursed at Wolfe and St. George. (See Id. at 209, ECF #25-2 at 55, Pg. ID 231.) St. George told Brown that “being disrespectful towards a supervisor by yelling at them, refusing to listen, and barging out of the conference room would not be tolerated.” (Id.)

         E

         Brown's reliance on Barnett for transportation ultimately led to a series of events that culminated in her termination. On May 14, 2015, Barnett needed to leave work early to attend an appointment with his wife. (See Barnett Dep. at 33, ECF #25-6 at 10, Pg. ID 369.) Barnett told Wolfe, who was supervising him that day, that he needed to depart early, and Wolfe approved his request. (See Id. at 33-34, ECF #25-6 at 10, Pg. ID 369.)

         Brown was again dependent upon Barnett for transportation that day, and thus she needed to leave early with Barnett. (See Brown Dep. at 215-16, ECF #25-2 at 56, Pg. ID 232.) But Brown did not personally ask Wolfe for permission to do so nor did she personally discuss her early departure with Wolfe. (See Brown Dep. at 216, ECF #25-2 at 56, Pg. ID 232.) Instead, according to Barnett, he told Wolfe that “we're both going to go [early], ” and he says that the “we” in “we're” meant him and Brown. (Barnett Dep. 33-34, 48, ECF #25-6 at 10, 13, Pg. ID 369, 372; emphasis added.) Barnett says that Wolfe responded “that's fine.” (Id. at 34, ECF #25-6 at 10, Pg. ID 369.) Brown says that based on Barnett's discussion with Wolfe, she (Brown) believed she had Wolfe's permission to leave early with Barnett, and she did so. (Brown Dep. at 215-16, ECF #25-2 at 56, Pg. ID 232.)

         Wolfe's recollection of the events of that day differs from Brown's and Barnett's. Wolfe recalls Barnett asking if he could leave early, but she denies that Barnett said that Brown “was [leaving] with him.” (Wolfe Dep. at 37-38, ECF #25-3 at 11, Pg. ID 307.) Wolfe says that she was surprised when she went to the production floor that afternoon, noticed that Brown was not at her production ...


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