Federal District Court Decides Whether Georgia Woman’s ADA and FMLA Claims Survive Employer’s Motion for Summary Judgment

Federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12112, et seq., and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq., provide valuable protections to workers who are disabled, become ill, or find themselves as caregiver for an ailing family member. However, there are limitations on the provisions of these laws, and not every Atlanta employment discrimination or retaliatory discharge case based on their alleged violation will be met with success.

As with other civil suits, the plaintiff has the burden of meeting certain elements of proof in order to prevail in his or her suit. Employers typically seek dismissal of the various claims filed against them if at all possible, and it is not unusual for a trial court to dismiss some (or even all) of a plaintiff’s claims prior to trial.

Facts of the Case

In a recent employment law case, the plaintiff was a woman who began working as a manager of a discount warehouse club owned by the defendant employer in March 2017. Between that time and the day that she was ultimately terminated in late 2018, several significant events occurred, including  multiple “coachings” regarding the plaintiff’s performance of her job, a pregnancy, and a work-related injury. After being terminated for an alleged “inability to perform her job,” the plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thereafter, in 2019, the plaintiff filed suit in federal court, asserting claims for a) retaliation, discriminatory discharge, and failure to accommodate in violation of the ADA and b) for interference with her rights under the FMLA.

The parties filed multiple motions, including a motion by the plaintiff for sanctions based on the defendant’s alleged spoliation of evidence and cross-motions for summary judgment. After a magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation concerning the parties’ motions, both parties filed objections (and responses thereto) to the report. In his report, the magistrate recommended that the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions be granted in part and denied in part, that the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment be denied, and that the defendant’s motion for summary judgment be granted. Both parties filed objections to the report, and each filed a response to the other’s objection.

The Court’s Decision

After reviewing the magistrate’s report and recommendations, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division, decided to adopt the report in part and decline it in part. In the district court’s view, the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions should have been denied in its entirety and the defendant’s motion for summary judgment should have been granted in part. (The court agreed with the magistrate’s recommendation to deny the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.) In so holding, the district court noted that it had the discretion to consider both novel evidence and substantive arguments raised for the first time in an objection to a magistrate’s report and recommendation.

In the district court’s opinion, the plaintiff had not presented sufficient facts to demonstrate a prima facie case of retaliation under the ADA, and thus the defendant was entitled to summary judgment on this issue. With regard to whether the plaintiff was “disabled” and whether a reasonable accommodation had been made pursuant to the ADA, however, the court found that genuine issues of material fact precluded judgment as a matter of law in either party’s favor. As to the spoliation issue, the court opined that the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions should be denied insomuch as she had not pointed to any affirmative evidence that the emails in question were intentionally deleted.

In order to have established a viable FMLA interference claim, the plaintiff would have had to demonstrate that she gave sufficient notice to the defendant, both in terms of timing and content; unfortunately for the plaintiff, her FMLA claim failed because she did not follow the defendant’s policy regarding FMLA leave. In so holding, the court noted that the plaintiff was aware of the policy and had used it in the past.

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