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Williams v. Verizon Washington, D.C., Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 31, 2018




         Plaintiff Rickie Williams has filed the instant lawsuit against his longtime employer, Verizon Washington, D.C. Inc. (“Verizon”), under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq. Williams's two-count complaint alleges that Verizon unlawfully interfered with his rights under the FMLA (Count I) and retaliated against him (Count II) when it terminated him after he returned to work from having taken FMLA medical leave. (See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 44-55.) Williams's specific allegations pertain to a saga that involved a trip to New Orleans, a lost cell phone, and Verizon's subsequent investigation into William's asserted reasons for taking leave. (Id. ¶¶ 17-23, 25-29, 31-41.) Williams claims that Verizon “accused him[, ]” without evidence, “of feigning his illness” and “l[ying] to [Verizon]” (id. ¶ 53), and later unlawfully terminated him “for taking this leave, resulting in monetary loss including loss of employment” (id. ¶ 47).

         Before this Court at present is Verizon's motion to dismiss and/or motion for summary judgment. (See Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss and/or Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mot.), ECF No. 28; Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss and/or Mot. for Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mem.”), ECF No. 28-1.) Among other things, Verizon argues that Williams's interference claim must fail because it is duplicative of his retaliation claim, and that Verizon granted Williams the requested FMLA leave, and thus did not interfere with Williams's exercise of his FMLA rights. (See Def.'s Mem. at 14-17.)[1] Verizon also contends that Williams cannot prevail on the retaliation claim, because Verizon has articulated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for Williams's termination-namely, that during the investigation, Williams repeatedly lied to Verizon about what he was doing while he was on leave-and Williams has not assembled any evidence to show that this legitimate reason for his termination was pretextual. (See Id. at 17-25.)

         This Court has reviewed the evidence that both parties have submitted in conjunction with their briefing of Verizon's motion, and for the reasons explained below, it finds that Williams has failed to present any evidence that could support a reasonable jury finding that Verizon is liable for FMLA interference or retaliation under the circumstances presented here. Therefore, Verizon's motion will be GRANTED, and summary judgment will be entered in Defendant's favor on all of Williams's claims. A separate order consistent with this Memorandum Opinion will follow.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Basic Facts[2]

         Williams began working for Verizon in 1979, and at all times relevant to this case, he worked as a systems technician at Verizon's garage in Northeast Washington, D.C. (Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts (“Def.'s Stmt.”), ECF No. 28-2, ¶¶ 1-2.) Williams had an approved Chronic Health Condition (“CHC”) certification for migraines under the FMLA, which was effective for the 12-month period between March 8, 2013, and March 7, 2014. (See Id. ¶¶ 16-17.) Once an employee has an approved CHC certification, absences related to that certification are automatically approved if the employee “connects the absence to his[] CHC case number when he[] calls out sick.” (Id. ¶ 16.)

         1. Williams's FMLA Leave And Travel To New Orleans

         The events underlying Williams's leave and termination all unfold over a span of several days in March of 2014. Williams was scheduled to work on Friday, March 7; Saturday, March 8; and Monday, March 10, 2014. (See Id. ¶ 30.) Williams's aunt passed away in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 4 (see Id. ¶ 28), and on March 5, Williams purchased a non-refundable plane ticket to New Orleans that would depart from the Baltimore-Washington International Airport on March 7, 2014 at 6:45 AM. (See Id. ¶ 29.)[3]

         On the morning of March 7, while he was at the airport, Williams called in sick to Verizon's FMLA telephone line, referencing his CHC certification for migraines. (See Id. ¶¶ 32, 36; see also Am. Compl. ¶¶ 10, 18-19.) He boarded his flight and landed at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport for a connecting flight. (See Def.'s Stmt. ¶¶ 37-39.) During this layover, while he was still inside the Charlotte airport, Williams misplaced his work cell phone, which had fallen out of his pocket. (See id.) Around 9:50 AM, Williams's supervisor, Richard Frames, received a call from Williams's work cell phone, and an airport worker who identified himself as Mr. Sherry left a message stating that he had found the cell phone and was calling the last-dialed numbers on the phone in an effort to locate its owner. (See Id. ¶¶ 40-41; see also Am. Compl. ¶ 27.) When Frames called Sherry back at 10:15 AM, Sherry said that he had located Williams and was on his way to return the cell phone to him. (See Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 42.)

         Williams then boarded the connecting flight from Charlotte to New Orleans, and some time after his arrival in New Orleans, at approximately 1:10 PM Central Time, Williams called Frames and told him that he would not be at work the following day, March 8, 2014, “because of illness.” (Id. ¶ 44 (internal quotation marks omitted).) Williams also called the Verizon employee responsible for keeping track of vacation hours for Williams's crew, and requested a vacation day for Monday, March 10, 2014, which is the same day that he returned to Washington, D.C. from New Orleans. (See Id. ¶ 47.)

         2. Verizon's Investigation And Williams's Termination

         After receiving the call from Sherry and speaking to him on Williams's work phone on March 7, 2014, Williams's supervisor (Frames) notified his area manager, William Alexander, that “Williams had called out sick that day, but his Verizon cell phone had been found in the Charlotte Airport.” (Id. ¶ 51.) Alexander directed Frames to conduct an investigation, which included two investigatory interviews with Williams. (See Id. ¶¶ 52, 54, 60.)

         The first interview took place on Tuesday, March 11, 2014, the day that Williams returned to work after his FMLA leave and his vacation day. (See Id. ¶¶ 48, 54.) Frames, Alexander, and Derrick Griffin, a union representative, participated in the interview. During the interview, when Williams was asked about what he did on March 7, 2014, Williams stated, “I got up, called the Center and requested FMLA leave. I to[ok] medicine, and went back to bed. I made a few calls during the day, that kind of stuff.” (Id. ¶ 57 (internal quotation marks omitted).) After the interview, Alexander and Frames obtained the bill for Williams's company cell phone, which showed that calls had been made from Charlotte, North Carolina, and Pearl River, Louisiana, on March 7, 2014. (See Id. ¶¶ 58-59.)

         The following month, on April 21, 2014, Frames and Alexander conducted a second investigatory interview with Williams, who was accompanied by a union representative. (See Id. ¶ 60.) At this interview, Frames asked the same questions that he had asked at the March 11 interview, and the union representative read Williams's answers from that interview, which Williams confirmed as correct. (See Id. ¶¶ 61-62.) Frames then told Williams that they were looking into his leave because Frames had received a phone call on March 7, 2014, from someone who said he had found Williams's phone in the Charlotte airport. (See Id. ¶ 63.) Although Williams initially said that his son had his cell phone that day, after asking for a break, Williams “admitted that he had traveled to Louisiana for his [a]unt's funeral.” (Id. ¶ 66.) Williams explained that “someone died on me that Friday” (his aunt had actually passed away on Tuesday, March 4, 2014). (Id. ¶ 67 (internal quotation marks omitted).)

         On May 9, 2014, Verizon terminated Williams for “lying about his whereabouts and misrepresenting facts” during its investigation. (Id. ¶ 68.) Williams's termination letter cites three violations of the Verizon Code of Conduct stemming from his misrepresentations relating to his FMLA leave, including that he “[m]isrepresented [his] health status and as a result received benefits to which [he was] not entitled[, ]” that he “[f]alsified records when [he] reported [he was] sick[, ]” and that he “[was] not honest and forthcoming during the investigation.” Employee Contact Memorandum (“Termination Letter”), Ex. P to Pl.'s Opp'n, ECF No. 30-15, at 1-2 (listing “independent and alternate grounds for discipline”). Williams “admits he knew” that his misrepresentations about his whereabouts during Verizon's investigation violated Verizon's Code of Conduct (Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 73; see also Id. ¶ 74), which requires employees to “be honest and forthcoming at all times during an investigation” and states that “[m]isrepresenting facts or failing to disclose facts during an investigation is strictly prohibited.” (Id. (quoting Verizon Code of Conduct, Ex. 3 to Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss and/or Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 28-5, at 10).)

         B. Procedural History

         Williams filed the instant FMLA lawsuit against Verizon in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on April 13, 2016. (See Compl., ECF No. 1-1, at 3.) Approximately one month later, on May 17, 2016, Verizon removed Williams's action to this Court. (See Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1, ¶ 5.) In the original two-count complaint, Williams alleged that Verizon interfered with his FMLA rights by denying his request for FMLA leave on March 7, 2014, and March 8, 2014, and further, that Verizon retaliated against him by accusing him of feigning his illness and subsequently terminating him. (See Compl. ¶¶ 34-46.) Verizon subsequently answered the complaint, [4] and the parties moved on to discovery. (See Answer, ECF No. 4.)

         During discovery, Verizon moved for sanctions pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 and asked the Court to dismiss the case because Williams and his attorney had produced evidence that Verizon argued “should have placed Plaintiffs counsel on notice that certain critical allegations in the [c]omplaint are false” (Def.'s Mot. for Sanctions, ECF No. 14, at 1), and that his client's claims are not “grounded in fact” (id. at 2). As grounds for this motion, Verizon explained that the original complaint represented that Williams had decided to attend his aunt's funeral in New Orleans last-minute, after he had already called in sick, but that Williams produced debit card records showing that he had in fact purchased his ticket two days prior, on March 5, 2014. (See Mem. in Supp. of Def.'s Mot. for Sanctions, ECF No. 15, at 3.) Verizon further contended that the original complaint's allegation that Verizon had denied Williams's FMLA leave was untrue, based on copies of FMLA paperwork that Williams had produced, which established that Verizon had in fact approved his FMLA requests for March 7 and 8, 2014. (See Id. at 7-8.)

         The Court denied Verizon's motion for sanctions, insofar as Verizon sought dismissal of the complaint, and also declined to award attorney's fees, see Williams v. Verizon Washington, D.C. Inc., 322 F.R.D. 145, 146 (D.D.C. 2017), but it ordered Williams to amend his complaint to reflect the new factual allegations that came into light in discovery (see Min. Order of Feb. 28, 2017). Thereafter, Williams amended his complaint (see Am. Compl. ¶¶ 12, 46), and adjusted the interference claim to be based on the contention that “Verizon [] terminated him . . . for taking [FMLA] leave” (id. ¶ 47.)

         On April 11, 2017, Verizon filed a motion to dismiss and/or motion for summary judgment with respect to William's Amended Complaint. Because discovery has concluded, Verizon's motion is fairly presented as one for summary judgment, and this Court will treat it as such. In its motion, Verizon argues that Williams has failed to establish a valid FMLA interference claim because his interference claim is based on the same set of facts as his retaliation claim, and that, in any event, Williams has presented no evidence that Verizon interfered with the exercise of his FMLA rights. (See Def.'s Mem. at 14-17.) Verizon further contends that Williams has failed to support his FMLA retaliation claim, because Williams has not shown the causation that a prima facie case for retaliation requires, and because Verizon has ...

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