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Larsen v. Maynard, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

July 2, 2019

SUSAN LARSEN PLAINTIFF
v.
MAYNARD, INC. DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TIMOTHY L. BROOKS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Currently before the Court are a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 31), Brief in Support (Doc. 29), and Statement of Facts (Doc. 30) filed by Defendant Maynard, Inc. Plaintiff Susan Larsen has submitted a Response in Opposition (Doc. 33) and Response to Statement of Facts (Doc. 32). The Court has also received a Reply (Doc. 35) by Maynard. The motion for summary judgment is now ripe for decision and, for the reasons stated herein, is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         The facts of this case are straightforward and largely undisputed. However, because the instant motion is one for summary judgment, the Court will recite the facts in the light most favorable to Larsen, the non-moving party, and will limit its discussion only to what is necessary to provide context for the Court's ruling. Because the chronology of events is important to the various claims in this case, the Court recites the following facts chronologically.[1]

         Maynard hired Larsen in March of 2014 as a welder. Her job description included welding and straightening parts. (Doc. 31-1, p. 7). From March 2014 until 2016, Larsen received numerous raises despite having at least two prior disciplinary events at Maynard.[2]

         The events central to the present dispute, however, began in March of 2016 when Larsen and her husband drove their motorcycles from Prairie Grove, Arkansas to Daytona, Florida and back to attend Daytona Bike Week. The following month, Larsen began a nine-week work absence at Maynard after filing a worker's compensation claim complaining of shoulder pain. Shelley Lisenbee, who was Maynard's Business Operations Manager during Larsen's employment, testified that she gave Larsen Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) paperwork to complete in connection with her worker's compensation claim. However, no FMLA paperwork relating to this event appears in the record.

         On or about June 22, 2016, Larsen returned from her medical absence with no medical or physical restrictions. However, she alleges that she remained in considerable pain at this point and could not even lift fifteen pounds at a time. At some point, Larsen informed an individual at Maynard that she was unable to lift heavy metal bars because of her shoulder pain, and Maynard provided her initially with a makeshift table made out of shipping pallets, and later with an actual table.

         Five days after she returned from her medical absence, Maynard provided Larsen with FMLA paperwork, as Larsen had discussed her condition with Evelyn Flynn, Maynard's Primary Resources Communications (human resources) administrator, and later mentioned that she desired to visit the Mayo Clinic. Larsen was instructed to return the medical provider's certification by July 11, 2016 so that Maynard could determine whether her leave to attend the Mayo Clinic qualified under the FMLA. Because Larsen did not have an appointment at the Mayo Clinic, she failed to submit any certification for family medical leave by July 11, 2016.

         Either on August 4 or August 5, 2016, Larsen approached her supervisor, Shad Gilman, inquiring about whether she could start a welding job that had become available. Gilman told her that this job was not a top priority and that he needed her to continue working in deburring.[3] She complained to him about that and said that it was “bullshit” that she had to continue deburring. On August 5, 2016, Larsen requested to take time off for August 16 and 17, in order to go to the Mayo Clinic for an examination of her shoulder. Gilman approved the request on the same day. On August 15, 2016, Randall Lewis, a fellow welder at Maynard, filed a written complaint against Larsen. He complained that Larsen came up to him the first day that he returned following his wife's death and said to him that she (Larsen) had been told by Lewis' wife at Lewis' wife's funeral to tell Lewis to “keep [his] shirts [i]roned and to go to church.” (Doc. 35-14, p. 1). Lewis said that he did not know how to react but that he became more upset the more he thought about it. He ultimately reported the event to his supervisor and filed a written complaint against Larsen on August 18, 2016. Maynard investigated the complaint.

         On August 16 and 17, 2016, Larsen attended the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to have her shoulder evaluated. Before she left, Larsen was informed by Maynard that her leave would be retroactively approved as family medical leave if she returned the proper medical certification when she returned from the Mayo Clinic. She ended up seeing two different doctors during her visit to the Mayo Clinic. The first told her only that she would not need surgery, but the second diagnosed her with a degenerative shoulder condition and recommended that she receive guided shots to help manage her pain. She ultimately received those shots when she returned to Arkansas. During her time at the Mayo Clinic, she realized that in order to get a second opinion from this second physician, she would have to stay an extra day, so she called Maynard to request time off for August 18 as well. Maynard approved that request. That same day, the decision was made to terminate Larsen.

         On August 19, Larsen returned to Maynard, where she was informed of her termination. The Termination of Employment sheet reflects that Larsen was terminated for misconduct and “other” conduct. (Doc. 31-1, p. 19). The additional remarks section of that form reports that she was terminated for “[e]xhibiting negative behavior to include disrespect to managers and coworkers, creating dissension among others, and creating a hostile work environment toward her co-workers.” Id. It does not appear from the record that Larsen brought her FMLA certification with her on August 19 when she returned to work.

         B. Procedural Background

         Ms. Larsen then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). On February 7, 2018, Larsen received a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC. She then timely filed suit within 90 days of her receipt of the letter.

         Her Complaint (Doc. 3) alleges that she was discharged because of her gender and discriminated and retaliated against because she took time off of work to obtain diagnosis and treatment for her shoulder injury. As such, the Complaint alleges claims under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the FMLA, and related state law claims under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act (“ACRA”).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT[4]

         The standard for summary judgment is well established. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), “[t]he 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.” The Court must review the facts in the light most favorable to the opposing party and give that party the benefit of any inferences that can be drawn from those facts. Canada v. Union Elec. Co., 135 F.3d 1211, 1212-13 (8th Cir. 1997). The moving party bears the burden of proving the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986); Nat'l. Bank of Commerce of El Dorado, Ark. v. Dow Chem. Co., 165 F.3d 602 (8th Cir. 1999).

         Once the moving party has met its burden, the non-moving party must “come forward with ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). However, “the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient” to survive summary judgment. Anderson v. Durham D&M, L.L.C., 606 F.3d 513, 518 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)). Rather, in order for there to be a genuine issue of material fact that would preclude summary judgment, the non-moving party must produce evidence “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Allison v. Flexway Trucking, Inc., 28 F.3d 64, 66 (8th Cir. 1994) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). To meet its burden, “[t]he nonmoving party must do more than rely on allegations or denials in the pleadings, and the court should grant summary judgment if any essential element of the prima facie case is not supported by specific facts sufficient to raise a genuine issue for trial.” Register v. Honeywell Fed. Mfg. & Techs., LLC, 397 F.3d 1130, 1136 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Larsen has asserted nine different causes of action against Maynard. These range from Title VII claims to violations of the ADA and ACRA. Because of the sheer number of claims against Maynard and for organizational clarity, the Court will divide this section into two sub-sections: one focusing on the claims that are subject to the familiar McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework and one focusing on the remaining, analytically distinct claims that are analyzed according to different standards.

         A. The McDonnell Douglas Claims

         While the elements required to establish prima facie cases for each of the causes of action Larsen asserts are different (and therefore discussed below when evaluating each cause of action), certain of her causes of action are analyzed using a now familiar burden-shifting framework. Indeed, Larsen's ADA disparate treatment (discrimination) and retaliation, gender discrimination and retaliation, and FMLA discrimination and retaliation claims are analyzed through nearly identical processes.[5]

         A plaintiff may establish a discrimination or retaliation claim through either direct or indirect evidence. See King v. United States, 553 F.3d 1156, 1160 (8th Cir. 2009). In the absence of direct evidence, “the court analyzes [a plaintiff's] claim under the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).” Tusing 639 F.3d at 515 (citing King v. United States, 553 F.3d at 1160). Under that framework, a plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case. Id. (citing King, 553 F.3d at 1162). Once the plaintiff does so, “the burden of production then shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for its employment action.” Id. (citing King, 553 F.3d at 1160). If the defendant can meet that burden of production, then the burden shifts back to the plaintiff “to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the stated non-discriminatory rationale was a mere pretext for discrimination.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted).

         Therefore, for Larsen's various discrimination and retaliation claims, the Court will first evaluate whether she has presented direct evidence showing discrimination. If so, then the claim is entitled to go to the jury. If not, the Court will follow the burden-shifting framework outlined above to determine whether summary judgment is proper.

         1. ADA Discrimination (Disparate Treatment) Claim

          The ADA makes it unlawful for a covered employer to discriminate against any “qualified individual on the basis of disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a); Hill v. Walker, 737 F.3d 1209, 1216 (8th Cir. 2013). Discrimination under the ADA includes, in relevant part, “not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5). And, the ADA prevents employers from retaliating against persons who invoke the Act's protections. 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a). A plaintiff thus can bring claims under the ADA for failure to accommodate, retaliation, and other forms of disparate treatment. It is clear from the record that Larsen asserts three distinct ADA claims: a disparate treatment claim (alleging that she suffered an adverse employment action because of her disability), a retaliation claim, and a reasonable accommodation (failure to ...


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