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Snipes v. The Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Abingdon Division

March 11, 2019

CHRISTOPHER EARL SNIPES, Plaintiff,
v.
THE SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA REGIONAL JAIL AUTHORITY, Defendant.

          James P. Jones United States District Judge Rodney B. Rowlett, III, Shine & Rowlett, PLLC, Kingsport, Tennessee, for Plaintiff; Joseph A. Piasta, Johnson, Ayers & Matthews, P.L.C., Roanoke, Virginia, for Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JAMES P. JONES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In this action arising out of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), plaintiff Christopher Earl Snipes alleges that defendant The Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority (“Jail Authority” or “the Authority”) violated the FMLA by terminating his employment in retaliation for his use of FMLA-protected leave. The Jail Authority has moved for summary judgment, arguing that it terminated Snipes' employment for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason and Snipes cannot show that this reason was pretext for discrimination based on his use of FMLA leave. For the reasons that follow, I will deny the defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I.

         The following facts taken from the summary judgment record are either undisputed or, where disputed, are presented in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the nonmoving party.

         The Jail Authority operates four jails in Southwest Virginia. The Authority organizes its correctional officers in a paramilitary structure - they begin as officers and may progress in rank to corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and major. Officers directly supervise the inmate population and the jail's day-to-day operations. To prepare to take on a higher rank, officers may apply to be corporals, who are given additional responsibilities for disciplining inmates and training new officers. Sergeants supervise the officers on each shift and handle more serious inmate disciplinary processes. Lieutenants are shift commanders and are ultimately responsible for the functioning of each shift. Lieutenants also have administrative responsibilities, including determining the appropriate staffing for each shift, scheduling employees' time off, and documenting and investigating any accidents that occur during the shifts. Captains supervise the lieutenants, and majors oversee all of the staff.

         Discipline of correctional officers is approached on a case-by-case basis and can be tailored to the rank of the officer. Supervisors may give employees verbal warnings, and the Authority's employee handbook provides for formal disciplinary actions, which include written counseling, written reprimands, suspension with or without pay, and termination of employment. Termination may occur after an employee commits multiple minor violations of the Authority's policies or because of an employee's poor job performance. Supervisory personnel are usually not demoted when issues arise; rather, they “move up and out.” Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 5, Kilgore Dep. 66:25, ECF No. 23-5.

         Snipes began working for the Jail Authority as an officer in 2005, and he became a corporal in 2007. In 2010, he was promoted to sergeant, and in December 2012, he was promoted to lieutenant. During his time as a lieutenant, he oversaw the jail's night shift.

         In 2015, Snipes' wife developed a medical condition that was ultimately diagnosed as Cacchi-Ricci disease. As a result, she required inpatient care and experienced periods of incapacity. In October 2015, she underwent a medical procedure, and Snipes notified the Authority that he needed to take FMLA leave to care for her. The Authority approved his FMLA leave request, allowing him to take leave intermittently per doctor's orders. On March 14, 2016, Snipes' wife underwent another medical procedure, which her doctor determined would leave her incapacitated from March 14, 2016, to April 13, 2016. After both occasions, Snipes submitted to the Authority certifications from the doctor describing his wife's health issues and the care she required. Snipes is uncertain of the exact dates on which he took FMLA leave, but he did so intermittently between October 2015 and March or April 2016.

         The Authority uses a form to notify employees of their eligibility for FMLA leave and their rights and responsibilities when taking this leave. Snipes' form stated that, among other things, he was required to provide to the Authority every thirty days reports about his leave status and intent to return to work. The form also noted that he had a right under the FMLA to up to twelve weeks of leave. The Authority's Human Resources Manager, Georgia Fitzgerald, testified in her deposition that employees using FMLA leave may be disciplined if they do not provide the Authority with the required status updates. Moreover, employees may be terminated if they exceed the twelve weeks of permitted leave.

         In March 2016, Larry Kilgore, then a captain supervising Snipes, met with Fitzgerald regarding Snipes' leave. In a memorandum that Kilgore prepared on March 29, 2016, to document his conversations with Fitzgerald and Snipes, [1]Kilgore noted that he had told Snipes that he was out of compliance with the Authority's FMLA reporting requirements and the Authority would terminate him if he exceeded his twelve weeks of leave and did not communicate with Human Resources about his leave status. Snipes returned to work sometime after this conversation.

         On April 26, 2016, Snipes missed a scheduled supervisory meeting that Kilgore and Dwayne Lockhart, then a major, had expected him to attend. Shortly after the meeting was supposed to have begun, Lockhart called Snipes at home, and Snipes said that he had forgotten about the meeting and would try to arrive in time for the remainder of it. Lockhart told Snipes that they were going to begin without him and not to rush to arrive. Snipes came to the jail that day for his shift, which was after the supervisory meeting, but he did not arrive in time for any of the meeting.

         Also on April 26, Snipes received a written performance appraisal from the Authority, which described his leadership and staff relations as commendable, the second highest rating. It also described his ability to interact with others and his teamwork skills as distinguished, the highest rating. Snipes' overall performance was characterized as competent, the median rating. According to the appraisal form, competent performance “clearly meets the requirements of the position” and “reflects a solid level of performance, ” and “[c]ontinued performance at this level would be perfectly acceptable.” Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 6, Kilgore Dep. Ex. 2 at 2, ECF No. 23-6. The appraisal also established three goals for Snipes to meet by the end of the year, including spending more time in the back of the jail rather than in his office, and encouraging teamwork and building morale during his shifts.

         On May 10, a video recording showed Snipes using inappropriate language with an inmate. Kilgore later referenced this incident in a supervisory meeting, stating, “Let's make sure we're doing the right thing. . . . You know what I'm talking ...


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