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Aguirre v. State

United States District Court, N.D. California

November 16, 2017

THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA, et al., Defendants.



         Pending before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Teresa Aguirre (“Plaintiff”) moves for partial summary judgment against the State of California, Debra Mills, and Carianne Huss (“Defendants”) on the issue of Defendants' liability. Dkt. No. 59. Defendants, in turn, move for summary judgment as to all of Plaintiff's causes of action. Dkt. No. 67. The parties argued the motion on November 2, 2017. Dkt. No. 76. For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment and GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

          A. Facts

          Plaintiff alleges violations of the Family Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. (“FMLA”) and the California Family Rights Act, Cal. Gov't Code § 12945.2 (“CFRA”). Dkt. No. 1 at 4-5.

         1. Plaintiff's position at the Employment Development Department

         Plaintiff worked as an Employment Program Representative for the Employment Development Department (EDD), an agency of Defendant State of California (“the State”), for more than 30 years. Dkt. No. 80-5 (Deposition of Teresa Aguirre or “Aguirre Deposition”) at 39:1-4.[1] During this time, Plaintiff lived in Lakeport, California and worked in the EDD's Lakeport office. See Id. at 15:15-16. Defendant Carianne Huss was Plaintiff's direct supervisor, but Plaintiff stated that “as a practical matter” she “primarily reported” to Defendant Debra Mills. Dkt. No. 59-1 at 2 (Declaration of Teresa Aguirre or “Aguirre Decl.”) ¶ 2.

         In the fall of 2015, Plaintiff interviewed for the position of Employment Development Specialist I (“EDS”) before a panel that included Mills and Huss. Dkt. No. 67-3 (Declaration of Cornelio Gomez or “Gomez Decl.”) ¶¶ 2-3. Mills read part of a “standard introductory script” at the interview's outset, informing Plaintiff that the position was located in Marysville, California id. ¶ 3, which is more than 100 miles from Plaintiff's home in Lakeport, Dkt. No. 60, Ex. A.[2] At the time, Plaintiff “did not express any reservation about the position being located in Marysville.” Gomez Decl. ¶ 4; see also Dkt. No. 67-1 at 37-41 (description of EDS position, which lists Marysville as the office location and is acknowledged and signed by Plaintiff). Plaintiff was then promoted to the EDS position. See Gomez Decl. ¶ 2; Dkt. No. 63-3 (Declaration of Janet Nietzel or “Nietzel Decl.”) at 2.

         The EDS position was “necessarily located in Marysville, ” which served as a “hub” of the EDD offices serving Northern California counties. Nietzel Decl. at 2. “The duties [for the EDS position] are different and of a higher level of complexity than the [Employment Program Representative] position Plaintiff previously held.” Id. Under California's civil service laws, Plaintiff began her tenure as an EDS on a yearlong probationary basis, and “had to be physically present in the Marysville office to fully learn the job and complete many of the core functions of the job.” Id.

         2. Plaintiff's request for FMLA leave to care for her father

         On March 17, 2016, Plaintiff sent Mills and Huss an email as follows:

I would like to request FMLA to care for my father. The care will be intermittently and include medical appointments, personal care and daily living activities. He is not able to be left alone due to his current condition. We have arranged care for him in the afternoons but have been unable to obtain care for the mornings, with this in mind, I respectfully request an accommodation of working out of the Lakeport office as I am his primary caregiver and must be close by in case of an emergency.

Dkt. No. 67-1 at 43.[3] Huss replied within the hour, stating that she was “starting the paperwork for both your FMLA and [reasonable accommodation] request.” Id. Huss understood this to be a request for a “reasonable accommodation[] to work at the Lakeport site only.” Id. at 44.

         On March 18, 2016, the following day, Huss sent an email to Plaintiff informing her that she was eligible for FMLA, and provided three attachments: (1) the DE7415 form, (2) the DE7416A form, and (3) the “Reasonable Accommodations” package. Id. at 45. The DE 7415, titled “Notice of Eligibility and Rights and Responsibilities, ” confirmed that Plaintiff had requested leave under the FMLA on March 17, 2016 to care for a parent. Dkt. No. 59-1 at 4. It also confirmed that Plaintiff was eligible for the FMLA, given that she had “52 weeks of State employment” and that she had worked at least 1, 250 hours for the State over the previous 12-month period. Id. The DE7416A, titled “Certification of Health Care Provider for Family Member's Serious Condition, ” certified that Plaintiff's father had a serious health condition as defined in the FMLA, that the condition had begun on March 9, 2016, and that the “Probable Duration” of the condition “or need for treatment” was six months. Dkt. No. 59-1 at 7. The certification noted that until Plaintiff's father was “stabilized more time and management required.” Id. at 8 (original emphasis). It stated that Plaintiff's father had received prescription medication and had been referred to other providers, and described his treatment regimen. Id. It stated that it was “medically necessary for the employee to be off work on an intermittent basis or to work less than the employee's normal work schedule in order to care for the serious health condition of the family member, ” and indicated that such a schedule would be required three to four hours per day, five days a week from March 9, 2016 to June 30, 2016. Id. And it stated that Plaintiff's father would experience “episodic flare-ups”-during which he would require care- two to three times per week over the subsequent six months. Id.

         That same day, in a separate email exchange, Janet Neitzel, a deputy division chief for the EDD and Mills's supervisor, told Mills and Huss via email that the EDD “[would] need to address” Plaintiff's request for a reasonable accommodation only “after it goes through the [reasonable accommodation] unit. Do not approve this at this time on a perm[anent] basis.” Dkt. No. 67-1 at 44.

         On March 23, 2016, Plaintiff emailed Mills and Huss, attaching completed versions of the DE7415 and DE 7416A, as well as one of the forms from the Reasonable Accommodations package. Dkt. No. 67-1 at 46. She also reiterated that she was formally requesting FMLA leave to “care for [her] aging father due to a serious medical condition.” Dkt. No. 67-1 at 46. She stated that “[t]he leave will be every morning, Monday through Friday 8:00AM - 11:30AM or as needed for medical appointments.” Id. She also repeated her request for “an accommodation of working out of the Lakeport office as I am his primary caregiver and must be close by in case of emergency.” Id.

         That same day, Plaintiff received a “Designation Notice” signed by Huss, approving her request for leave. Aguirre Decl. ¶ 5; see also Dkt. No. 59-1 at 11 (Designation Notice approving intermittent FMLA leave from March 23, 2016 to June 30, 2016). Plaintiff was to work from 12:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. each weekday. Dkt. No. 59-1 at 13 (noting that this was the schedule indicated on the FMLA forms). Plaintiff's requested accommodation of working out of the Lakeport office “was also approved, but it was limited to 2-3 weeks at the beginning.” Dkt. No. 63-2 (Declaration of Debra Mills or “Mills Decl.”) at 2. Plaintiff later affirmed that she received the leave schedule she requested. Aguirre Deposition at 178:5-10. Despite the fact that Plaintiff submitted one of the forms from the Reasonable Accommodations package, a staff services manager for the EDD confirmed that the agency “did not receive a Reasonable Accommodation request from Ms. Aguirre” in March 2016. Dkt. No. 63-4 (Declaration of Carrie Sailors or “Sailors Decl.”) at 2.

         3. Plaintiff's request for a transfer or demotion

         On May 6, 2016, during her FMLA leave, Plaintiff emailed Mills, Neitzel, and Huss to discuss “what options” she had in terms of remaining in Lakeport:

At this time, it doesn't look like I will be able to return to the Marysville office soon. I would like to discuss the process to request for a hardship transfer back to the Lakeport office or demotion to Employment Program Representative Fulltime in Lakeport; in order to give another person in Marysville the opportunity to fulfill those duties in the local office and at this time I cannot provide an exact estimate or date as when my father's condition will improve.

Dkt. No. 67-1 at 47. That same day, Plaintiff verbally told Mills that “she was now unwilling to have anyone other than herself take care of her father in the mornings, and that returning to Marysville was not possible for her anytime ‘soon.'” Mills Decl. at 2. Mills and Huss were both aware that requiring Plaintiff to begin work at 12:30 p.m. in Marysville meant that she would not be able to care for her father for at least part of the morning. See Dkt. No. 80-1 (Deposition of Carianne Huss or “Huss Deposition”) at 115:3-14 (establishing that Huss knew that requiring Plaintiff to report to Marysville would preclude her from caring for her father from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. on those days); Dkt. No. 80-3 (Deposition of Debra Mills or “Mills Deposition”) at 222:11-19 (establishing that Mills knew Plaintiff's reporting to Marysville while on FMLA leave “would be a hardship); id. at 223:6-11 (establishing that Mills knew Plaintiff would be required “to leave to her father unattended for a few hours” if she had to report to Marysville).

         On May 10, 2016, Plaintiff met with Mills to discuss her options. Dkt. No. 67-1 at 48 (May 11, 2016 email from Mills memorializing May 10, 2016 meeting).[4] In that meeting, Mills told Plaintiff that she was “no longer able to accommodate [her] in the Lakeport office.” Id. Mills further told Plaintiff that she had been “accommodated locally at the Lakeport office” in order to allow Plaintiff “to find someone to assist [her] with the care of [her] father, so [she could] return to work at the Marysville location.” Id. Mills affirmed that Plaintiff's “position statement” and “hire office” was “the main office in Marysville . . . .” Id. Acknowledging that Plaintiff had several times told Mills and her colleagues that she could only work in Lake County so that she could be close to her father, Mills said effective May 16, 2016, Plaintiff was “scheduled to work in the Marysville Office, ” from 12:30 to 5:00, per Plaintiff's FMLA forms. Id.

         During the May 10 meeting, Mills also presented several alternatives to Plaintiff that could potentially accommodate her needs. Mills provided Plaintiff with “information regarding the process on how to request a hardship transfer” to the Lakeport office. Id. She offered to call the EDD's office in Ukiah, which was closer to Lakeport, to see if there were any openings for Plaintiff. Id. She “provided information on the FMLA/SDI leave options and information on a leave of absence (paid).” Id. Finally, Mills “suggested [Plaintiff] send in the Reasonable Accommodation forms even though [Plaintiff] stated family members are exempt from a [reasonable accommodation].” Id. Mills informed Plaintiff that each option “required a different analysis and different administrative steps to process.” Mills Decl. at 3.

         During the meeting, Plaintiff did not request any further accommodations or adjustments to her FMLA leave. See Aguirre Deposition at 218:23-24 (admitting that she did not ask for more time beyond her original FMLA request); 220:25-221:21. Nor did she pursue one of the alternatives outlined by Mills. Mills Decl. at 3.

4.Defendants' alleged discouragement of Plaintiff from exercising FMLA leave

         The May 10 meeting left Plaintiff feeling “cornered” and “in disbelief” that Defendants would not give her “blanket approval” to work out of the Lakeport office. Aguirre Deposition at 177:10-20. At some point after Plaintiff's leave began, and after it became clear that Defendants would not grant Plaintiff such “blanket approval, ” Plaintiff represents that Huss told her “words to the effect of, ‘You can only have one FMLA, '” in part because of a “need to appease upper management.” See Id. at 177:23-178:3 (Plaintiff's affirmation that Huss made this statement). Plaintiff says that she also had several meetings with Mills and Huss where she “would need to give them an update regarding the status of where [she] was finding help for [her] father. It was more the focus of ‘Have you found someone?'” Id. at 178:12-3. Upon requesting FMLA, Plaintiff maintains she “always felt [she] was walking on eggshells” with Mills and Huss, id. at 218:14-22, to the point where she felt that Mills “didn't leave [her] an option to request” any further adjustment to her FMLA leave schedule, id. at 221:24-25. At one point, Plaintiff says that Mills asked her, “Why can't Alicia [Plaintiff's sister] come in and take care of [Plaintiff's father] on Monday so you can go to work to Marysville?” Id. at 228:5-15.

         5. Plaintiff's taking of medical leave

         Plaintiff became so upset with Defendants' denial of her request to remain in the Lakeport office that on June 1, 2016, she requested and received a medical leave of absence under the FMLA due to her own stress. See Id. at 223:21-24; Mills Decl. at 4 (specifying that Plaintiff's leave of absence was under the FMLA); see also Dkt. No. 59-1 at 17 (Plaintiff's letter requesting leave). Neither Mills nor Huss discouraged Plaintiff from doing so. Aguirre Deposition at 289:24-290:13. After Plaintiff began her leave, she received a letter from EDD informing her that, while “under normal circumstances[] an employee could only be out for a year, ” the EDD was “reconsidering that decision” to extend the period for which Plaintiff could take leave. Id. at 289:7-16. Since taking leave on June 1, 2016, Plaintiff has not reported to work for the EDD. Mills Decl. at 4. “She remains an EDS . . . with her job being held open for her.” Id.

         B. Procedural Posture

         Plaintiff filed the Complaint on March 30, 2016. Dkt. No. 1 (Complaint or “Compl.”). On June 2, 2017, she filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of Defendants' liability. Dkt. No. 59. On July 26, 2017, Defendants filed their cross-motion for summary judgment as to all causes of action. Dkt. No. 67.


         Summary judgment is proper when a “movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). And a dispute is “genuine” if there is evidence in the record sufficient for a reasonable trier of fact to decide in favor of the nonmoving party. Id. But in deciding if a dispute is genuine, the court must view the inferences reasonably drawn from the materials in the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986), and “may not weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations, ” Freeman v. Arpaio, 125 F.3d 732, 735 (9th Cir. 1997), overruled on other grounds by Shakur v. Schriro, 514 F.3d 878, 884-85 (9th Cir. 2008). If a court finds that there is no genuine dispute of material fact as to only a single claim or defense or as to part of a claim or defense, it may enter partial summary judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         With respect to summary judgment procedure, the moving party always bears both the ultimate burden of persuasion and the initial burden of producing those portions of the pleadings, discovery, and affidavits that show the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Where the moving party will not bear the burden of proof on an issue at trial, it “must either produce evidence negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim or defense or show that the nonmoving party does not have enough evidence of an essential element to carry its ultimate burden of persuasion at trial.” Nissan Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Fritz Cos., 210 F.3d 1099, 1102 (9th Cir. 2000). Where the moving party will bear the burden of proof on an issue at trial, it must also show that no reasonable trier of fact could not find in its favor. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. In either case, the movant “may not require the nonmoving party to produce evidence supporting its claim or defense simply by saying that the nonmoving party has no such evidence.” Nissan Fire, 210 F.3d at 1105. “If a moving party fails to carry its initial burden of production, the nonmoving party has no obligation to produce anything, even if the nonmoving party would have the ultimate burden of persuasion at trial.” Id. at 1102-03.

         “If, however, a moving party carries its burden of production, the nonmoving party must produce evidence to support its claim or defense.” Id. at 1103. In doing so, the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec., 475 U.S. at 586. A nonmoving party must also “identify with reasonable particularity the evidence that precludes summary judgment, ” because the duty of the courts is not to “scour the record in search of a genuine issue of triable fact.” Keenan v. Allan, 91 F.3d 1275, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996). If a nonmoving party fails to produce evidence that supports its claim or defense, courts must enter summary judgment in favor of the movant. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.

         III. ...

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