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Muns v. Camden County Board of Social Services

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

July 17, 2019

Deborah MUNS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAMDEN COUNTY BOARD OF SOCIAL SERVICES, Defendant.

          OPINION

          ROBERT B. KUGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 37] dismissing Plaintiff Deborah Muns' Complaint [Doc. No. 1]. Plaintiff's Complaint includes four claims: interference with Plaintiff's Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) rights (Count I); retaliation under the FMLA (Count II); age discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) (Count III); and violation of the New Jersey Wage Payment and Collection Law (“NJWPCL”) (Count IV). Plaintiff and her attorney have agreed to withdraw Count IV. For the reasons discussed in the following Opinion, the Court GRANTS the Motion for Summary Judgment with regard to Count I and Count II. The Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Count III.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         This is a case about alleged FMLA interference and retaliation. Plaintiff Deborah Muns was born in 1957. Complaint (“Compl.”) [Doc. No. 1] at ⁋ 12. In 1978, she applied to work for the Camden County Board of Social Services (“CCBSS”). CCBSS first hired her as a Clerk Typist. Id. at ⁋ 14. She took on several positions over the next thirty-seven years. From approximately 1997 until her retirement in December 2015, she worked as a Human Service Specialist II. Def St. Mat'l Fact (“Def. SOMF”) [Doc. No. 37-3] at ¶ 1.

         During her final year at CCBSS, Plaintiff faced medical and familial challenges that led to her requesting leave. Her medical challenges trace back to in or around 2012, when she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Compl. at ⁋ 19. This condition caused her to suffer from severe joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. Id. at ⁋ 20. Then, in January 2015, her mother unfortunately became ill and died. Id. at ⁋⁋ 21-24. In total, Plaintiff applied for FMLA leave four times in 2015. The Court considers the applications at issue below.

         1. First FMLA Request: Care for Ill. Mother

         Plaintiff applied for and received FMLA leave on January 6, 2015 to care for her ill mother. Def. SOMF at ¶ 3. This period of FMLA leave permitted care for Plaintiffs mother until February 17, 2015. Just one day later, on January 7, 2015, Plaintiffs mother died. Pl. St. Mat'l Fact (“Pl. SOMF”) [Doc. No. 39], ¶ 5. Her mother's passing ended her FMLA leave.[1]

         Plaintiff then requested additional time away from work to mourn her mother's passing. CCBSS granted the bereavement request and provided Plaintiff additional time off. Plaintiff remained away from work on approved bereavement until January 14, 2015. See Dublin Deposition (“Dublin Dep.”) [Doc. No. 38-2], 95:4-7. Plaintiff then used two accumulated sick days and submitted a second FMLA request. Id.

         2. Second FMLA Request: Attend to Mother's Estate

         Plaintiff submitted a second request for FMLA leave and was denied on January 21, 2015. See Muns Deposition (“Muns Dep.”) [Doc. No. 37-4], 75:15-78:15. In her application, Plaintiff listed her now-deceased mother as the “family member for whom you will provide care.” Def. Exhibit B, (“Second FMLA Request”) [Doc. No. 37-5]. Plaintiff also provided a description of the proposed “care” in her application. Id. Plaintiff wrote that “[she] was ‘power of attorney' to handle all of [her] mother's business and paperwork and all necessary decisions - [she] was the only child able to look after [her] mother for reason being 2 of [her] siblings lived out of town.” Id.

         CCBSS ultimately denied this second FMLA request because “administering an estate is not covered under FMLA/FLA.” Def. Exhibit C, (“Notice: Second FMLA Request”) [Doc. No. 37-6]. Just four days later, Plaintiff submitted a third, and allegedly unrelated, application for FMLA leave.

         3. Third FMLA Request: Leave Due to Rheumatoid Arthritis

         On January 25, 2015, Plaintiff submitted a third request for FMLA leave for her own “serious health condition” and was subsequently denied. Def. Exhibit D, (“Third FMLA Request”) [Doc. No. 37-7]. This health condition rendered her “unable to perform the essential functions of her job.” Id. As such, she requested leave from January 20, 2015 through February 18, 2015. Id.

         Plaintiff provided a certification from a health care provider to support her application. Dr. Pamela Traisak, a physician with a specialty in Rheumatology, certified that Plaintiff suffered from a “serious health condition” that required treatment and caused incapacity for a continuous period of time. Def. Exhibit E, Certification of Health Care Provider, (“Traisak Cert.”) [Doc. No. 37-8]. Dr. Traisak indicated that Plaintiff has “severe arthritis in her lumbar spine and knees that causes pain and numbness and affects her ability to function. She has difficulty walking or standing. . . she also suffers from chronic inflammation in her eyes. . .” Id. Dr. Traisak estimated that Plaintiff's flare-ups, which prevented her from working, occurred one-to-two times every one-to-three months. The episodes also lasted two-to-three days. Id.

         CCBSS doubted the validity of Dr. Traisak's certification for several reasons. First, Plaintiff had lived with Rheumatoid Arthritis since October 2012 and had never applied for FMLA leave. Second, and more importantly, CCBSS questioned the validity of her request because it “came so quickly on the heels of her being denied leave to handle her mother's estate.” Def. SOMF at ¶¶ 14, 16. As such, CCBSS arranged for a second medical opinion from Dr. Tim Pinsky.

         Dr. Pinsky examined Plaintiff on February 3, 2015, and Plaintiff discussed her job duties at this appointment. Id. at ¶ 18. While awaiting the results of the second medical opinion, Plaintiff took vacation time from January 20th through February 6th. Dublin Dep. at 95:8-9.

         On February 5, 2015, CCBSS notified Plaintiff that her third request for FMLA leave was denied based upon the results of Dr. Pinsky's examination. Def. SOMF at ¶ 20. Dr. Pinsky determined that there was no medical necessity to justify Plaintiff's FMLA request because her CCBSS position was sedentary and her normal job duties could thus be performed even with her arthritic condition. Id. at ¶ 21. The letter further instructed Plaintiff to return to work on February 9, 2015.

         4. Fourth FMLA Request: Intermittent/Reduced Work Week Due to Rheumatoid Arthritis

         On February 12, 2015, Plaintiff submitted a fourth request for FMLA leave on an intermittent basis for her serious health condition and was subsequently denied leave. Def. Exhibit I, (“Fourth FMLA Request”) [Doc. No. 37-12]. In that request, Plaintiff sought intermittent leave until August 13, 2015. Def. Exhibit J, (“Fourth FMLA Request Certification”) [Doc. No. 37-13]. Again, she included a certification from Dr. Traisak. Id.

         CCBSS denied this request on February 23, 2015 based upon the results of Dr. Pinsky's examination. Def. Exhibit K (“Denial: Fourth FMLA Request”) [Doc. No. 37-14]. The letter indicated that Dr. Pinsky “found that since the essential responsibilities of [her] job are sedentary and that he did not detect any new or progressing medical conditions, there was nothing to preclude [her] from attendance at work on a full-time basis.” Id.

         On February 24, 2015, Plaintiff requested that CCBSS seek a third medical opinion regarding her FMLA leave eligibility. Def. Exhibit L (“Third Opinion Request”) [Doc. No. 37-15]. Plaintiff understood that the third examination was the last and binding opinion concerning her leave eligibility. Def. SOMF at ¶ 30. She was granted provisional leave pending the outcome of the third opinion. Pl. SOMF at ¶ 32.

         On March 26, 2015, Plaintiff emailed Ronalda Dublin, Defendant's Senior Personnel Technician, and asked if the days she had missed due to her medical condition qualified for provisional FMLA leave. Pl. Exhibit D, Request for Provisional Leave (“Provisional Leave Request)” [Doc. No. 38-3]. Dublin responded that she could use provisional leave while waiting for the results of the third medical opinion. Pl. Exhibit E, Response to Request for Provisional Leave (“Provisional Leave Response”) [Doc. No. 38-3].

         On or about April 10, 2015, Plaintiff attended an evaluation with a third physician, Dr. Barr. On May 14, 2015, Plaintiff received a letter that stated, “Dr. Barr determined that, although [she] does have medical issues, based on the job duties that [she] described to him, and the results of his examination, he did not see any reason why [Plaintiff] cannot continue to work without restrictions.” Def. Exhibit N (“Intermittent Leave Denial”) [Doc. No. 37-17]. Dr. Barr's evaluation was binding upon Plaintiff. Further, the evaluation terminated Plaintiff's pending requests for FMLA leave. Pl. SOMF at ¶ 34.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On January 27, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Complaint [Doc. No. 1] in this Court alleging various causes of action arising from the facts above. Specifically, she claims that Defendant interfered with her FMLA rights (Count I), retaliated against her for attempting to exercise her FMLA rights (Count II), discriminated against her because of her age (Count III), and refused to pay her all the sick time she had accumulated during her employment (Count IV).

         Defendant Camden County Board of Social Services (“CCBSS”) now moves for Summary Judgement on Plaintiff's interference and discrimination claims. Defendant argues that Plaintiff's interference claim fails as a matter of law because the regulation that governs an employer's right to seek a second medical opinion (29 U.S.C. § 2613(c)(1)) does not impose a reasonableness requirement. Defendant also argues that any interference resulting from alleged violations of the FMLA's regulations fails as a matter of law because the undisputed facts demonstrate that Plaintiff was not prejudiced in any way.

         Plaintiff directs the Court to five specific occasions to support her claim that Defendant CCBSS violated her FMLA rights: (1) when Defendant required a second medical opinion and subsequently denied Plaintiff's third request for FMLA leave, (2) when Defendant denied Plaintiff's fourth request for intermittent FMLA leave, (3) when Defendant failed to grant Plaintiff provisional leave pending the outcome of the second and third medical opinions, (4) when Defendant failed to provide Plaintiff with a copy of the second ...


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