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Reece v. Neal

October 25, 2006

JACQUELINE REECE PLAINTIFF,
v.
SHERIFF MIKE NEAL AND THE RHEA COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Curtis L. Collier

MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Defendants Sheriff Mike Neal and the Rhea County Sheriff's Department's*fn1 ("Defendants") Motion for Summary Judgment (Court File No. 22). The Plaintiff Jacqueline Reece ("Reece") filed a response to Defendants' motion (Court File No. 24) and Defendants filed a reply (Court File No. 25). For the following reasons, the Court will GRANT Defendants' motion.

I. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Reece began her employment with the Rhea County Sheriff's Department in September 2003 (Court File No. 1). Reece was employed on a full time basis as a Corrections Officer in the Rhea County Jail for one and a half years before she was terminated on January 14, 2005 (id.). As part of her job duties, Reece was responsible for monitoring prisoners in the Rhea County Jail (id.). Reece began experiencing panic attacks in December 2004 (Court File No. 24, Ex. 2). Reece believes a co-worker Eric Ewton took her to the hospital in late December 2004 for treatment of a panic attack episode (id). Reece worked her last shift at the jail on January 2, 2005 (id.). On January 3, 2005 Reece went to the emergency room and was advised she should admit herself to the Valley Hospital for in-patient treatment of depression (id.). Reece admitted herself on January 4, 2005 (id.). Reece's husband telephoned the Rhea County Sheriff's Department and informed an unidentified employee Reece would be in the hospital for seven to ten days (id.). Reece was prescribed Lexapro, Ativan, and Trazadone for her depression and panic attacks (id.). Reece was released from Valley Hospital on January 10, 2005 with instructions to remain home from work for two weeks (id.).

While Reece was hospitalized, Reece's supervisor Melba Huffman called Reece's home to inquire about her health (id.). Additionally, Reece's sister-in-law spoke with Talyna Welch at the Rhea County Sheriff's Department about Reece's condition (id.). On January 11, 2005, Reece went to the Sheriff's Department and gave a note she received from her doctors to Melba Huffman (id.). Reece inquired where to file Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") papers and was directed by personnel at the Sheriff's Department that the appropriate place to file the papers was the County Finance Department (id.). Reece filed the appropriate FMLA papers at the Finance Office on January 11, 2005 (id.).

On January 14, 2005, Reece went to the Sheriff's Department to pick up her paycheck (id.). When she arrived, she was informed by Huffman she was fired for taking inmate medication and sleeping on the job (id.). Defendants contend Reece was also fired for selling cigarettes to inmates (Court File No. 23, Ex. 5). Reece denies she committed the infractions (Court File No. 24, Ex. 2). Reece received her separation notice on January 18, 2005 (id.). Reece admits taking inmate medication, sleeping on the job and selling cigarettes to inmates are terminable offenses although she contends she did not receive any warnings or reprimands prior to her termination (id.). Sheriff Neal claims he became aware of Reece's alleged misconduct before January 11, 2005 and decided to fire Reece during the first week of January 2005 (id.). Defendants contend an investigation into Reece's alleged misconduct occurred before January 11, 2005 and included interviewing prisoners and other Rhea County Sheriff's Department personnel (Court File No. 23, Ex. 3). Reece filed a request for an administrative review of her termination by the Rhea County Civil Service Board on February 9, 2005 and acknowledged her appeal was not timely (Court File No. 24, Ex. 4). An appeal to the Civil Service Board must be submitted within seven days of receiving the order of discipline (Court File No. 24, Ex. 5).

II. APPLICABLE LAW

Summary judgment is proper where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must view the facts contained in the record and all inferences which can be drawn from those facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Nat'l Satellite Sports, Inc. v. Eliadis Inc., 253 F.3d 900, 907 (6th Cir. 2001). The Court cannot weigh the evidence, judge the credibility of witnesses or determine the truth of any matter in dispute.

Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating no genuine issue of material fact exists. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). To refute such a showing, the nonmoving party must present some significant, probative evidence indicating the necessity of a trial for resolving a material factual dispute. Id. at 322. A mere scintilla of evidence is not enough. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252; McLean v. Ontario, Ltd., 224 F.3d 797, 800 (6th Cir. 2000). The Court's role is limited to determining whether the case contains sufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably find for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49; Nat'l Satellite Sports, 253 F.3d at 907. If the nonmoving party fails to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of its case with respect to which it has the burden of proof, the moving party is entitled to summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If the Court concludes a fair-minded jury could not return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party based on the evidence presented, it may enter a summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52; Lansing Dairy, Inc. v. Espy, 39 F.3d 1339, 1347 (6th Cir. 1994).

III. ANALYSIS

The Court will not address Reece's claim under the Tennessee "Whistleblower Act," TENN. CODE ANN. § 50-1-304, because Reece conceded this claim is not supported by law. Furthermore, as Reece has admitted not exhausting the necessary administrative remedies, the claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., and the claim for retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act will not be addressed. Moreover, Reece's attempt to obtain damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1981(a) will not be addressed because the prerequisite Americans with Disabilities claim is without merit. The Court will discuss the remainder of Reece's claims individually.

A. Reece's Claim Under the FMLA

Under the FMLA, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq., an employee is entitled to return to her position after up to twelve weeks of leave from work due to a "serious health condition" that rendered the employee unable to perform the functions of her position. 29 U.S.C. §§ 2614(a), 2612(a). A "serious health condition" is defined as "an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves (A) inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility; or (B) continuing treatment by a health care provider." Id. at § 2611(11). The FMLA prohibits employers from restraining, denying or interfering with the exercise or attempt to exercise FMLA rights. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a). "An employer who interferes with an employee's rights under the FMLA may be held liable in a civil suit." Plant v. Morton Int'l., Inc., 212 F.3d 929, 934 (6th Cir. 2000); see 29 U.S.C. ยง 2617. Terminating an employee who is currently taking FMLA leave would effectively deny the employee her statutory right to restoration to the same or an equivalent position when she is able to ...


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