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Moody v. Honda of America Mfg.

June 26, 2006

JENNIFER K. MOODY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HONDA OF AMERICA MFG., INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Smith

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff, Jennifer K. Moody, filed this action against her former employer, Honda of America. She claims that Honda violated her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. §§2601 et seq., when it terminated her employment on August 12, 2005.

Both parties have filed motions to compel discovery. Honda wishes to discover additional information about Ms. Moody's medical conditions from 2002 forward, including information relating to her medical condition after the date of discharge. Ms. Moody seeks to discover information, which she believes to be in personnel files of other Honda employees, about whether Honda terminated other employees on grounds similar to those asserted in her case. For the following reasons, the Court concludes that each moving party is entitled to essentially all of the discovery which it has requested, and both motions to compel will be substantially granted.

I.

Ms. Moody's complaint provides the most significant factual background for the two discovery motions at issue. In her complaint, she alleges that she worked for Honda from 1990 until 2005. In 2005, she was granted intermittent FMLA leave due to depression. Honda had also recognized her migraine headaches as a second serious health condition requiring intermittent leave.

Between July 27, 2005 and August 8, 2005, Ms. Moody missed a total of eight days of work. She claims that seven of these missed days were caused by her depression and that she missed one day because of a migraine headache. She alleges that, prior to this time, she had been threatened with discharge if she missed more than four days per month due to depression. She was discharged on August 12, 2005, a decision which was upheld by an internal review panel on August 18, 2005. She alleges that her use of FMLA leave was utilized by Honda as a negative factor in deciding to discharge her.

Honda, responding to discovery, has asserted that Ms. Moody was terminated for "accumulated gross misconduct and for misrepresentation and falsification in violation of HAM's policies." See Memorandum of Defendant Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc. in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion to Compel the Production of Documents, Doc. #11, at 8. It is not clear exactly what falsification and misconduct Honda claims to have relied upon in making its decision. According to Ms. Moody, part of the basis for her discharge was the fact that she attended a gymnastic competition in New Orleans while she was off work due to depression. She claims that during that time, she was psychologically unable to work but was able to engage in "activities that made her happy while depressed" based upon her doctor's advice. See Plaintiff Jennifer K. Moody's Motion to Compel the Production of Documents, Doc. #10, at 3. The Court will assume, without the benefit of additional information, that Honda's decision was based at least in part upon its belief that Ms. Moody was not unable to work on some or all of the days she missed in July and August of 2005 due to a serious medical condition. It is with these facts in mind that the instant motions will be decided.

II.

Before beginning its analysis, the Court must address a dispute between the parties as to the proper characterization of Ms. Moody's claims. Honda asserts that Ms. Moody has stated only a very specific type of FMLA claim in her complaint, an "interference claim" under 29 U.S.C. §2615(a)(1), and not a "retaliation" or "discrimination" claim under 29 U.S.C. §2615(a)(2). According to Honda, because Ms. Moody has asserted only an interference (or entitlement) claim under §2615(a)(1), the discovery which she has requested is irrelevant. Consequently, the Court will discuss briefly whether it agrees with Honda's characterization of the type of FMLA claim asserted by Ms. Moody or, more broadly, with Honda's assertion that FMLA claims may be neatly separated into two separate categories and that the Court must perform that analysis prior to determining what type of evidence parties may be entitled either to discover or to produce at trial in support of and in defense of such claims.

The most recent Sixth Circuit decision discussing the types of claims available under the FMLA is Edgar v. JAC Products, 443 F.3d 501 (6th Cir. 2006). In Edgar, the plaintiff's employment was allegedly terminated based upon the fact that she did not submit a medical form justifying her need for FMLA leave until after the date for return of that form which had been established by her employer (although there was a factual dispute about that date). The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant not on grounds that the required form was turned in too late but that, even if the employer had granted the plaintiff the full twelve weeks of available leave, she would still have been discharged because she was not able to return to work until well after the leave period expired. One of the questions presented on appeal was whether the employer was entitled to prove, either as a defense to Ms. Edgar's claim or as an issue relating to mitigation of damages, that she would have been unable to return to work even if the termination was itself improper.

In addressing the issue, the Court noted, as it had also noted in previous cases, see, e.g., Arban v. West Publishing Co., 345 F.3d 380 (6th Cir. 2003), that FMLA claims can be divided into at least two categories. The first, which the Court of Appeals referred to as either "entitlement" or "interference" claims, present the issue of whether an employee actually received the benefits to which the employee is entitled under the FMLA. For example, in a case where an employee asserts that he or she did not receive leave properly requested and substantiated under the FMLA, or was not reinstated after completing a proper FMLA legal absence, the employee has asserted a claim for interference with rights under the FMLA or a claim that his or her entitlement to such rights was not recognized by the employer. The Court of Appeals noted that the employer's intent is not a part of the inquiry to be made under an entitlement or interference claim, but also noted that the employee must be prejudiced by the employer's refusal to recognize the entitlement in order to prevail. Under this theory, the Court of Appeals held that it was relevant to the issue of liability to determine whether the employee could return to work after the expiration of FMLA leave. If not, the employee was not denied any benefit granted by the FMLA because an employee who is unable to return to work after the expiration of FMLA leave is not entitled to reinstatement.

The other type of claim discussed by the Edgar court is a retaliation or discrimination claim. There, the question is whether the employer meted out an adverse employment action based on a reason which is prohibited under the FMLA. For example, if an employee's job is terminated because the employee exercised rights under the FMLA, a claim of retaliation or discrimination would be made out. In such a case, the employer's intent is relevant. Under that theory, the Court of Appeals concluded that whether Ms. Edgar was able to return to work after her FMLA leave would have expired was irrelevant to the issue of liability, because the question of her employer's intent was to be measured only based upon what the employer knew at the time, but that the extent of the relief to which she might be entitled for a violation would be impacted by whether she was able to return to work. Thus, although Edgar does describe two different categories of FMLA claims, it analyzed Ms. Edgar's termination claim under both theories and concluded that under either, the employer was entitled to discover evidence concerning Ms. Edgar's medical condition above and beyond what was known to it at the time of the adverse job action.

Ms. Moody's complaint does not describe her FMLA claim in the language used in Edgar nor does it cite to one or the other of §§2615(a)(1) or 2615(a)(2) in articulating her theory of recovery. Rather, stripped to its essence, the complaint asserts that Ms. Moody was entitled to take FMLA leave for depression or for migraine headaches; that all of the leave which she took in late July and early August of 2005 was proper FMLA leave; and that she was nonetheless discharged based upon having taken that leave. The question then becomes whether these facts support only an entitlement claim, only a discrimination claim, or both.

In that regard, this Court's decision in Kitts v. General Telephone, 2005 WL 2277438 (S.D. Ohio September 19, 2005) (Holschuh, J.) is helpful. Kitts involved an employee who was discharged for allegedly falsely reporting the circumstances surrounding her illness and the relationship between that illness and her absence from work. Because the Court of Appeals appears to recognize two different types of FMLA claims, Judge Holschuh proceeded to analyze the plaintiff's claim under both §2615(a)(1) and §2615(a)(2). He concluded that the claim could either be an interference or entitlement claim because the plaintiff asserted that she was entitled to the absence in question under the FMLA and because the plaintiff asserted that she took appropriate FMLA leave and was then discharged, or discriminated against, because she exercised her FMLA rights. Ultimately, because Judge Holschuh concluded that the plaintiff had been discharged not for taking FMLA leave but for falsification, he granted summary judgment for the ...


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