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Collins v. Vernadero Group, Inc.

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

June 28, 2019

KAREN E. COLLINS, Plaintiff,
v.
VERNADERO GROUP, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          M. HANNAH LAUCK JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Vernadero Group, Inc.'s ("Vernadero") Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs Complaint (the "Motion to Dismiss").[1] (ECF No. 7.) Plaintiff Karen Collins, proceeding pro se, responded in Opposition (the "Opposition"), (ECF No. 10), and Vernadero replied, (ECF No. 13).[2] This matter is ripe for disposition. The Court dispenses with oral argument because the materials before it adequately present the facts and legal contentions, and argument would not aid the decisional process. The Court exercises jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.[3] For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the Motion to Dismiss.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. Procedural Background

         Collins brings a two-count Complaint against Vernadero, [4] alleging that her former employer terminated her employment and failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. (the "ADA"), after she took an eleven-month leave of absence without pay and could not provide an affirmative return-to-work date. (Compl. 8-10, ECF No. 1.) Vernadero filed the Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), [5] seeking dismissal of the Complaint for failure to state a claim. Collins responded and Vernadero replied.

         B. Collins's Employment Background

         Collins's Complaint stems from the termination of her employment with Vernadero. Collins began working for Vernadero as a project manager in April 2009 and Vernadero terminated her employment on June 28, 2016. Throughout her tenure with Vernadero, Collins received positive annual performance reviews resulting in annual bonuses, and "frequent praise and positive feedback from clients." (Compl. 7.)

         In 2015, Collins "fell ill and began experiencing prolonged periods of disabling pain, extreme fatigue, memory loss, and cognitive impairment." (Id.) In June 2015, doctors diagnosed Collins with fibromyalgia and an underlying immune deficiency. (Id.) Several weeks later, Collins recognized that "the illness combined with the side effects of the medication were debilitating enough to make [her] incapable of performing [her] job." (Id.) After discussions with Christine Howard, Vice President of Vernadero, Sara Jackson, Collins's supervisor, and Joanne Maiden, Human Resources Manager, Collins applied for short-term disability. (Id.) Collins stopped working on July 28, 2015. (Id. 8.) Collins became an "inactive" employee and alleges that there were "several other [Vernadero] employees with inactive statuses at that time." (Id.) Collins's physician informed Vernadero that she would return to work on October 28, 2015, three months after she started short-term disability. (Id.)

         In her Complaint, Collins states that her "treatment did not go as planned and [she] was unable to return to work [on] October 28, 2015." (Id.) Collins alleges that she informed Christine Howard and Sara Jackson that she needed an extended absence and that she then filed for long-term disability with the help of Joanne Maiden. (Id.) Collins asserts that she updated Sara Jackson "weekly" and that she contacted Christine Howard "less frequently." (Id.) Collins alleges that "during that timeframe [no one] at the Company communicate[d] anything to me about my absence being a problem." (Id.)

         Eight months later, in June 2016, Christine Howard left Vernadero. (Id.) On June 14, 2016, Collins received an email from Joanne Maiden inquiring about her well-being. (Id.) Collins did not immediately respond to that email. (Id.) On June 20, 2016, Joanne Maiden sent a second email to Collins "stating that there was no written documentation in [Collins's] personnel file beyond [her] doctor's original note for short-term disability." (Id.) On June 22, 2016, Joanne Maiden sent Collins a third email, in which she asked Collins to call her. (Id. 9.) On June 26, 2016, Collins responded to the emails and informed Maiden that she would be undergoing surgery on June 28, 2016. (Id.) Collins told Maiden that she thought she would need roughly six to eight weeks to recover from that surgery. (Id.)

         On June 28, 2016-the day of Collins's surgery-Maiden sent Collins an email with a termination letter attached, ending her employment with Vernadero effective immediately. (Id.) Collins alleges that "[t]he termination letter references a voluntary termination, claiming that the reason [for termation] was that there was no written documentation to support my continued medical leave of absence beyond October 28, 2015 and that there was no additional leave available to accommodate a continued absence." (Id.) On July 14, 2016, Collins replied to Maiden's email, asserting that she had "complied with Company policy regarding medical leave and supplied written documentation that my leave would extend beyond October 25, 2015." (Id.) Collins further asserted that she had a "verbal agreement" with Sara Jackson and Christine Howard for "indefinite leave" although such leave was "never expressly guaranteed." (Id.)

         On September 17, 2016, eleven and a half weeks after her surgery, Collins' doctor conditionally released her to return to work. (Id.) Collins did not, however, return to work at Vernadero because the company had terminated her employment. Collins alleges that she then "began the hunt for new employment and filed for unemployment, which the Company contested." (Id.) The state awarded Collins unemployment benefits. (Id.)

         To support her ADA claim, Collins alleges that her symptoms and illnesses qualify her as "[disabled] under the Americans with Disabilities Act." (Id. 10.) Collins further contends that she had a "verbal agreement of an indefinite amount of medical leave" with the Vice President of Vernadero, who had authority to make such decisions. (Id.) Collins asserts that Vernardero failed to inform her that her accommodation was in jeopardy. (Id.) Collins alleges that Vernadero's discriminatory conduct has caused her to suffer the loss of past and future income, "benefits, lost career opportunities, damage to reputation, embarrassment, inconvenience, emotional and mental anguish which exacerbates physical conditions, consequential damages, and court and possible attorney's fees." (Id. 11.)

         On April 5, 2017, Collins filed her charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). On June 15, 2018, [6] the EEOC issued Collins a right-to-sue letter after finding that Collins "took extended medical leave as reasonable accommodation" and that Vernadero "subsequently discharged [Collins] after [she] failed to report to work for almost a year." (Right-to-Sue Letter 1, ECF No. 1 -1.) The EEOC further stated that it found it "unlikely that further investigation of [Collins's] charge will result in [] finding" a legal violation because Vernadero operated as a "very small employer and was unable to extend an indefinite leave period."[7] (Id.) The instant lawsuit followed.

         II. Applicable ...


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