FMLA and Discrimination Evidence Susceptible to More than One Interpretation

John GarnerDMEC News

Plaintiff-Appellant Carole Strickland brought various state and federal claims against Defendant-Appellee United Parcel Service, Inc. (“UPS”) after she stopped working for UPS.  The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision of the district court, which had granted judgment as a matter of law to UPS.  The court ruled Strickland’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) retaliation claim failed as a matter of law because she could not prove constructive discharge, since she testified she did not intend to quit when she stopped working. The district court also ruled there was no basis for an inference of sex discrimination because another female co-worker was not subject to the same mistreatment as Strickland.

Strickland appealed the district court rulings on the claims of retaliation for utilizing FMLA and sex discrimination.  The case was brought before the United States Court of Appeals Tenth Circuit, which reversed the district court’s decision and remanded Strickland’s claims for a new trial.

This case is Carole Strickland, Plaintiff – Appellant, Unite Parcel Service, Inc., a Delaware Corporation,Defendant – Appellee.

Strickland began working for UPS in 1999.  In January 2002 she was promoted to key account executive to work under a new supervisor.  In the fall of 2002, the supervisor believed Strickland looked stressed over a break-up with her long-term boyfriend and encouraged her to seek assistance through UPS’s employee assistance program.  Strickland testified her supervisor suggested she take leave to work through her personal issues.  Strickland stated she did not want to go on leave, but her supervisor pushed for it and she eventually relented.  Strickland was on leave for approximately two weeks.

Upon returning from leave, Strickland was subjected to increased oversight through meetings, performance reviews and phone calls by her new supervisor and district manager for the remainder of her tenure with UPS.  She was required to attend frequent meetings and participate in phone calls with the supervisor and district manager regarding her sales performance.  Strickland claimed the tone of these meetings were negative, with the supervisor warning he would get the district manager involved and saying she had let the company down.  She testified the meetings interfered with her ability to do her job because they took place during selling hours and sometimes required her to drive from Colorado Springs to Englewood.  Strickland was told she was required to meet all sales quotas. She was also required to sign written commitments as to which accounts she would win and was criticized for not meeting the commitments.  In addition, Strickland claims her supervisor ignored her requests for assistance, telling her at one point he would rather help salespersons who wanted to be successful.  Co-workers testified that the supervisor refused to answer Strickland’s questions during sales meetings, although he answered questions of other sales representatives.

Strickland was not the only UPS employee who testified that her supervisor was a difficult supervisor. One male co-worker described the supervisor’s managerial style as “management by fear” and detailed instances when the supervisor challenged his veracity and disciplined him without permitting an explanation.  Another described the supervisor as a micro-manager.  One individual left UPS early in 2002. He testified he left because he felt singled out by the supervisor and subject to intense oversight after he returned from a temporary leave of absence due to work-related stress.

Multiple co-workers also testified that Strickland was treated differently from everyone else. At the end of 2002 Strickland was between 93% and 104% of her sales quotas and was outperforming at least some of her coworkers on every measure.  Strickland’s co-workers were not required to attend individual meetings with the supervisor and the district manager or make written sales commitments even though no one was at 100% of every sales quota. One male co-worker trailed Strickland in almost every sales measure but was not required to attend meetings to discuss his performance, was not denied assistance, and was not counseled for failing to reach 100% in every sales measure.  Strickland’s one female co-worker testified she was not treated differently than the male employees, but Strickland was.

On January 15, 2003, Strickland went into the supervisor’s office, turned in her company laptop, and informed him she was leaving.  At trial, she was questioned at length regarding her state of mind at the time she stopped working.  She testified she was “done,” “at her wits end,” and unwilling to return to that environment.  She said she had no intention of returning to work for the supervisor. She did, however, hope to return to work for UPS in a different capacity. Strickland also testified that when she stopped working she did not believe she had “quit,” “resigned,” or “terminated” her employment.  She also stated she did not intend at that time to end her employment relationship with UPS, and she characterized her action as “going out on a leave.”  Strickland never returned to work at UPS, although in May 2003 she communicated with UPS about returning.  She was offered a sales position in Denver reporting to a different supervisor. She declined this offer because UPS could not guarantee the supervisor in question would not be transferred to that facility and the position would require a longer commute.  Over a year after Strickland stopped working, she was administratively terminated by UPS.

Strickland filed suit against UPS claiming: retaliation for use of medical leave; sex discrimination; retaliation for opposition to sex discrimination; breach of contract; and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The district court granted judgment as a matter of law to UPS on all claims.  As for the FMLA retaliation claim, the district court ruled Strickland could not prove damages because she testified she did not quit working for UPS.  Since she testified she did not quit, she could not show she was constructively discharged, which was necessary to sustain her claim for damages. The district court also granted judgment as a matter of law on the sex discrimination claim based on testimony that the other female employee was not treated differently by the supervisor. The district court concluded there was no basis for an inference of sex discrimination.  Strickland appealed the district court’s judgment on the FMLA retaliation claim and the sex discrimination claim.

FMLA Claim

The appeals court found parts of Strickland’s testimony supported the finding that she did not intend to terminate her employment, while other parts of her testimony, revealed ambiguity on the issue.  The court further found that whether the conditions at UPS were objectively intolerable is a question of fact for the jury, and that at the time Strickland left UPS, a reasonable person would not have been able to consider the alternative of another position due to the fact that it was not offered until months later.

Concluding that the evidence presented could have been susceptible to multiple interpretations and interpreted by a reasonable jury in Strickland’s favor, the appeals court found that the district court erred in granting judgment to UPS and reversed and remanded the claim for a new trial.

Sex Discrimination Claim.

A sex discrimination claim does not fail simply because an employer does not discriminate against every member of the plaintiff’s sex.  The appeals court determined that the jury could have found that Strickland was subjected to sex discrimination and concluded that the district court erred in preventing Strickland’s sex discrimination claim from going to jury.

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