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Long v. Endocrine Society

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 13, 2017

LETICIA E. LONG, Plaintiff,
v.
ENDOCRINE SOCIETY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Amit P. Mehta United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Leticia E. Long alleges that her former employer, Defendant Endocrine Society, improperly terminated her emplo yment while she was out on approved leave to care for her mother. Plaintiff claims Defendant interfered with and retaliated against her for taking leave, in violation of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq., and the D.C. Family and Medical Leave Act, D.C. Code § 32–501, et seq. Plaintiff further alleges that Defendant failed to pay her overtime compensation, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., the D.C. Minimum Wage Revision Act, D.C. Code § 32–1001, et seq., and the D.C. Wage Payment and Collection Law, D.C. Code § 32–1301, et seq. Defendant moves for summary judgment on the grounds that it terminated Plaintiff because Plaintiff performed poorly over an extended period of time and misused company time and resources by operating two outside businesses during work hours. Additionally, Defendant contends that Plaintiff was an exempt administrative employee and, therefore, not entitled to overtime compensation. See Def.’s Mot. for Summ. J. & Stmt. of Material Facts, ECF No. 20, at 1–40 [hereinafter Def.’s Mot.].

         Based on the record evidence, the court concludes that no reasonable jury could find that Defendant retaliated against Plaintiff for taking FMLA leave or that Defendant interfered with Plaintiff’s right to take leave. The court also finds that Defendant properly classified Plaintiff as an exempt employee, making her ineligible for overtime compensation. Accordingly, the court grants summary judgment in favor of Defendant on all counts.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff worked as a publications marketing manager for Defendant from July 2011 to January 2015. Pl.’s Opp’n to Def.’s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 23, Pl.’s Mem. in Supp., ECF No. 23-1 [hereinafter Pl.’s Opp’n], Pl.’s Stmt. of Material Facts, ECF No. 23-2, at 5–14 [hereinafter Pl.’s Stmt.], ¶¶ 73, 96; Def.’s Mot. for Summ. J. & Stmt. of Material Facts, ECF No. 20, at 41–54 [hereinafter Def.’s Stmt.], ¶ 68; Pl.’s Resp. to Def.’s Stmt., ECF No. 23-2, at 1–5 [hereinafter Pl.’s Resp.], ¶ 68. The Endocrine Society is a professional membership organization dedicated to the research, study, and clinical practice of endocrinology-the branch of physiology and medicine related to glands and hormones. Pl.’s Stmt. ¶ 71; Def.’s Reply in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 24 [hereinafter Def.’s Reply], at 32–40 [hereinafter Def.’s Resp.], ¶ 71; Def.’s Mot., Def.’s Exs., ECF 20-1 [hereinafter Def.’s Exs.], at 45–99 [hereinafter Def.’s Ex. 7], at 1.[1]The organization’s members consist primarily of medical doctors, scientists, clinical researchers, and educators. Def.’s Ex. 7 at 1. The Endocrine Society publishes peer-reviewed journals, hosts conferences and meetings, and develops clinical practice guidelines, in addition to other work. Id. at 1–2. Plaintiff’s responsibilities at the Endocrine Society included securing subscriptions and renewals to the organization’s journals, preparing profit and loss statements for new publications and educational products, creating and implementing marketing plans, and managing the marketing department’s budget. Def.’s Stmt. ¶ 2; Pl.’s Resp. ¶ 2; Def.’s Exs. at 20–23 [hereinafter Def.’s Ex. 3]; Pl.’s Opp’n, ECF No. 23-12 [hereinafter Pl.’s Ex. 10], at 85–93.[2]

         1. Plaintiff’s Performance Issues

         In 2013, Plaintiff’s work performance began to decline. As early as mid-2013, Plaintiff’s immediate supervisor, marketing director Meredith Jannsen, observed that Plaintiff’s work quality was sub-par: Plaintiff was not completing marketing plans, her writings contained numerous errors, and she needed guidance from managers to do basic projects. Def.’s Exs. at 33–44 [hereinafter Def.’s Ex. 6], at 52–53; Def.’s Exs. 153–62 [hereinafter Def.’s Ex. 13]. According to Jannsen, Plaintiff’s work quality continued to deteriorate in early 2014, causing other employees to complain about Plaintiff’s failure to follow through on various tasks and forcing Jannsen to shoulder many of Plaintiff’s responsibilities. Def.’s Ex. 6 at 56–57; Def.’s Exs. at 140–46 [hereinafter Def.’s Ex. 10]; Def.’s Ex. 12; Def.’s Exs. at 193–95 [hereinafter Def.’s Ex. 18]; Def.’s Exs. at 207–26 [hereinafter Def.’s Ex. 24]. In May 2014, Jannsen met with Plaintiff to discuss these performance issues and, thereafter, Jannsen began documenting her concerns and working with Human Resources (“HR”) to address them. Def.’s Stmt. ¶ 18; Pl.’s Resp. ¶ 18; Def.’s Ex. 6 at 57–59; Def.’s Ex. 10.

         Plaintiffs’ job performance did not improve. Throughout the fall of 2014, Jannsen and Wendy Sturley, Defendant’s senior marketing director, met multiple times to discuss Plaintiff’s performance and raised the possibility of termination. Def.’s Ex. 6 at 74–75; Def.’s Stmt. ¶ 35; Pl.’s Resp. ¶ 35. Jannsen also continued to coordinate with HR, documenting examples of Plaintiff’s inferior work. Def.’s Exs. at 204–28 (Exs. 23–25). On October 8, 2014, Jannsen again met with Plaintiff to discuss her ongoing performance issues, and two days later, sent her an email recapping the meeting and attaching a list of projects on which to focus. Def.’s Stmt. ¶ 30; Pl.’s Resp. ¶ 30; Pl.’s Ex. 10 at 105–06; Def.’s Exs. 163–72 [hereinafter Def.’s Ex. 14]. The email stated: “As we discussed, we were hoping to start fresh on all of these projects and get you to a place where you were able to perform the duties required of the position including taking ownership and initiative for the planning and implementation of marketing efforts related to journals and [publications].” Def.’s Ex. 14 at 2.

         2. Plaintiff’s Leave Requests

         Meanwhile, throughout 2014, Plaintiff’s parents experienced serious health problems, causing her to periodically seek leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq. Def.’s Ex. 6 at 67–68. Plaintiff’s father passed away in late September 2014, and Plaintiff returned to work in October. Pl.’s Ex. 10 at 103–04. That same day she returned, October 10, 2014, Plaintiff requested 30 days of family leave to care for her mother. Defendant approved the request, and Plaintiff took a 24-day leave from October 14, 2014, through November 13, 2014. Def.’s Stmt. ¶¶ 32–33; Pl’s Stmt. ¶¶ 32–33.

         Plaintiff made two requests for FMLA leave in December 2014, the second of which forms the basis of her claims here. Plaintiff sought and received FMLA leave on December 15 and 16, 2014. Def.’s Stmt. ¶ 48; Pl.’s Resp. ¶ 48. The following day, on December 17, 2014, Plaintiff requested 60 days of leave to care for her mother, from January 20, 2015, to March 17, 2015. Def.’s Stmt. ¶¶ 49–50; Pl.’s Resp. ¶¶ 49–50; Def.’s Exs. at 244–45 (Ex. 30). On December 19, 2014, Sturley reported that Plaintiff stormed into her office in a confrontational manner. Def.’s Exs. at 248–51 (Ex. 32). In an e-mail to HR Director Julie Boynton, Sturley described her interactions with Plaintiff as growing “more and more frustrating” and sought guidance on how to handle the situation. Id. A few days later, on December 22, 2014, Plaintiff requested 12 weeks of leave to begin immediately, which was approved. Def.’s Exs. at 252–62 (Ex. 33).

         3.Termination of Plaintiff’s Employment

         While Plaintiff was on leave in December 2014, Jannsen monitored Plaintiff’s work e-mail account. Def.’s Stmt. ¶ 56; Pl.’s Resp. ¶ 56; Def.’s Ex. 6 at 76–77. When Jannsen went out on vacation, Sturley, the senior marketing director, took over that task. Def.’s Exs. at 24–29 [hereinafter Def.’s Ex. 4], at 65–66. Sturley discovered multiple e-mails written to and from Plaintiff’s work account relating to two outside businesses-Wired Cycling, a cycling studio Plaintiff founded in northeast Washington, D.C., and Long & Associates, LLC, Plaintiff’s husband’s law firm. Def.’s Stmt. ¶ 57; Pl.’s Resp. ¶ 57; Def.’s Ex. 4 at 67, 69–71; Def.’s Exs. at 100–11 [hereinafter Def.’s Ex. 8], at 120. Sturley informed Boynton of her discovery; Boynton, in turn, reported the issue to her supervisor; and Boynton’s supervisor then reported it to Defendant’s Chief Executive Officer (“CEO”). Def.’s Ex. 4 at 65–68. The CEO and Boynton’s supervisor then directed Boynton to audit Plaintiff’s e-mail account. Id. at 67.

         The audit revealed Plaintiff had been using her work e-mail account for unauthorized activities, against Defendant’s policy. The audit uncovered dozens of e-mails and documents Plaintiff sent from her work e-mail account, during work hours, related to Wired Cycling, including architect’s drawings, floor plans, an application for a building variance with the city, information about bank loans, and letters of neighborhood support for the studio. Def.’s Stmt. ¶ 61; Pl.’s Resp. ¶ 61; Def.’s Ex. 4 at 71; Def.’s Exs. at 263–505 (Exs. 34–46). The audit’s results were reported to the CEO, who made the decision to terminate Plaintiff’s employment. Def.’s Stmt. ¶ 58; Pl.’s Resp. ¶ 58; Def.’s Ex. 4 at 66–67; see Def.’s Reply, ECF No. 24-1 [hereinafter Def.’s Reply Exs.], at 1–6 [hereinafter Def.’s Ex. 51], at 40. According to Boynton, the CEO decided to fire Plaintiff because

[s]he was upset at the use of the Endocrine Society’s tools and technology. She was upset at the performance over[ ]time that had been reported to her by the management and the marketing department. And the whole package, I think, just represented to her somebody whom she did not have confidence in that had the Endocrine Society’s business best interest in mind.

Def.’s Ex. 51 at 40.

         On January 8, 2015-while Plaintiff was still on FMLA leave-Boynton sent Plaintiff a letter notifying her that her employment had been terminated, effective immediately. Def.’s Mot. at 6; Pl.’s Opp’n, ECF No. 23-18 [hereinafter Pl.’s Ex. 16]. The letter stated the reasons for Plaintiff’s termination as follows:

In addition to ongoing, documented concerns about poor work performance, a recent audit of our ES systems revealed your extensive and long-term use of the organization’s business resources, including your labor hours, ES IT systems, copiers/scanners and office facilities, to run at least two personal businesses (Long & Associates, LLC, Wired Cycling). In addition, we have evidence of your application for other employment.

Pl.’s Ex. 16. In light of the termination letter, Plaintiff did not return to work. Pl.’s Stmt. ¶ 97; Def.’s Resp. ¶ 97.

         B. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed this action in early 2016, alleging that Defendant’s decision to terminate her employment while she was on leave interfered with her right to take leave under the FMLA and its D.C. counterpart, the D.C. Family and Medical Leave Act (“DCFMLA”), D.C. Code § 32–501, et seq., and was in retaliation for taking approved leave (Counts I–IV). Am. Compl., ECF No. 4 [hereinafter Am. Compl.], ¶¶ 26–42. Plaintiff further claims that Defendant improperly classified her as an “exempt” employee ineligible for overtime pay protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., and, because of this improper classification, she is entitled to overtime wages pursuant to the D.C. Minimum Wage Revision Act (“DCMWRA”), D.C. Code § 32–1001, et seq., the D.C. Wage Payment and Collection Law (“DCWPCL”), D.C. Code § 32–1301, et seq., and the FLSA (Counts V–VII). Am. Compl. ¶¶ 43–49, 55–61. Additionally, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant failed to pay out vacation hours upon her termination in violation of the DCWPCL (Count VI). Am. Compl. ¶ 54. Defendant moves for summary judgment as to all Counts in Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate “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 “genuine dispute” of a “material fact” exists when the fact is “capable of affecting the substantive outcome of the litigation” and “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could ...


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