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Van Allen v. Print Art Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

April 11, 2017

PRINT ART INC., Defendant.



         Plaintiff Michael Van Allen (“Plaintiff”) filed the within action against Defendant Print Art Inc., d/b/a Omega High Impact Print Solutions (“Defendant”), alleging violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”). Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant violated the FMLA when, in January 2014, Defendant failed to provide Plaintiff the FMLA-mandated notification of his right to take a job-protected leave in response to his notice that he was suffering from a serious medical condition. Plaintiff further asserts that Defendant then failed to designate Plaintiff's FMLA-qualifying absences as same, and instead fired Plaintiff due to his absences which were FMLA-protected and NJLAD-qualifying.

         Defendant has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [Dkt. No. 18] asserting that Plaintiff's FMLA claims and NJLAD claims must fail because the medical condition suffered by Plaintiff in January 2014 did not constitute a serious health condition under the FMLA or a disability under NJLAD. Furthermore, Defendant asserts that it did not deny Plaintiff any benefits under the FMLA because Plaintiff failed to provide adequate notice to Defendant that he was suffering from a potentially FMLA-qualifying condition. Plaintiff has disputed these arguments, and in addition to filing an opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff has also cross-moved for partial summary judgment [Dkt. No. 20].[1] For the reasons set forth below, both motions are denied.

         Summary judgment shall be granted 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). A fact is “material” if it will “affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law . . . .” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is “genuine” if it could lead a “reasonable jury [to] return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. When deciding the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact, a court's role is not to weigh the evidence: all reasonable “inferences, doubts, and issues of credibility should be resolved against the moving party.” Meyer v. Riegel Prods. Corp., 720 F.2d 303, 307 n.2 (3d Cir. 1983).

         Defendant is in the business of providing commercial printing, art, and advertising for clients all along the East Coast of the United States. Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Facts (“DSUF”) ¶ 2. On November 20, 2013, Defendant hired Plaintiff as a warehouse worker and delivery driver. Id. Plaintiff's job responsibilities required him to stage, load, deliver, and document all products scheduled for delivery on a daily basis for Defendant. Given this nature of employment, Plaintiff was also required to have a clean driving history. Id. ¶ 3.

         Defendant's employee attendance policy expressly stated excessive call-outs from work would result in employee discipline. Excessive call-outs are defined as three (3) or more unscheduled absences from work during a sixty (60) day period. Id. ¶ 5. Between January 1, 2015 and January 21, 2015 (Plaintiff's termination date), Plaintiff had a total of five (5) unscheduled call-outs from work. Id. ¶ 6.

         Plaintiff avers that on January 19, 2015, he began to “suffer from a serious rash appearing on his arms, neck, and back.” Plaintiff's Counterstatement of Material Facts (“CSMF”), ¶ 33. On that day, at 5:08 a.m., Plaintiff sent a text to his supervisor, Joseph Fernandez, stating “Joe, my son has off of school for the MLK holiday. I am going to take the day, to spend it with him, and drive him home - as he stayed the extra night with me. I will be in tomorrow at 7 a.m.” DSUF ¶ 13. The next day, January 20, 2015, at 5:40 a.m., Plaintiff sent a text message to Fernandez stating, “Joe, I tried to leave you a voicemail, but the system wouldn't allow it. I had a family emergency last night and got no sleep. I will have to use another pto day unfortunately . . . so I can get some rest. You can call me if you'd like, otherwise I will be in tomorrow.” Id. ¶ 36. As is evident from the texts, Plaintiff did not mention a rash in either text.

         During the course of the day on January 20, 2015, Plaintiff contends that he attempted to seek medical attention for his medical condition. Id. ¶ 37. Plaintiff was able to secure an appointment at MedCom with a new physician on Wednesday, January 21, 2015. Id. ¶ 38.

         Later, on the same day, January 20, 2015, at 1:30 p.m., Plaintiff sent a text message to Fernandez stating, in part, “Joe, I tried to get an emergency apt. with my doctor, however, she is on vacation. I broke out in rashes all over my arms, eyes, neck. It has caused me to lose sleep from intense itching. I have an apt with her the week I'm on vacation to address this & my sleep apnea/breathing. Until then I'll have to suffer through it. I tried my best to be seen today.” Id. ¶ 39. Approximately one-and-one-half hours later, on January 20, 2015, Plaintiff sent a text message to Supervisor Fernandez stating: “Okay Joe, my doctors [sic] office called me back. They can get me in at 2:30 tomorrow. I have to be seen. I will have the doctor provide me with a note for the days I've been out.” Id. ¶ 40. Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment on January 21, 2015, due to excessive absenteeism. DSUF ¶ 24.

         FMLA Interference

         Plaintiff has moved for summary judgment on his FMLA Interference claim, arguing no disputed facts exist. In opposition, Defendant has also moved for summary judgment as to the FMLA interference claim because: (1) Plaintiff failed to provide adequate notice to it; and (2) Plaintiff did not suffer from a “serious health condition” as defined under the FMLA. The FMLA declares it “unlawful for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise, any right provided” in the FMLA. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1). Such a claim is typically referred to as an “interference” claim, and is acknowledged to “set floors for employer conduct.” Callison v. Phila, 430 F.3d 117, 119 (3d Cir. 2005). To assert an interference claim, the employee must show that he was entitled to benefits under the FMLA and that he was denied them. Id. at 119 (citing 29 U.S.C. §§ 2612(a), 2614(a)). To invoke rights under the FMLA, an employee must provide adequate notice to his employer about his need to take leave. 29 U.S.C. § 2612(e)(2). In doing so, the employee “need not expressly assert rights under the FMLA or even mention the FMLA.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.303(b).

         When the leave is unforeseeable, the employee's obligation is to “provide sufficient information for an employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the leave request.” Id. (emphasis added). This is not a formalistic or stringent standard. Sarnowski v. Air Brooke Limousine, Inc., 510 F.3d 398, 402 (3d Cir. 2007). “[W]here the employer does not have sufficient information about the reason for an employee's use of leave, the employer should inquire further of the employee . . . to ascertain whether leave is potentially FMLA-qualifying.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.301(a). The “‘critical test' is not whether the employee gave every necessary detail to determine if the FMLA applies, but ‘how the information conveyed to the employer is reasonably interpreted.'” Lichtenstein v. Univ. of Pittsburgh Med. Ctr., 691 F.3d 294, 303 (3d Cir. 2012).

         As to Defendant's first argument, the evidence is sufficient to establish a genuine dispute as to whether Plaintiff gave adequate notice. Plaintiff advised his supervisor on January 20, 2015 that he tried to get an emergency appointment with the doctor and that he had broken out in rashes all over. One-and-one-half hours later, Plaintiff advised that he had a doctor's appointment the next day and would provide a doctor's note for the days off. Although Plaintiff's complaints to his employer were vague and sometimes (but not always) entirely non-suggestive of any request for FMLA leave, the interpretation of all of the communications is exactly that: a matter of interpretation. It is not appropriately resolved at summary judgment, be it through Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment or Defendant's. See Lichtenstein, 691 F.3d at 303 (“How the employee's notice is reasonably interpreted is generally a question of fact, not law.”). As such, Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment is denied because he has not established his right to relief on this disputed element of his claim.

         Turning to Defendant's second argument in favor of summary judgment as to this claim, under the FMLA, a “serious health condition” is defined as “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves-- (A) inpatient care in a hospital, . . . or (B) continuing treatment by a health care provider.” 29 U.S.C. § 2611(11). A serious health ...

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