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Tejeda v. Swire Properties, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

November 6, 2019

Erika Tejeda, Plaintiff,
Swire Properties, Inc., Defendant.


          Robert N. Scola, Jr. United States District Judge.

         Erika Tejeda seeks damages from her former employer Swire Properties, Inc., for violations of both the federal Family and Medical Leave Act as well as Florida's Civil Rights Act. (Compl., ECF No. 1-2.) She complains, in count one of her complaint, that Swire terminated her in retaliation for her request to take leave under the FMLA. And, in count two, she submits she was also, or alternatively, terminated on the basis of her national origin and gender, in violation of the FCRA. Swire has moved for summary judgment on several grounds, including (1) Tejada has failed to show that Swire's proffered reason for her termination was a cover up for FMLA retaliation; (2) Tejada failed to follow the proper administrative procedure with respect to her FCRA claims; and (3) Tejada failed to establish a prima facie case of gender or national origin discrimination under the FCRA. (Def.'s Mot., ECF No. 31.) Tejada, of course, opposes Swire's motion, arguing genuine issues of material fact presented in the record warrant a trial. (Pl.'s Resp., ECF No. 36.) Having considered the parties' briefing, the record, and the relevant legal authorities, the Court is persuaded that Swire is entitled to summary judgment with respect to Tejada's federal claim under the FMLA. For the following reasons, therefore, the Court grants Swire's motion, in part (ECF No. 31), and remands Tejada's remaining pendent state-law claims.

         1. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is proper if following discovery, the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, affidavits and admissions on file show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. “An issue of fact is ‘material' if, under the applicable substantive law, it might affect the outcome of the case.” Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., 357 F.3d 1256, 1259-60 (11th Cir. 2004). “An issue of fact is ‘genuine' if the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 1260. All the evidence and factual inferences reasonably drawn from the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); Jackson v. BellSouth Telecomms., 372 F.3d 1250, 1280 (11th Cir. 2004).

         2. Background

         Swire is a property developer, which owns and operates mixed-use, principally commercial properties in South Florida. (Pl.'s Resp. at 2.) Its headquarters are in Hong Kong. (Id.) Tejada began working at Swire as a temporary receptionist and in April 1996 was offered a permanent position as Swire's then-president Stephen Owens's secretary. (Def.'s Stmt. of Facts at ¶ 1, ECF No. 30, 1.) Tejada was also assigned certain human resources duties and was named assistant office manager. (Id.) Tejada's human resources duties were supervised by Swire's human resources manager at the time, Beverly McMain. (Id. at ¶ 2.) From the time Tejada began working at Swire, in 1996, until she was terminated, in 2017, the company's Miami office grew from 24 employees to approximately 120. (Tejada Dep. 32:25-33:8, ECF No. 29-1, 33.) Owens considered Tejada to be a valuable employee. (Pl.'s Resp. at 2.)

         Owens retired as president in December 2016 and McMain retired in February 2017. (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 2.) Kieran Bowers succeeded Owens as president, in Miami, upon Owens's retirement. (Pl.'s Resp. at 3.) Swire also hired Catterina Calderon as McMain's replacement. (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 6.) According to Alexa Macmullen, an accountant at Swire, Calderon “came in and changed everything.” (Macmullen Dep. 12:22, ECF No. 34-2, 12.) This included changing Tejada's title to “Human Resource Generalist” and raising Tejada's annual salary by $5, 000. (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 9.)

         Almost immediately, however, according to Tejada, conflict arose between Calderon and herself as well as other Swire employees. For example, says Tejada, Calderon complained about the way Tejada dressed, wore her hair, and painted her fingernails blue. (E.g., Tejada Dep. at 54:8-11; 55:16-17; 58:7-11.) Then, in late July or early August 2017, Calderon noted a number of what she perceived as Tejada's performance deficiencies in a written “Performance Improvement Plan.” (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 13.) In the plan, Calderon complained about Tejada's shortcomings with respect to her attention to details, ownership of general responsibilities, and meeting deadlines. (Id. at ¶ 14.) Tejada says the evaluation was largely invalid and that, though she signed it, she disagreed with it. (Tejada Dep. at 148:1-11.) On the other hand, Tejada also concedes that at least some of the identified deficiencies had merit. In particular, Tejada admits that she submitted payroll without first getting the proper approvals as she had been instructed to do. (Id. at 116:14-22.)

         A few weeks later, in late August, Calderon gave Tejada a second disciplinary notice, identifying additional performance issues. (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 19.) Although Tejada concedes that some of the errors complained of in the notice happened, she blames a malfunctioning website for one of them. (Id. at ¶ 20.) On the other hand, Tejada admits that she failed to provide Swire's accounting department with certain disability insurance billing documents when she was supposed to. (Id.)

         Finally, on September 15, 2017, Tejada received, by email, a letter from an attorney representing Ashley Alba, a former Swire employee. (Id. at ¶ 22.) The letter set forth Alba's complaint that she was required to report to a low-level employee rather than, as she had been promised, then-vice president Efren Ales. (Id.) Alba also alleged that male employees had made inappropriate comments to her, necessitating the intervention of her boss. (Id.) The parties dispute whether Calderon told Tejada not to share the email with anyone, particularly Ales. (Id. at ¶ 23; Pl.'s Stmt. at ¶ 23.) And the parties also dispute whether the letter should have properly been considered confidential. (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 23; Pl.'s Stmt. at ¶ 23.) There is no dispute, however that Calderon did not want Tejada to share the email with Ales. (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 25; Ales Aff. ¶ 10, 34-7, 4 (denying that anything in the letter was confidential but acknowledging he believed Calderon did not want him to have a copy of the email because it revealed Calderon had made a mistake when hiring Alba).) There is also no dispute that once Calderon found out Tejada had forwarded the letter to Ales, Calderon immediately initiated the process of terminating Tejada. (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 29.) And while Tejada insists Calderon was using the letter-forwarding incident to set her up for termination, she does not dispute that Calderon took steps to fire her well before she actually requested leave. (Id. at ¶ 29-30.)

         To be sure, the parties do not dispute that the decision to terminate Tejada was formalized in a termination notice, drafted by Swire's corporate counsel, Stephen Binhak, late on September 20, a Wednesday. (Id. at ¶ 30.) Tejada was out sick that day but returned to work on the 21st and 22nd. (Id. at ¶ 31; Tejada Aff. at ¶ 2.) Despite being at work on that Thursday and Friday, however, she was not told of the termination on either of those days. (Pl.'s Stmt. at ¶ 31.) Tejada was then out the following Monday and Tuesday (the 25th and 26th). (Def.'s Stmt. at ¶ 31.) Late that Tuesday night, though, on the 26th at 10:00 pm, Tejada emailed Calderon to say that she would be taking FMLA leave in order to care for her mother. (Id. at ¶ 32.) The following morning, on the 27th, Calderon met with Tejada and asked her if she had forwarded any confidential information to Swire's management team. (Id. at ¶ 36.) When Tejada answered, “No, ” Calderon told her that Tejada had broken Calderon's trust and fired her. (Id. At ¶¶ 37-40.) Tejada maintains the letter was not confidential and that she had no reason to know that Calderon considered it confidential. (Pl.'s Stmt. at ¶ 38.)

         3. Analysis

         A. Retaliatory Termination under the FMLA

         The FMLA provides that “an eligible employee shall be entitled to a total of 12 workweeks of leave during any 12-month period . . . [i]n order to care for the . . . parent[] of the employee, if such . . . parent has a serious health condition.” 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D). “[T]o succeed on a retaliation claim, an employee must demonstrate that his employer intentionally discriminated against him in the form of an adverse employment action for having exercised an FMLA right.” Strickland v. Water Works & Sewer Bd. of City of Birmingham, 239 F.3d 1199, 1207 (11th Cir. 2001). In order to demonstrate intentional discrimination, a plaintiff must “show[] that his employer's actions were motivated by an impermissible retaliatory or discriminatory animus.” Id. (quotations omitted). “When a plaintiff asserts a claim of retaliation under the FMLA, in the absence of direct evidence of the employer's intent, ” as in this case, courts “apply the same burden-shifting framework established by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green . . . for evaluating Title VII discrimination claims.” Strickland, 239 F.3d at ...

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