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Cooper v. Perfect Equipment, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

March 11, 2015

MYRTLE COOPER, Plaintiff,
v.
PERFECT EQUIPMENT, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

ALETA A. TRAUGER, District Judge.

Pending before the court is a Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 16) filed by the defendant, Perfect Equipment, Inc. ("Perfect Equipment" or the "company"), to which the plaintiff has filed a Response in opposition (Docket No. 23), and the defendant has filed a Reply (Docket No. 30). Also pending is a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 27) filed by the plaintiff, Myrtle Cooper, to which the defendant has filed a Response in opposition (Docket No. 33). For the reasons discussed herein, both motions will be denied.

BACKGROUND

I. Overview[1]

The defendant, Perfect Equipment, employed the plaintiff from July 2001 until her termination on August 27, 2012. Perfect Equipment is a Delaware corporation that is now known as Wegmann Automotive. (Docket 19 ¶ 2.) In this lawsuit, Cooper alleges that Perfect Equipment violated the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2600 et seq . ("FMLA" or "Act"), by interfering with, restraining, or denying the plaintiff's right to take leave under 29 U.S.C. § 2615.

II. Factual Background

A. Cooper's Employment and July 2012 Request for Leave

Between July 2001 and her termination in 2012, Cooper was employed as a "loader, unloader, and powder coater" at Perfect Equipment. During her long employment with the company prior to the events giving rise to this litigation, Cooper requested leaves of absence under the FMLA on more than ten occasions, and the company approved each of her requests. It is undisputed that, upon the expiration of each of her FMLA requests prior to July 2012, Cooper reported promptly for work and the company returned her to her former position at the same salary.

On July 6, 2012, Cooper informed Holly Hill, who worked in Perfect Equipment's Human Resources Department ("HR"), that she required FMLA leave beginning on or about July 20, 2012, because she was scheduled to have back surgery. Hill referred Cooper to Julie Darnell, the HR Manager for the company who is responsible for administering the company's FMLA policy. At some point in time between July 6, 2012, and Cooper's leave, Cooper informed Darnell that she "felt like" her recovery would require FMLA leave for "up to three or four months." It is undisputed that both Perfect Equipment and Cooper considered Cooper's request for leave to be related to a serious injury and, therefore, eligible for FMLA leave.

When Cooper notified Perfect Equipment of her need for FMLA leave, the company gave Cooper a formal notice that listed her rights and responsibilities under the FMLA (the "Notice"). In the Notice, the defendant advised the plaintiff that she was required to provide sufficient medical certification to support her request for leave.

B. The Medical Certification

On July 17, 2012, Perfect Equipment received a copy of a medical certification form that was completed by Cooper's physician, Dr. George H. Lien. (Docket No. 19, Ex. 4.) In a part of the form titled, "Part B. Amount of Leave Needed, " Dr. Lien wrote that he estimated that Cooper would be incapacitated for work during the period "7/23/12-8/21/12." In response to Question 6 on the form, Dr. Lien also noted that Cooper would need to attend follow-up treatment appointments or work part-time or on reduced schedule because of her condition. He further certified that one to two post-op treatments would be "medically necessary." In response to the form's question asking "[w]ill the condition cause episodic flare-ups periodically preventing the employee from performing his/her job functions..., " Dr. Lien wrote "unknown." And finally, in a section on the form titled "Additional Information, " Dr. Lien further wrote, "work status will be addressed at post op appointment on 8/21/12."

C. Designation Notice

Darnell used the information in the medical certification form submitted by Dr. Lien when she prepared a Designation Notice for the plaintiff's July 2012 leave of absence ("Designation Notice"). (Docket No. 19, Ex. 6.) Accordingly, the Designation Notice, dated July 17, 2012, states,

Based on the information you have provided to date, we are providing the following information about the time that will be counted against your leave entitlement: Provided there is no deviation from your anticipated leave schedule, the following number of hours, days, or weeks will be counted against your leave entitlement: 2/13/12-2/17/12, 3/16/12, 6/15/12, 7/23/12-8/21/12.

The Designation Notice further states: "[t]he FMLA requires that you notify us as soon as practicable if dates of scheduled leave change or are extended, or were initially unknown." ( Id. )

D. Cooper's Leave Before Cooper left for her July 2012 FMLA leave, she and Darnell discussed what the plaintiff would have to do in order to maintain her health insurance benefits if she was absent for an extended period of time. Darnell also gave the plaintiff a memorandum that explained that the plaintiff would be eligible for COBRA to maintain her health insurance benefits if she continued to be absent beyond 12 weeks of FMLA leave. Darnell submits in an affidavit that, when she gave the plaintiff a memorandum related to her insurance, Darnell also reminded the plaintiff that, under company policy, employees who exceeded four months of leave within a 12-month period were subject to termination, regardless of the reason for leave. (Docket No. 19.)

It is undisputed that the plaintiff received and reviewed the Designation Notice.[2] It is further undisputed that, when she received the Designation Notice, she did not call Ms. Darnell or the company to ask for clarification. The plaintiff testified at her deposition that, when she reviewed the Designation Notice, she "underst[ood] that her FMLA was approved." (Docket No. 21, Ex. 1 at 40.) Cooper further appeared to testify that, although she read and understood the dates listed for FMLA leave on the form-July 23, 2012 to August 21, 2012-she believed that her conversation with Darnell had indicated she would "get three to four months off." ( Id. at 42.) Cooper's leave of absence began on July 23, 2012. Approximately one week after her leave began, Cooper spoke with Hill and informed her that she ...


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