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Waterman v. Paul G. White Interior Solutions

United States District Court, D. Maine

November 5, 2019




         Jake Geyer Waterman, who is self-represented in this proceeding, seeks damages against his former employer, Paul G. White Interior Solutions (“White Interior Solutions”), for violations of the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and for defamation (ECF No. 1). White Interior Solutions moves to dismiss the complaint for failing to state a claim upon which relief can be granted (ECF No. 12). Additionally, in a surreply to the motion to dismiss, Waterman seeks leave to amend the damages alleged in his complaint (ECF No. 15). For the following reasons, I deny the motion to dismiss with respect to the complaint's FMLA retaliation claim, grant the motion to dismiss with respect to the FMLA interference claim and the defamation claim, and grant Waterman leave to amend his complaint.

         I. BACKGROUND

         For the purposes of the motion to dismiss, I treat the following facts as true: Waterman began working for White Interior Solutions as a floor finisher and installer on August 4, 2015.[1] Waterman's father had been diagnosed with three illnesses: degenerative bone disease, polycythemia blood disease, and a ruptured aorta. On or around April 8, 2018, Waterman's stepmother told Waterman that she had spoken with his father's doctor, and the doctor said his father would “most likely die” if he did not immediately return to the doctor for tests and treatment. ECF No. 1 at 7; ECF No. 13 at 3. Waterman had known about his father's worsening condition for weeks, and he had shared this information with his supervisor and two coworkers. However, Waterman did not know that his father was near death until this conversation with his stepmother.

         Waterman missed work to care for his ill father from April 9 to April 16. Waterman left a voicemail with his supervisor on April 9, pursuant to alleged company policy. On April 10, he left a voicemail with Jonathan White, a co-owner of White Interior Solutions, explaining his father's situation. Neither Waterman's supervisor nor White responded to the voicemails. When Waterman did not appear for his shift on April 16, White sent him a Facebook message asking where he was. On April 17, Waterman responded that his father was “still pretty bad off[, ] gets out of bed a couple hours here and there during the day.” ECF No. 1-5 at 2. White advised Waterman to call his supervisor, and Waterman responded by sending several argumentative Facebook messages. White then messaged Waterman, “[D]on't worry about your job[.] You left, ” and “[Y]ou abandoned your job according to everyone.” ECF No. 1-5 at 4-5. After Waterman continued to send argumentative messages, White responded by instructing him not to return to White Interior Solutions' property.


         White Interior Solutions moves to dismiss the claims against it under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss, the complaint “must contain sufficient factual matter to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Rodríguez-Reyes v. Molina-Rodríguez, 711 F.3d 49, 53 (1st Cir. 2013) (internal quotation omitted). Courts apply a two-pronged approach in resolving a motion to dismiss. Ocasio-Hernández v. Fortuño-Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 12 (1st Cir. 2011). First, courts must identify and disregard statements in the complaint that merely offer legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Id. (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). Second, courts “must determine whether the remaining factual content allows a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” A.G. ex rel. Maddox v. Elsevier, Inc., 732 F.3d 77, 80 (1st Cir. 2013) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Generally, courts will accept all well-pleaded facts as true and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Rodríguez-Reyes, 711 F.3d at 52-53. Determining the plausibility of a claim is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 53 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Plaintiffs “need not plead facts sufficient to establish a prima facie case, ” but the elements of a prima facie case “are part of the background against which a plausibility determination should be made.” Id. at 54.

         A self-represented plaintiff is not exempt from this framework, but the court must construe his complaint “liberally” and hold it “to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). Additionally, the court may consider other filings by a self-represented plaintiff, “including his response to the motion to dismiss, to understand the nature and basis of his claims.” Wall v. Dion, 257 F.Supp.2d 316, 318 (D. Me. 2003); accord Sirois v. United States, No. 2:17-cv-324-GZS, 2018 WL 2142980, at *1 (D. Me. May 9, 2018) (quoting Wall).

         A. Family Medical Leave Act

         “[T]he FMLA entitles an employee to twelve weeks' leave per year for listed family and medical reasons, such as to care for a parent with a serious health condition.” Carrero-Ojeda v. Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica, 755 F.3d 711, 722 (1st Cir. 2014). To protect this right, “the FMLA and its accompanying regulations make it unlawful for any employer to, among other things: (1) ‘interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise' of any FMLA right; or (2) retaliate or ‘discriminat[e] against employees . . . who have used FMLA leave,' such as by ‘us[ing] the taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions.'” Id. at 718 (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1), 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(c)) (internal citations omitted).

         The complaint alleges that White Interior Solutions violated the FMLA because it discharged Waterman for taking time off from work to care for his ill father. Because Waterman does not specify whether his FMLA claim is for interference or retaliation, I analyze the complaint under both frameworks.

         1. Interference

         “In order to make out a prima facie case for FMLA interference, plaintiff must show that (1) she was eligible for the FMLA's protections; (2) her employer was covered by the FMLA; (3) she was entitled to leave under the FMLA; (4) she gave her employer notice of her intention to take leave; and (5) her employer denied her FMLA benefits to which she was entitled.” Chacon v. Brigham & Women's Hosp., 99 F.Supp.3d 207, 213-14 (D. Mass. 2015) (citing Carrero-Ojeda, 755 F.3d at 722 n.8). “The key issue is simply whether the employer provided its employee the benefits to which she was entitled per the FMLA.” Carrero-Ojeda, 755 F.3d at 722.

         The First Circuit has held that an employee's claim that her employer “used her FMLA leave as a negative factor in deciding to terminate her after she failed to show up for work” is a retaliation claim, not an interference claim. Mellen v. Trs. of Bos. Univ., 504 F.3d 21, 26-27 (1st Cir. 2007); see also Colburn v. Parker Hannifin/Nichols Portland Div., 429 F.3d 325, 331-32 (1st Cir. 2005) (distinguishing between retaliation and interference and explaining that courts should characterize a FMLA claim as one or the other according to “the nature of the facts and the theory of the case” instead of according to the parties' characterizations). Thus, to the extent that Waterman's complaint claims that White Interior Solutions interfered with his right to FMLA leave by discharging him for attempting to take FMLA leave, “the ...

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