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Antekeier v. Laboratory Corp. of America

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

August 1, 2018

KELLY ANTEKEIER, Plaintiff,
v.
LABORATORY CORPORATION OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. S. Ellis, III United States District Judge

         On May 15, 2018, the jury in this Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)[1] retaliation case returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff, Kelly Antekeier, awarding her $233, 730.28 in damages. At issue post-trial are the following questions:

(i) whether plaintiff is entitled to an award of liquidated damages;
(ii) whether plaintiff is entitled to front-pay;
(iii) whether the jury award should be reduced to a nominal amount because of plaintiff's alleged failure to mitigate damages; and
(iv) whether plaintiff is entitled to prejudgment interest, and if so, at what rate?

         These questions have been fully briefed, and are now ripe for disposition.

         I.

         The FMLA provides that an employee “shall” recover “an additional amount of liquidated damages equal to” lost wages and interest. 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(1)(A)(iii). In light of this statutory mandate, the Fourth Circuit has held that “[n]ormally, liquidated damages are awarded automatically under the statute.” Dotson v. Pfizer, Inc., 558 F.3d 284, 302 (4th Cir. 2009).

         Yet, it is clear that Congress did not intend that liquidated damages be awarded automatically in every FMLA case. The FMLA provides that if an employer “proves to the satisfaction of the court” that the violation of the FMLA “‘was in good faith and that the employer had reasonable grounds for believing that the act or omission was not a violation,' [of the FMLA] the court, in its discretion, may choose not to award liquidated damages.” Id. (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(1)(A)(iii)) (emphasis added). In this regard, the employer bears a “‘plain and substantial burden' to persuade the court that its failure was in good faith and that it would be unfair to impose liquidated damages.” Id. (quoting Mayhew v. Wells, 125 F.3d 216, 220 (4th Cir. 1997)). Thus, these provisions make clear that Congress contemplated that judges would have a role in determining whether liquidated damages were appropriate in a given FMLA case.[2] Indeed, courts have taken up this mandate and have refused to award liquidated damages in FMLA cases on a number of grounds. See, e.g., Hoge v. Honda of America Mfg., Inc., 384 F.3d 238, 251 (6th Cir. 2004) (affirming a district court's denial of liquidated damages where the district court found that the employer had made a good faith to ascertain its duty under the FMLA to reinstate an employee).[3]

         This judicial role in determining whether to award liquidated damages in an FMLA case is circumscribed by an important and well-established rule, namely that the judge's factual basis for awarding liquidated damages cannot contradict the factual findings of the jury in deciding the equitable issues in a case. Arban v. West Pub. Corp., 345 F.3d 390, 408 (6th Cir. 2003) (applying the requirement that a judge's factual findings not contradict the jury's factual findings to the liquidated damages determination in an FMLA retaliation claim). Indeed, courts have consistently held that “whe[re] legal and equitable issues to be decided in the same case depend on common determinations of fact, such questions of fact are submitted to the jury, and the court in resolving the equitable issues is then bound by the jury's findings on them.” Id. at 408 (quoting Smith v. Diffee Ford-Lincoln-Mercury, Inc., 298 F.3d 955, 965 (10th Cir. 2002)).[4]

         The Sixth Circuit's decision in Arban is particularly instructive here. In Arban, the district court denied plaintiff's request for liquidated damages in an FMLA retaliation case because the district court found, contrary to the jury verdict, that the employer's decision to terminate plaintiff was motivated by plaintiff's misconduct and not by plaintiff taking FMLA leave. Id. The Sixth Circuit reversed and required the district court to award liquidated damages. In reaching this conclusion, the Sixth Circuit noted that juries are presumed to follow the judge's instructions, and that as such the jury had been required to make a factual determination that the employer had terminated plaintiff for taking medical leave. Id. Thus, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the “district court disregarded the jury's finding - that [the employer's] decision to fire [plaintiff] was a result of his medical leave and not his misconduct - in considering the liquidated damages issue, ” and that the district court's factual finding contrary to the jury verdict was an abuse of discretion. Id.

         With these cases and principles in mind, analysis now turns to the question whether defendant has presented evidence sufficient to carry its burden to demonstrate that plaintiff's termination “‘was in good faith and that [defendant] had reasonable grounds for believing that the act or omission was not a violation, '” of the FMLA. Dotson, 558 F.3d at 302 (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(1)(A)(iii)). Here, defendant has not presented sufficient evidence to carry its burden. Simply put, in light of the jury verdict defendant had no reasonable grounds for believing that its termination of plaintiff was lawful, and there is no other basis in the record from which to conclude defendant acted in good faith by terminating plaintiff. The FMLA prohibits the use of FMLA protected activity or leave as a motivating factor in an employee's termination. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(c) (stating that “employers cannot use the taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions, such as hiring, promotions, or disciplinary actions.”).[5] Here, the jury concluded that a motivating factor in the decision to terminate plaintiff was plaintiff's taking of FMLA leave, and such a conclusion is inconsistent with a finding that defendant acted in good faith when it terminated plaintiff. Even assuming that defendant had other legitimate reasons for terminating plaintiff, and that plaintiff's FMLA leave was only one of a number of factors in defendant's decision to terminate plaintiff, that decision would still be unlawful, and defendant had no reasonable basis for concluding that terminating plaintiff, in part, for taking FMLA leave was not a violation of the law.[6] In sum, defendant has not borne its burden of establishing that it had a reasonable basis for believing that its termination of plaintiff was lawful. As such, liquidated damages are required.

         This conclusion is also consistent with the Sixth Circuit's conclusion in Arban. Here, just as in Arban, a ruling for defendant on the liquidated damages issue would require factual findings that contradict the jury's findings of fact. A decision that defendant acted in good faith and with reasonable grounds to believe it had not violated the law would require a factual finding that plaintiff's leave was not a motivating factor in defendant's decision to terminate plaintiff. As ...


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