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Maria Escriba v. Foster Poultry Farms

September 29, 2011

MARIA ESCRIBA,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
FOSTER POULTRY FARMS, A CALIFORNIA CORPORATION,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Oliver W. Wanger United States District Judge

ORDER RE: PLAINTIFFS‟ MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW OR IN THE ALTERNATIVE A NEW TRIAL, AND MOTION TO AMEND THE JUDGMENT (DOC. 221)

I.INTRODUCTION.

Plaintiff Maria Escriba brings this motion for judgment as a matter of law ("JMOL"), or in the alternative, motion for new trial following jury verdicts in a five day trial. The jury found that Plaintiff had not given Defendant Foster Poultry Farms ("FPF") sufficient notice to take leave pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") or California Family Rights Act ("CFRA").*fn1 Accordingly, Plaintiff was not at any time under the protections of the FMLA or CFRA and not entitled to judgment on her FMLA/CFRA claims.

Plaintiff contends that informing her supervisors of her FMLA-qualified reason for leave equates to sufficient notice under FMLA and as such "there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis to support the verdict for [D]efendant." Defendant opposes Plaintiff‟s motions, asserting that there is substantial evidence that FPF complied with the FMLA requirements and Plaintiff refused to exercise her right to take FMLA leave, amounting to insufficient notice.

Plaintiff further moves to amend the Judgment as Plaintiff contends she is entitled to judgment as the prevailing party solely on her unpaid wages claim.

II.PROCEDURAL HISTORY.

On October 26, 2009, Plaintiff filed her Complaint alleging: Unlawful Interference with FMLA rights; Discrimination under the FMLA; Failure to provide CFRA leave; Unlawful discharge and discrimination under CFRA; Failure to prevent discrimination under CFRA; and Termination in violation of California‟s public policy. Compl., ECF No. 1.

Plaintiff‟s First Amended Complaint ("FAC") added a claim for failure to pay earned wages, including vacation pay, and waiting time penalties. First Am. Compl., ECF No. 8. Defendant asserted fourteen affirmative defenses in its Answer to Plaintiff‟s FAC. Answer, ECF No. 15.

The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment on June 3, 2011. Mots. Summ. J., ECF Nos. 33, 41. The Memorandum Decision Order granted in part and denied in part the cross-motions. Summ.

J. Order, ECF No. 98.

Trial began on July 13, 2011. On July 21, 2011, before the

case was submitted to the jury, both parties filed motions for JMOL. ECF Nos. 197, 198. The Court heard oral argument on the cross-motions the same day. Trial Tr. 130-149, July 21, 2011. On July 22, 2011, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Defendant. ECF No. 208.

Plaintiff now submits her Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and Alternative Motion for a New Trial pursuant to Fed. R. of Civ. Pro. 50(b) and 59(a). Plaintiff also moves under to under Rule 59(e) to amend the Judgment in order to recognize her prevailing party status on the unpaid wages claim.

III.BACKGROUND.

Based on all the evidence entered and all the testimony taken, this case boils down to a classic "he said, she said" credibility dispute centered around what Plaintiff told her supervisors, and what they said in response, when she requested a vacation to see her sick father in Guatemala.

In fall 2007, Plaintiff learned that her father in Guatemala was ill. Plaintiff contends that on November 16, 2007, she received a phone call from her niece that Plaintiff‟s father had taken a turn for the worse. Plaintiff booked a roundtrip ticket to Guatemala, leaving on November 23, 2007 and returning on December 27, 2007.

The following Monday, Plaintiff met with her direct supervisor, Linda Mendoza, and requested vacation time off to visit her sick father. A conversation ensued regarding Plaintiff‟s request. A dispute arose about who was involved in this conversation. Plaintiff, who claims to speak limited English, testified that no interpreter was present. Defendant‟s witnesses testified to the opposite. There is also a dispute regarding what was said during the conversation.

Ultimately, Ms. Mendoza approved Plaintiff for two weeks of vacation. Plaintiff‟s vacation slip states that she was required to return on December 10, 2007.

Plaintiff then spoke with the facility superintendant, Edward Mendoza. Witness testimony is highly conflicting regarding what was said during this conversation. Plaintiff claims Mr. Mendoza orally approved an extended leave of indefinite duration, explaining that she needed only to come back with a doctor‟s note to substantiate her need for FMLA leave. Mr. Mendoza testified that he told Plaintiff if she needed time past her vacation time off, that she would need to fax or send human resources ("HR") a doctor‟s note, presumably from Guatemala.

Plaintiff left for Guatemala without contacting the HR office as she had on the fifteen prior occasions she had requested FMLA leave.

While in Guatemala Plaintiff learned that she would need to stay past her scheduled return date. Plaintiff testified that she unsuccessfully attempted to call and to fax a note to FPF. Defendant‟s witnesses testified that they did not receive any contact from Plaintiff, telephonic or by fax, while she was in Guatemala.

Plaintiff returned to the United States on December 27, 2007. She learned that her job had been terminated pursuant to FPF‟s policy that employees are automatically terminated if they do not call or come to work within three days of the expiration of their scheduled time off.

IV.LEGAL STANDARDS.

A.Judgment as a Matter of Law.

Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 50(a) provides:

If a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue, the court may:

(A) resolve the issue against the party; and

(B) grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law against

the party on a claim or defense that, under the controlling law, can be maintained or defeated only with a favorable finding on that issue.

The standards governing a motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 are reiterated in Gibson v. City of Cranston , 37 F.3d 731, 735 (9th Cir. 1994):

When confronted with a motion for judgment as a matter of law . . . a trial court must scrutinize the proof and the inferences reasonably to be drawn therefrom in the light most amiable to the non-movant ... In the process, the court may not consider the credibility of witnesses, resolve conflicts in testimony, or evaluate the weight of evidence ... A judgment as a matter of law may be granted only if the evidence, viewed from the perspective most favorable to the non-movant, is so one-sided that the movant is plainly entitled to judgment, for reasonable minds could not differ in the outcome ....

B.Motion for New Trial.

A motion for new trial "may be granted to all or any of the

parties and on all or part of the issues ... for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 59(a). "The grant of a new trial is "confided almost entirely to the exercise of discretion on the part of the trial court.‟" Murphy v. City of Long Beach , 914 F.2d 183, 186 (9th Cir. 1990).

A new trial is necessary when the court, upon reviewing the evidence presented at trial and considering the jury‟s verdict, "is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Tortu v. Las Vegas Metro. Police Dept. , 556 F.3d 1075, 1087-88 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Landes Constr. Co v. Royal Bank of Canada , 833 F.2d 1365, 1371-72 (9th Cir. 1987)). A motion for new trial may also be granted to correct an erroneous evidentiary ruling that results in substantial prejudice to a party. Ruvalcaba v. City of Los Angeles , 64 F.3d 1323, 1328 (9th Cir. 1995).

The grounds upon which a new trial has been granted are:

(1) where the jury‟s verdict is so contrary to the clear weight of the evidence; (2) if the verdict is based on false evidence; or (3) if there would otherwise be a miscarriage of justice. Roy v.Volkswagen of America, Inc. , 896 F.2d 1174, 1176 (9th Cir. 1990).

"While the trial court may weigh the evidence and credibility of the witnesses, the court is not justified in granting a new trial "merely because it might have come to a different result from that reached by the jury.‟" Id. quoting Wilhelm v. Associated Container Transp. (Australia) Ltd. , 648 F.2d 1197, 1198 (9th Cir. 1981); Wallace v. City of San Diego , 479 F.3d 616, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).

V.DISCUSSION.

A.Applicable FMLA Law.*fn2

Under the FMLA, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq. , the employee must establish: (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 provided sufficient notice of her intent to take leave, and (5) her employer denied her FMLA benefits to which she was entitled. Sanders v. City of Newport, --- F.3d ---, 08-35996, 2011 WL 905998, *5 (9th Cir. Mar. 17, 2011) (citing Burnett v. LFW Inc. , 472 F.3d 471, 477 (7th Cir. 2006)). The first three elements were satisfied, leaving only these issues for jury to decide: whether Plaintiff gave sufficient notice of her need for FMLA leave, and if so, whether Defendant denied Plaintiff FMLA benefits to which she was entitled.

The jury found that Plaintiff did not give sufficient notice. A determination of insufficient notice means that Defendant cannot be held liable on any of Plaintiff‟s FMLA/CFRA claims. "When the employee fails to give his employer proper notice, the employer is under no duty to provide FMLA leave." Righi v. SMC Corp ., 632 F.3d 404, 408 (7th Cir. 2011). Without sufficient "notice that [an employee] need[s] or intend[s] to take medical leave," the employer‟s obligations under the FMLA are never triggered in the first place. Walls v. Central Contra Costa Transit , --- F.3d ---, 2011 WL 3319442, *2 (9th Cir. 2011).

The sole issue on Plaintiff‟s JMOL is whether evidence exists to support the jury‟s verdict that her notice was insufficient. To give sufficient notice for leave, "[e]mployees need only notify their employers that they will be absent under circumstances which indicate that the FMLA might apply." Bachelder v. Am. W. Airlines, Inc. , 259 F.3d. 1112, 1130 (9th Cir. 2001). "The employee need not expressly assert rights under the FMLA or even mention FMLA, but may only state that leave is needed." 29 C.F.R. § 825.303(b). Once an employee alerts her employer to her potential need for FMLA-qualifying leave, an employer must "inquire further of the employee if it is necessary to have more information about whether FMLA leave is being sought by the employee, and[/or] obtain the necessary details of the leave to be taken." 29 C.F.R. § 825.302(c); see also Bailey v. Southwest Gas Co. , 275 F.3d 1181, 1185 (9th Cir. 2002). "The employee. . . will be expected to provide more information." 29 C.F.R. § 303(b).

B.Sufficiency of Notice.

1. Plaintiff‟s Initial Request For Time Off.

It is undisputed that Plaintiff‟s initial request was for vacation time off.*fn3 The dispute centers around whether Plaintiff, nonetheless, should have been placed on FMLA leave because Defendant knew that Plaintiff was taking time off to care for her sick father in Guatemala. Defendant does not dispute that it had knowledge of Plaintiff‟s reason for leave, but asserts it acted within the boundaries of the FMLA by inquiring further into Plaintiff‟s leave request and Plaintiff ultimately refused her right to take medical leave.

Defendant presented evidence that Plaintiff‟s understanding regarding taking FMLA leave was that she had to go to FPF‟s HR office, and not her direct supervisor, to request time off.*fn4 Tr. 44:21-45:2 (Escriba testifed that each time she needed medical leave she would bring a doctor‟s note to the HR office and not go to her direct supervisor). Plaintiff‟s direct supervisor, Linda Mendoza, also acknowledged that HR handles FMLA leave requests. Ms. Mendoza testified that if an employee came in and stated ""I need time off because I have a family member ill.‟ That would be a trigger. I would automatically send them to HR. Tr. 100:14-17, July 14, 2011.

Defendant presented additional evidence that Plaintiff had knowledge of FMLA leave and how to invoke it. Plaintiff testified that she had successfully taken FMLA leave on fifteen prior occasions. Tr. 40:13-14, July 15, 2011 (Escriba agreeing that she took "leave for medical or family reasons 15 different times"); see also Joint Exs. 403, 408, 412, 415, 426 and 103.K. On each of those occasions, she went directly to the HR office with a doctor‟s note for the requested time off, filled out the proper paperwork and was successfully granted FLMA leave. Tr. 44:21-45:2, July 15, 2011.

Plaintiff did not go to the HR office on this occasion. She went to her supervisor Ms. Mendoza because Ms. Mendoza is the person who approves vacation time. Tr. 76:14-20, July 15, 2011. Plaintiff requested vacation time off and her request was granted. Defendant, however, presented evidence that once Plaintiff stated that her need for leave was to fly to Guatemala to care for her sick father, Ms. Mendoza inquired further into Plaintiff‟s leave request through translator Alfonso Flores:

Q. And you said in your deposition that her exact words were, quote, "Yeah, my father is ill." Close quote. Does that sound right?

A. That's what she said, her father was ill.

Q. And also you said that she told you her father ...


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