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Dragonite v. South Lake Clinic, P.A.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

October 2, 2019

SOUTH LAKE CLINIC, P.A., d/b/a South Lake Pediatric Clinic, Defendant.

          Sheila A. Engelmeier and Thomas E. Marshall, Engelmeier & Umanah, Counsel for Plaintiff.

          Alec J. Beck, Ford & Harrison LLP, Counsel for Defendant.


          Michael J. Davis United States District Judge


         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. [Docket No. 36] The Court heard oral argument on June 12, 2019. On September 30, 2019, the Court issued an Order granting Defendant's motion and stating that a Memorandum of Law would follow. [Docket No. 57] In accordance with that Order, the Court now issues the following Memorandum of Law.


         A. Factual Background

         1. Parties

         Plaintiff Crystal Dragonite is the mother of and primary caregiver to four minor children, three of whom have serious mental health issues. (Marshall Decl., Ex. A, Dragonite Dep. 26-27; Dragonite Decl. ¶ 6.)

         Defendant South Lake Clinic, P.A., doing business as South Lake Pediatric Clinic (“South Lake”) is a pediatrics practice located in the Twin Cities' suburbs with 6 clinics. (See, e.g., Beck Aff., Ex. 1.)

         Charlotte Rupp was the Health Information Management (“HIM”) supervisor. (Marshall Decl., Ex. B, Rupp. Dep. 11-12.) Marcine Jablonski was the Director of Business Systems. (Marshall Decl., Ex. C, Jablonski Dep. 12.) Heidi Northrup was the Clinic Administrator. (Marshall Decl., Ex. D, Northrup Dep. 7-8.) Stephanie Leach was the Human Resources Manager. (Marshall Decl., Ex. E, Leach Dep. 10.)

         2. Hiring

         In June 2010, South Lake hired Dragonite as a scheduler in the Scheduling and Medical Records department, located at South Lake's Minnetonka clinic. (Dragonite Dep. 53; Dragonite Decl. ¶ 3; Dragonite Decl., Ex. A.) She was hired by Rupp, who was Dragonite's supervisor throughout her employment. (Dragonite Dep. 53.)

         3. South Lake's Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) Policy

          When Plaintiff began her employment, South Lake's 2009 Employee Handbook was in place. (Beck Aff., Ex. 5, 2009 Handbook.) It stated:

If your need for serious health condition and/or injured servicemember FMLA leave is foreseeable, you must make a reasonable effort to schedule medical treatment so as not to disrupt unduly South Lake Pediatrics' operations. You must also fill out an Application for FMLA leave at least 30 days before the time you intend to start your leave, or as soon as is practicable.

(2009 Handbook at 28.)

         4. Overview of Dragonite's Use of FMLA Leave

          When Dragonite was hired, she had three children. (Dragonite Dep. 54.) In 2010, Dragonite did not need to take leave for her children's medical issues as much as she would need to later in her employment. (Id. 54-55, 79-80, 106.) Over time, beginning in the fall of 2010, she began requesting more time off to care for her children's health needs. (Id. 55-56.) Dragonite never exceeded her FMLA leave limit. (Id. 23.)

         Over the course of Dragonite's employment with Defendant, she made and was granted approximately 100 requests for FMLA leave; many of the requests were for intermittent leave and covered more than one absence, totaling hundreds of leaves. (Beck Aff., Ex. 4.) Dragonite testified that she was occasionally asked to reschedule a medical appointment because of staffing issues but also that she was able to cover all of her needs for leave. (Dragonite Dep. 107-08.) Dragonite points to no request for leave that was turned down because of insufficient notice.

         According to Dragonite, South Lake erred in designating some of her leave requests, such as for an IEP issue, as FMLA leave rather than leave under the Minnesota School Activity and Conference Leave Act. (See Marshall Decl., Ex. D, Northrup Dep., Exs. 86-87; Dragonite Dep. 127 (testifying that Rupp told Dragonite that she did not know whether certain requests fell under the FMLA or the School Leave Act, so Rupp directed Dragonite to submit the requests as FMLA leave and let human resources figure it out); Dragonite Decl., Ex. L.) Dragonite testified that she was never denied a leave because of confusion between FMLA and School leave. (Dragonite Dep. 128.)

         5. May 2, 2011 Written Warning

         Beginning early in Dragonite's employment, she was consistently warned about her interpersonal issues with coworkers and supervisors, while also receiving positive reviews for her work ethic and technical skills.

         South Lake gave Dragonite her first written warning on May 2, 2011 for “Unacceptable Behavior.” (Beck Aff., Ex. 2.) The warning stated that Rupp and Dragonite had “had a couple verbal discussions about unacceptable behavior in the work place. I am once again addressing the issues in writing this time.” (Id.) It stated that Dragonite had been “Invading other staff's privacy, ” “Being disrespectful, ” “Intimidating your co-workers, ” and “Overstepping your boundaries, ” and provided examples of each type of behavior. (Id.) It noted that the “behavior must stop immediately” and that the next steps “may include . . . verbal warnings, written warnings, suspension, or termination.” (Id.) The warning was signed by Dragonite and Rupp. (Id.) Dragonite testified that she was aware that her coworkers found her “intimidating” based on their “physical response to [her] approaching them.” (Dragonite Dep. 72-73.) She disagreed with the warning, but “underst[oo]d where [her supervisor] was coming from” regarding interpreting her actions as overstepping boundaries and acknowledged that “it is possible that people viewed me that way.” (Id. 75, 77.)

         6. First FMLA Request

         In June of 2011, Plaintiff made her first FMLA leave request, asking for intermittent FMLA leave to care for one of her sons. (Dragonite Decl., Ex. D.) The request was approved. (Id.) In January 2012, she requested and was granted intermittent FMLA leave for another son. (Dragonite Decl., Ex. E.) In October 2012, she recertified the intermittent FMLA leave requests for both sons. (Dragonite Decl., Ex. F.)

         7. Overview of Dragonite's Job Performance

          Throughout Dragonite's employment at South Lake, her performance reviews praised her work ethic and skills, but also consistently mentioned her “unacceptable behavior in the work place” with regard to interactions with coworkers or supervisors. (See Dragonite Dep., Exs. 7-8, January 8, 2014 Review (rating Dragonite “Good” or “Superior” in all categories, directing Dragonite on “[w]orking side by side with fellow coworkers . . . without showing frustration” and “[f]inding a way to approach the Supervisor without interrupting her workload” and including comment by Dragonite “Sometimes I can be ove[r]bearing”); Dragonite Dep., Ex. 9, January 21, 2015 Self Review (rating herself as Fair to Superior in all categories but noting “I try to take the lead and do everything” and listing goals including “Better team player” and “Attitude /frustration”); Marshall Decl., Ex. B, Rupp Dep., Ex. 11, August 26, 2010 90 Day Review (stating that “[o]verall” she was doing “a great job”); Rupp Dep., Ex. 14, June 21, 2011 Review (noting that Dragonite was “a good employee with strong work ethics, ” and that she was “improving” with regard to “unacceptable behavior in the work place”); Rupp Dep., Ex. 25, June 13, 2012 Review (commending Dragonite for her leadership, dependability, loyalty, and communication with supervisors, but noting that Rupp was “still see[ing] some issues with taking leadership from your co-workers when they are in charge”); Rupp Dep., Ex. 51, 2015 Annual Review (praising Dragonite's skills, work ethic, initiative, and problem-solving; opining that she was “Much improved” on working with coworkers without showing frustration and approaching her supervisor without interrupting her workload and directing her to “Maintain a more positive attitude” and “Work[] more closely as a team player by not taking the lead all the time”).)

         8. April 12, 2012 Written Warning

          On April 12, 2012, Plaintiff received a written warning for “Unacceptable Behavior.” (Beck Aff., Ex. 3.) The warning stated that Dragonite was “still having issues” with the behavior mentioned in the 2011 warning and continued that there were also “additional issues that need to improve, ” namely “Harsh and snotty comments out loud about your co-workers” and “Trust issues with co-workers.” (Id.) The warning noted that Dragonite's “co-workers are frustrated that you are making all the decisions or telling the staff what they should be doing during the day instead of working together as a team player.” (Id.) It stated that the “behavior must stop, ” and warned that “[s]ince we have spoke[n] about this in the past and again today, the next step will be termination from South Lake Pediatrics.” (Id.) The warning was signed by Rupp and Dragonite. (Id.)

         9. May 2012 Email Exchange

         On May 31, 2012, Dragonite and Ginny Polson had an email exchange in which Dragonite asked why her pay stub showed that she had used a certain amount of PTO when she had actually taken FMLA leave and only a half hour of PTO. (Rupp Dep., Ex. 23.) Polson responded that she used that amount of PTO to make 40 hours for the week for Dragonite because she had not seen a time off slip showing FMLA leave but offered to reverse the PTO on Dragonite's check. (Id.) Dragonite responded “That would be great. It was FMLA for my son's appt with LM. I can show you the yellow slip if you need?” (Id.) Polson forwarded the exchange to Rupp with the message “FYI, ” and Rupp responded “Amazing - isn't it?” (Id.) Polson responded to Rupp: “That's not exactly the word I was thinking Ὀ ” (Id.)

         10. Super User

         In 2012, South Lake designated Dragonite as a “Super User” with regard to the new electronic medical records system within her department based on her ability to adapt to the new system. (Marshall Decl., Ex. C, Jablonski Dep 72.) As a Super User, she served as a resource to answer questions for coworkers on the operation of the new system. (Dragonite Dep. 170.)

         11. 2013 Promotion

          In January 2013, South Lake's medical records were reorganized to become fully digital, and South Lake promoted Dragonite to a medical records position in the new Health Information Management Department (“HIM”). (Rupp Dep., Exs. 29-30; Dragonite Dep. 91; Dragonite Decl. ¶ 5; Dragonite Decl., Ex. B.) Rupp remained Dragonite's supervisor. (Dragonite Dep. 91-92.)

         12. Birth of Fourth Child

          In April 2013, Dragonite had her fourth child. (Dragonite Decl. ¶ 12; Rupp Dep., Ex. 32.) In October 2013, she recertified intermittent FMLA leave for her children's health care needs, and in November 2013, she submitted an additional request for intermittent FMLA leave for the care of her daughter, which was approved that month. (Dragonite Decl., Ex. H; Dragonite Dep. 117, 119.)

         On October 16, 2013, Rupp emailed Polson and Tina Thorson to inform them: “[Dragonite] will be out of the office today and tomorrow. Ginny please use PTO (no FMLA). Thanks.” (Rupp Dep., Ex. 37.) Thorson replied: “ ” (Id.)

         In December 2013, Dragonite's son's health needs required that she set up and attend monthly appointments. (Dragonite Decl. ¶ 16.) In January 2014, she had to take leave for multiple emergencies involving her children. (Dragonite Dep. 125.)

         On April 11, 2014, Jablonski and Renee Hengemuhle from human resources met with Dragonite to review her hours, discuss her scheduling of appointments, and discuss and review her FMLA leave. (Rupp Dep., Exs. 41-44; Rupp Dep. 118.) Hengemuhle told Dragonite that, in the future, when “major things happened, ” she should let human resources know so that human resources could “be prepared for it, ” because they “need[ed] to know that [she] [was] going to be taking more time off.” (Dragonite Dep. 136-37.) Hengemuhle also suggested that Dragonite change to part-time employment so that she would not have to take leave to care for her children's health needs. (Dragonite Dep. 138-39; Rupp Dep. 121.)

         13. May 2014 Policy Changes

          In June 2014, a revised Employee Handbook was put in place. (Beck Aff., Ex. 1, 2014 Handbook.) The June 2014 Employee Handbook contained a few changes related to FMLA leave. The parties agree that 2014 Handbook required that intermittent leave be certified by a medical provider every six months. It included a requirement that PTO be taken in one-hour increments and stated that there would be not PTO or unpaid time off during the blackout period of mid-August through early September, unless specifically approved by the clinic administrator. (2014 Handbook at 47-48.) However, Dragonite admitted that the one-hour increment requirement was not applied to her, and she was permitted to use FMLA leave in smaller ...

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