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Roy v. Kimble Chase Life Science and Research Products, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville Division

August 25, 2014

SANDRA ROY, Plaintiff,


THOMAS A. VARLAN, District Judge.

This civil matter is before the Court on Kimble Chase Life Science and Research Products, LLC ("Kimble Chase") and Mr. Russell Bearden's (collectively, "defendants") Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 41], in which defendants move for summary judgment on all of plaintiff's claims stemming from her termination as an employee with Kimble Chase. Plaintiff submitted a response opposing defendant's motion as to her claims under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq., and the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. [Doc. 45], to which defendants replied [Doc. 47]. The parties also submitted supplemental briefs [Docs. 48, 50], along with various exhibits and deposition excerpts. Upon consideration of the arguments of the parties and review of the relevant case law, defendants' motion [Doc. 41] will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Background

This dispute arises from plaintiff's June 2012 termination from the human resources department at defendant Kimble Chase's manufacturing plant in Rockwood, Tennessee, where plaintiff had been employed since 2003 [Doc. 37 ¶ 8]. Although plaintiff was initially hired as a Human Resource Supervisor, she was subsequently reclassified as one of three Human Resource Generalists [ Id. ¶ 9; Doc. 46-2 at 8-10], where she focused primarily on managing employee benefits [Doc. 46-2 at 10]. Another generalist, Ms. Christy Powers, focused on attendance and payroll, while Ms. Jeanne Largen focused on employee training and certification [ Id. at 10-11]. During this time period, Mr. Bearden, the human resources manager, was plaintiff's immediate supervisor. [ Id. at 2].

In 2009, plaintiff was diagnosed with a health condition affecting the nerves of her right leg which affected many of her daily life activities, including walking and working, and her required her to use a cane for mobility [Doc. 37 ¶ 11]. The condition also necessitated several surgical procedures to alleviate her symptoms, which required plaintiff to take medical leave under the FMLA for extensive periods of time. Specifically, plaintiff requested, and was granted, FMLA leave for a period of twelve weeks beginning in April 2010, six weeks beginning in September 2011, and another six weeks beginning in March 2012 [ Id. ¶ 12]. Whenever plaintiff was on leave, she was paid from Kimble Chase's short-term disability policy. The parties do not dispute that plaintiff was never denied leave under the FMLA or benefits under Kimble Chase's short-term disability policy during the course of her employment [Doc. 43-2 at 6].

In response to plaintiff's taking FMLA leave, plaintiff contends, Mr. Bearden began a series of discriminatory and retaliatory conduct toward her whenever she returned to work. As set forth in her Amended Complaint, these include remarks such as an email in which Mr. Bearden instructed plaintiff to "get off her butt, " comments regarding plaintiff's extended period of time for recovery from surgical procedures, and, on one occasion, mocking her use of a cane following those procedures [Doc. 37 ¶¶ 17-18]. Defendants, however, deny that such comments were ever made or suggest that, at most, some comments may have been made in jest. In December 2011, Mr. Bearden reassigned plaintiff from first shift, the day shift, where she had previously worked, to the night shift, although plaintiff expressed concerns about the difficulty working nights would cause related to her medical treatment [ Id. ¶ 18]. During this time period, Mr. Bearden also began to criticize plaintiff's work, followed by a series of oral and written disciplinary warnings on May 11, 2011, May 16, 2011, and again on January 2012, all of which, plaintiff argues, are contrary to her previous years of having no negative reviews or disciplinary action taken against her [ Id. ¶ 16].

On June 1, 2012, Mr. Bearden requested that plaintiff attend a departmental meeting for all human resource employees [Doc. 37 ¶ 23]. When plaintiff arrived at the meeting, however, she realized that the meeting only involved herself, Bearden, and Kimble Chase's operations manager [ Id. ]. At that meeting, plaintiff was informed that Kimble Chase was undertaking a reduction in workforce in the human resources department and that plaintiff had been selected for termination [ Id. ¶ 24]. Mr. Bearden had previously recommended to Ms. Susan Tinnon, Kimble Chase's Vice-President for Human Resources, that plaintiff be terminated in April 2012 [Doc. 43-3 at 22]. It is undisputed that at the time of plaintiff's termination, plaintiff would not have been able to return to work, although she would have been eligible to receive STD benefits up until September 2012. Defendants maintain that no specific performance-related event triggered defendant's termination, but was based on several factors, including her poor job performance, non-cooperation with other employees, and the need to terminate a position in the Tennessee facility [Doc. 42 at 6].

Plaintiff subsequently commenced this action, alleging a violation of FMLA's anti-retaliation provision, 29 U.S.C. § 2615, interference with protected rights under ERISA, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 1140, as well as violations of the Tennessee Human Rights Act ("THRA"), Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-21-101 et seq., Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq., and Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. [1]

II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is proper "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). The moving party bears the burden of establishing that no genuine issues of material fact exist. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 n.2 (1986); Moore v. Phillip Morris Cos., Inc., 8 F.3d 335, 339 (6th Cir. 1993). All facts and all inferences to be drawn therefrom must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Burchett v. Kiefer, 301 F.3d 937, 942 (6th Cir. 2002).

"Once the moving party presents evidence sufficient to support a motion under Rule 56, the nonmoving party is not entitled to a trial merely on the basis of allegations." Curtis Through Curtis v. Universal Match Corp., 778 F.Supp. 1421, 1423 (E.D. Tenn. 1991) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 317). To establish a genuine issue as to the existence of a particular element, the non-moving party must point to evidence in the record upon which a reasonable finder of fact could find in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The genuine issue must also be material; that is, it must involve facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id.

The Court's function at the point of summary judgment is limited to determining whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of fact a proper question for the factfinder. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. The Court does not weigh the evidence or determine the truth of the matter. Id. at 249. Nor does the Court search the record "to establish that it is bereft of a genuine issue of material fact." Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d 1472, 1479-80 (6th Cir. 1989). Thus, "the inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is a need for a trial-whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.

III. Analysis

In light of plaintiff's agreement that summary judgment should be entered in favor of defendants for her THRA, ADEA, and ADA claims, the only remaining issues before the Court are whether defendants are also entitled to summary judgment as ...

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