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Brooks v. Prospect of Orlando, Ltd., Co.

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

December 11, 2017

PROSPECT OF ORLANDO, LTD., CO., a Florida Profit Corporation, Defendant.



         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on (1) Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and Supporting Memorandum of Law (Doc. 27; Defendant's Motion), filed on May 19, 2017; and (2) Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and Incorporated Memorandum of Law (Doc. 34; Plaintiff's Motion), filed on May 30, 2017. On June 5, 2017, Plaintiff Markia Brooks filed Plaintiff's Response Memorandum in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 37; Plaintiff's Response), and on June 13, 2017, Defendant Prospect of Orlando, Ltd. (Prospect) filed Defendant's Response in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and Supporting Memorandum of Law (Doc. 42; Defendant's Response). With leave of Court, see Order (Doc. 45) and Order (Doc. 49), on June 28, 2017, Prospect filed Defendant's Reply to Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum of Law (Doc. 50; Defendant's Reply), and on July 7, 2017, Brooks filed Plaintiff's Reply to Defendant's Response in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 51; Plaintiff's Reply). Accordingly, this matter is ripe for review.

         I. Background[1]

         A. Prospect

         Prospect is an organization that provides aviation support services at various airports, including the Jacksonville International Airport (JIA). See Defendant's Response, Ex. A: Job Orientation Guide (JOG) at 3; Deposition of Gregory Coleman (Coleman Dep.). at 6; Defendant's Motion, Ex. A: Second Affidavit of Michael Strobel (Second Strobel Aff.) ¶3. Prospect “does not have any other locations within 75 miles of” JIA. See Second Strobel Aff. ¶6. Periodically, Prospect's duty manager, Herb Levy, submits a roster of the Prospect employees working at JIA to the Jacksonville Airport Authority (JAA). See Coleman Dep. at 11, 16; Second Strobel Aff., Ex. 1: JIA Employees Who Worked Between 1/1/2013-12/31/2015 (Roster). Michael Strobel, Prospect's senior vice president, see Second Strobel Aff. ¶2, and Gregory Coleman, a manager at Prospect, see Coleman Dep. at 6, testified that from January 1, 2014, to December 31, 2015, Prospect did not employ 50 or more employees at JIA, see Second Strobel Aff. ¶6; Coleman Dep. at 53, 67. Specifically, Prospect did not employ more than 43 employees during any week in 2014, and did not employ more than 47 employees during any week in 2015. See Defendant's Reply to Plaintiff's Response in Opposition to Motion for Rule 11 Sanctions, Ex. B: Prospect's Jacksonville Weekly Pay Chart. Nevertheless, Brooks believes that Prospect had over 50 employees “during any given week." See Deposition of Markia Keshawn Brooks (Brooks Dep.) at 116-17.

         B. Brooks' Employment

         When Brooks began working for Prospect, she received a copy of Prospect's Job Orientation Guide (JOG).[2] See Brooks Dep. at 28-29, Ex. A: Receipt and Acknowledgement of Job Orientation Guide (Guide), Customs Requirements, Policies and Rules (Receipt of JOG). The JOG did not guarantee “any fixed terms or conditions of” employment, but instead served as a guide for employees on “the benefits and responsibilities that go with employment at Prospect.” See generally JOG at 3. With respect to the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et. seq. (FMLA), the JOG stated that “[e]mployees are eligible for unpaid family and medical leave if they have worked for Prospect for at least 12 months total (which need not be consecutive) and for at least 1, 250 hours over the immediate past 12 months.” Id. at 5. The JOG listed “the birth and care of the newborn child of an employee” as an appropriate reason for taking FMLA leave. Id. Notably, the JOG did not inform employees that they were not eligible for FMLA leave if their employer employed less than 50 employees within 75 miles of their worksite. See generally JOG; see also 29 U.S.C. § 2611(2)(B)(ii)). However, the JOG informed employees that they could find further information about the FMLA through the required postings in their work areas, and instructed them to direct questions regarding the FMLA to their manager or Human Resources. See JOG at 5. The JOG also provided that if an employee wanted to seek FMLA leave, she should “discuss it with [her] Manager who will then work with Human Resources to address [her] request.” Id. Prospect held a training session on the FMLA in Chicago in April 2015. See Coleman Dep. at 43. Coleman attended on behalf of the JIA location. Id. at 36-37, 43.

         Brooks started working for Prospect as a wheelchair assistant, also known as a skycap. See Brooks Dep. at 27-28. Prospect employed approximately fifteen wheelchair assistants at JIA per shift. Id. at 79. Coleman was responsible for training Prospect's wheelchair assistants. See Coleman Dep. at 70; Brooks Dep. at 23. The duties of the position included transporting passengers in wheelchairs up and down the inclined jetways. See Coleman Dep. at 47; Brooks Dep. at 25-26, 54 (“[W]e pushed them up from down.”). The inclines were not steep, but more like “little hill[s].” See Brooks Dep. at 25. Wheelchair assistants also had to transport the passenger's carry-on bag, which usually weighed around ten pounds. Id. at 51-52. Although wheelchair assistants needed “the ability to lift the passenger's carry-on bag and put it in the storage bin, ” see Coleman Dep. at 48, Brooks never performed this duty, see at Brooks Dep. 53. Additionally, wheelchair assistants occasionally had to lift a passenger out of the wheelchair and place the passenger in an aircraft chair, or lift a passenger out of an aircraft chair to an aisle chair, [3]and from the aisle chair back into the wheelchair. Id. at 24, 53-54; Coleman Dep. at 47-48. Lastly, wheelchair assistants helped passengers retrieve their bags from luggage claim, waited with them at the car rental line, placed the passengers in the front seat of their rental cars, and lifted their bags into the trunk. See Brooks Dep. at 54, 58. Although the parties dispute whether the written job description for the wheelchair assistant position required the ability to lift a particular amount of weight, see Brooks Dep. at 153-54, Coleman Dep. at 47, during training, Coleman announced that wheelchair assistants had to be able to lift 70 pounds, see Coleman Dep. at 48-49. On rare occasions, Prospect would not have enough wheelchair assistants to help all passengers in need. Id. at 79.

         At some point in Brooks' employment, Prospect adjusted her schedule such that she worked as a wheelchair assistant one day a week and as a baggage handler for Delta Air Lines (Delta) four days a week. See Brooks Dep. at 27. As a baggage handler, Brooks' duties included lifting the passengers' luggage and placing it on the luggage belt. Id. at 48. Most of the bags weighed between 45 and 50 pounds. Id. Brooks needed assistance lifting bags that exceeded 80 pounds, and those that contained oddly shaped objects, such as boats, tubes, or skis. Id. at 48-49, 57-58.

         C. Brooks' Pregnancy

         On April 6, 2015, Brooks visited the Center for Women and Children due to stomach pain. Id. at 61. At her appointment, Brooks learned that she was pregnant and expected to deliver on December 15, 2015. Id. at 65, Ex. C: Center for Women and Children Letter dated April 6, 2015 (April 6, 2015 Letter). Brooks told her physician that her job entailed lifting bags weighing 50 or even 80 pounds. Id. at 62-63. Brooks' physician responded that lifting more than 20 pounds put Brooks at risk of a miscarriage or additional health complications. Id.

         On April 7, 2015, Brooks informed her supervisors, Levy, Coleman, [4] and Helen Calhoun, about her pregnancy. Id. at 66-68. Brooks gave Levy and Coleman a letter from her physician as proof of her pregnancy and explained that lifting luggage caused her to experience stomach pain. Id.; April 6, 2015 Letter. In response, Coleman requested another letter from Brooks' physician explaining her physical limitations. See Brooks Dep. at 66. While awaiting a response, Prospect eliminated Brooks' duties as a baggage handler. Id. at 68-69, 72. However, the record is unclear as to whether Prospect limited her new duties to checking in passengers, id. at 72, or whether Prospect assigned her to work as a wheelchair assistant five days a week, id. at 68-69.

         Just three days later, on April 10, 2015, Brooks was rushed to the emergency room because of stomach pain. Id. at 70. Brooks gave her supervisors a copy of her discharge instructions. Id. at 71, 90, Ex D: Discharge Instructions (Patient Copy) (Discharge Instructions). The Discharge Instructions stated that Brooks could return to work on April 11, 2015, and push wheelchairs, but could not lift more than 10 pounds. Id.

         Once Prospect received the Discharge Instructions, it scheduled Brooks to work as a wheelchair assistant five days a week. Id. at 74-75, 152-53. Although Brooks was able to push passengers down the Jetways, id. at 72-73, 86, other employees had to fulfill all of her other duties, id. at 72-74, 86, 152-53. Specifically, Brooks was unable to push passengers up the Jetway, lift passengers, or assist with luggage. Id. Coleman was concerned that Prospect lacked the manpower to have other employees perform Brooks' duties. See Coleman Dep. at 73-74.

         On May 7, 2015, Coleman handed Brooks a letter and asked Brooks to have her health care provider review and complete an enclosed Medical Inquiry Form by May 21, 2015. Id. at 83, Ex. F: Letter from Coleman to Brooks dated May 7, 2015 (May 7, 2015 Letter); Coleman Dep. at 24, 31. The Medical Inquiry Form explained Brooks' duties and asked questions regarding the nature and duration of Brooks' performance limitations and reasonable accommodations. See May 7, 2015 Letter.

         Although Brooks did not return the Medical Inquiry Form, see Brooks Dep. at 109-114, Coleman Dep. at 68, on May 19, 2015, she gave Coleman a letter from her physician, see Brooks Dep. at 87, Ex E: Center for Women and Children Letter dated May 18, 2015 (May 18, 2015 Letter), Ex. G: Letter from Coleman to Brooks dated May 20, 2015 (May 20, 2015 Letter). In the letter, Brooks' physician “requested that [Brooks] be able to continue a 40 hour work week, eight hour shifts, with fifteen (15) minute morning and afternoon breaks and a lunch period.” See May 18, 2015 Letter. However, Brooks' physician also advised Brooks to adhere to “the normal precautions of pregnancy, ” which entailed “no heavy lifting (over 20 lbs), no hyperextension motions, and avoidance of biohazardous materials (certain chemicals, acetylene torches, etc.).” Id.

         On May 20, 2015, Coleman sent Brooks a letter acknowledging his receipt of the May 18, 2015 Letter. See May 20, 2015 Letter; Coleman Dep. at 70-71. Coleman noted that Brooks' limitations prevented her from performing the essential functions of the baggage handler position and advised that she would “not be assigned to baggage handling functions until after [her] baby [wa]s born or the restriction [wa]s lifted.” See May 20, 2015 Letter. However, Coleman stated that because Brooks was able to push wheelchairs, Prospect would be able to accommodate her as a wheelchair assistant by eliminating the aspects of the job that required handling bags in excess of 20 pounds. Id. Prospect believed this accommodation was “sufficient to allow [Brooks] to continue to work.” Id. Although Coleman sent the May 20, 2015 Letter by certified mail, Brooks did not receive it. See Coleman Dep. at 70-71; Brooks Dep. at 97.

         In the afternoon of May 20, 2015, Levy told Brooks that she “was being placed, involuntarily, on FMLA leave and that [she] needed to leave the premises.” See Plaintiff's Motion at 2, Ex: A: Declaration of Markia Brooks (Brooks Decl.) ¶5; Brooks Dep. At 103. From Brooks' perspective, Prospect “refused to let [Brooks] work and [she] was forced to take FMLA leave when [she] was not required to.” See Brooks Decl. ¶9. As explained by Brooks:

[Levy] came up to me and said, “You can't do this no longer. Mike Stroger[5]told me to go ahead and have the baby and then come back after you have the baby.” And I said, “Okay.” He said, “Well, don't worry about your job, you're on FMLA. The paperwork will be sent out to you.”

See Brooks Dep. at 68-69. Levy told Brooks that it would “take a couple of days” to send the paperwork. Id. at 104. He also represented that Brooks would be paid during her leave. Id. at 102. However, Levy told Coleman that he told Brooks “that she was able to go out on medical leave” because of Brooks' complaints to Calhoun about her difficulties pushing wheelchairs up and down the inclines. See Coleman Dep. At 26, 52-55, 60. Brooks disputes that she was unable to push wheelchairs down the Jetway. See Brooks Dep. at 86. Nevertheless, after Levy instructed Brooks “to leave the premises, ” see Brooks Decl. ¶5, Brooks went home and did not return to Prospect, see Brooks Dep. At 98, 115.

         On May 29, 2015, Coleman signed another letter addressed to Brooks explaining that Prospect needed a better understanding of the limitations discussed in the May 18, 2015 Letter. See Brooks Dep., Ex H: Letter from Coleman to Brooks dated May 29, 2015 (May 29, 2015 Letter). Coleman requested that Brooks have her physician review and complete the attached Medical Inquiry Form by June 15, 2015 so that Prospect would “be better able to assess what, if any accommodations” it could offer Brooks. Id. Although Coleman testified that he told Brooks to pick up the May 29, 2015 Letter, see Coleman Dep. at 55-56, Brooks disputes that she received any calls from Prospect after May 20, 2015, see Brooks Dep. at 140-41. Additionally, Coleman sent Brooks the May 29, 2015 Letter by certified mail. See Coleman Dep. at 55-56. However, Brooks did not receive it. See Brooks Dep. at 107-08.

         Brooks never received FMLA paperwork from Prospect. See Brooks Dep. at 69, 99, 103, 105. If Brooks had known that she was not eligible for FMLA protection, she “would not have accepted the leave [she] was placed on because [she] preferred to continue to work and earn income, ” and “would have asked more questions.” See Brooks Decl. ¶6. Because Prospect did not send Brooks FMLA paperwork, Brooks believed that Prospect had terminated her on May 20, 2015. See Brooks Dep. at 98, 107, 115; Complaint and Demand for Jury Trial (Doc. 1; Complaint) ¶8. However, Coleman disputes that Brooks had been terminated. See Coleman Dep. at 22, 65-66. He testified that when Brooks left on May 20, 2015, her job was safe and she could have come back. Id. at 66. Nobody from Prospect told Brooks that she had been terminated, see Brooks Dep. at 106-07, 115, and Prospect listed Brooks as an active employee until September 24, 2016, see Roster.

         Based on her belief that she had been terminated, in June or July 2015, Brooks filed a claim for unemployment compensation.[6]See Brooks Dep. At 69, 98-100, 105, 124. Ultimately, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity awarded Brooks six months of unemployment benefits, which Prospect appealed. Id. at 100; Deposition of Veronica Strobel (Strobel Dep.), Ex. 1: Letter from John Voyles dated August 18, 2015 (Unemployment Letter). In support of Prospect's appeal, Veronica Strobel, an ...

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