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Rice v. Charter Communications Inc.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Greenville Division

November 17, 2016

Sonya Rice, Plaintiff,
v.
Charter Communications, Inc.[1], Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER

          Henry M. Herlong, Jr. Senior United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the court for the Report and Recommendation of the United States Magistrate Judge Jacquelyn D. Austin, made in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02 of the District of South Carolina.[2] Sonya Rice (“Rice”) alleges violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq. Defendant Charter Communications, LLC (“Charter”) moved for summary judgment. In her Report and Recommendation, Magistrate Judge Austin recommends granting Charter's motion for summary judgment.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Rice was employed as a broadband sales advisor and a sales representative for Charter from around April 30, 2012 until April 1, 2014. (Compl. ¶ 8, ECF No. 1; Answer ¶ 8, ECF No. 6.) At the time of her termination, Rice's work schedule was 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. (Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 15-16), ECF No. 25-4.) On February 22, 2014, Rice submitted a leave request for 1:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 22, 2014, through Charter's electronic scheduling system, Empower. (Id. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 24-25), ECF No. 25-4; Reply Ex. 1, generally, ECF No. 36-1.) Rice had planned a sixteenth birthday party for her daughter that day. (Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 8-9), ECF No. 25-4.) One to two weeks before March 22, 2014, Rice scheduled an appointment with her daughter's medical provider so that the medical provider could observe her daughter during the birthday party. (Id. Ex. 6 (White Dep. 26.).)

         Rice's February 22, 2014, leave request was initially marked as pending, but was subsequently denied due to insufficient staffing. (Id. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 8), ECF No. 25-4; Resp. Opp'n Summ. J. Ex. 2 (Empower Entry), ECF No. 34-4.) Rice submitted a second request through Empower on March 21, 2014, which was also denied for insufficient staffing. (Resp. Opp'n Summ. J. Ex. 2 (Empower Entry), ECF No. 34-2.)

         Charter has an attendance policy that uses a system of “occurrences” to track employee attendance issues. (Id. Ex. 5 (Barker Dep. Ex. 8 (Customer Care Attendance and Punctuality Policy (“Attendance Policy”) ¶ 1.2)), ECF No. 25-5.) Attendance occurrences are considered with all other performance issues to determine any disciplinary action. (Id. Ex. 5 (Barker Dep. 56), ECF No. 25-5.) The Attendance Policy states that scheduled absences will not incur an occurrence, but “[a]bsences that have not been officially approved are never considered to have been scheduled, regardless of advance notice.” (Id. Ex. 5 (Barker Dep. Ex. 8 (Attendance Policy, ¶ 1.3)), ECF No. 25-5 (emphasis in original).) The Attendance Policy states that an unscheduled absence is “[a]n absence from work of more than one (1) hour that has not been approved and scheduled in advance using locally established time-off request procedures.” (Id. Ex. 5 (Barker Dep. Ex. 8 (Attendance Policy, ¶ 1.4)), ECF No. 25-5.) The Attendance Policy states that an absence from work for more than four hours will incur one occurrence and an absence of between one and four hours will incur one-half occurrence. (Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 5 (Barker Dep. Ex. 8 (Attendance Policy, ¶ 1.4)), ECF No. 25-5.)

         Pursuant to its attendance and discipline policies, Charter addresses disciplinary issues with a set of progressive corrective actions, beginning with a verbal warning, then a written warning, then a final written warning, and ending with termination. (Id. Ex. 5 (Barker Dep. 57-58, Ex. 8 (Attendance Policy, ¶ 5)), ECF No. 25-5.) It is undisputed that prior to March 22, 2014, Rice had received a final warning due to past performance related issues and occurrences. (Id. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 104), ECF No. 25-4.)

         Although her leave request for March 22, 2014, was never approved, Rice avers that Betty Dillard (“Dillard”), her direct supervisor, informed her that if she worked for at least one to two hours on March 22, 2014, she would receive only a one-half occurrence. (Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 5), ECF No. 25-4.) Rice reported to work at 10:00 a.m. on March 22, 2014, one hour after she was scheduled to begin work. (Id. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 51), ECF No. 25-4.) Rice alleges that when she reported to work her feet were hurting badly and that she only came in to avoid receiving a full occurrence. (Id. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 28), ECF No. 25-4.) Rice states that she spoke with Dillard who informed her that she could leave and requested that Rice email her prior to leaving. (Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 10), ECF No. 25-4.) Rice avers that she emailed Dillard prior to her departure. (Id. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 11), ECF No. 25-4.) Rice departed work at 11:55 a.m., eight hours before her scheduled shift ended and did not return the remainder of the day. (Id. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 51), ECF No. 25-4.)

         When Rice reported to work on March 24, 2014, she learned that she had received a whole occurrence for her absence on March 22, 2014. (Id. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 22), ECF No. 25-4.) On March 25, 2014, Dillard sent an email titled “Sonya Rice Attendance Final” to Human Resources Officer Michael Barker (“Barker”), which included a corrective action report requesting Rice's termination. (Id. Ex. 5 (Barker Dep. Ex. 10), ECF No. 25-5). The same day, Barker scheduled a meeting with Rice for March 31, 2014. (Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 5 (Barker Dep. 75), ECF No. 25-5). However, prior to the March 31 meeting, but after March 24, 2014, Rice avers that she emailed Barker about her need for FMLA leave due to her medical condition. (Id. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 22), ECF No. 25-4.) During the March 31 meeting, Rice requested intermittent FMLA leave in the future due to her medical condition. (Id. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 50, 98-103), ECF No. 25-4.) Rice alleges that she also informed Barker about her daughter's medical condition. (Id. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 22), ECF No. 25-4.) During the meeting, Barker asked Rice whether she was seeking FMLA coverage for any past absences and Rice responded that she was not. (Id. Ex. 5 (Barker Dep. 30-31), ECF No. 25-5.) On April 1, 2014, Rice was terminated for the March 22, 2014 occurrence she received for leaving early during her shift. (Compl. ¶ 29, ECF No. 1; Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 4 (Rice Dep. 96-97), ECF No. 25-4.)

         Rice filed the instant suit alleging an interference claim and a retaliation claim under the FMLA on June 22, 2015. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) Charter moved for summary judgment on March 28, 2016. (Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 25.) Rice filed a response in opposition on April 25, 2016. (Resp. Opp'n Summ. J., ECF No. 34.) On May 5, 2016, Charter filed a reply. (Reply, ECF No. 36.) Magistrate Judge Austin issued her Report and Recommendation on September 2, 2016, recommending granting the motion for summary judgment because Rice failed to adequately plead a claim for FMLA interference for her medical condition, give adequate notice to Charter of her daughter's medical condition as required for a FMLA interference claim, and demonstrate that a reasonable jury could find Charter's legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating her was a pretext for retaliation. (R&R, generally, ECF No. 45.) Rice filed objections on September 29, 2016. Charter replied on October 17, 2016. (Reply, ECF No. 49). This matter is now ripe for consideration.

         II. Discussion of the Law

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate 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 deciding whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the evidence of the non-moving party is to be believed and all justifiable inferences must be drawn in his favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). However, “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Id. at 248.

         A litigant “cannot create a genuine issue of material fact through mere speculation or the building of one inference upon another.” Beale v. Hardy, 769 F.2d 213, 214 (4th Cir. 1985). “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, disposition by summary judgment is appropriate.” Monahan v. County of Chesterfield, 95 F.3d 1263, 1265 (4th Cir. 1996). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Ballenger v. N.C. Agric. Extension Serv., 815 F.2d 1001, 1005 (4th Cir. 1987).

         B. FMLA Interference Claims

         The FMLA entitles eligible employees to twelve (12) weeks of leave during a twelve (12) month period for, among other reasons, a serious health condition which prevents an employee from ...


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