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Reid v. Centric Consulting, LLC

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 29, 2018

JOSEPH REID, Plaintiff,
v.
CENTRIC CONSULTING, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          JUDITH GAIL DEIN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         The plaintiff, Joseph Reid, was an employee of the defendant, Centric Consulting, LLC (“Centric”), during the period of December 9, 2013 to June 19, 2015, when his employment was terminated, allegedly for performance related issues. After he had been put on a performance plan, Mr. Reid requested and obtained 17 consecutive weeks of medical leave, from November 19, 2014 through March 20, 2015, at which point he returned to work. Although it was subsequently determined that Centric was not covered by the Family Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654 (“FMLA”), Centric incorrectly labeled the middle 12 weeks of Mr. Reid's leave as FMLA leave, and so advised Mr. Reid. After his employment was terminated, Mr. Reid brought a one count complaint alleging that his employment was terminated in retaliation for his having taken FMLA leave.

         After basic discovery was completed, and in an effort to streamline this litigation, the parties agreed to present to the court, by way of a motion for summary judgment, the issue of whether the plaintiff can maintain a retaliation claim under the FMLA if he was not, in fact, entitled to FMLA leave. Centric argues that the plaintiff cannot maintain a retaliation claim as a matter of law, while the plaintiff contends that Centric can be equitably estopped from denying him the fully panoply of rights provided by the FMLA.

         For the reasons detailed herein, this court finds that while the law is unsettled in this area, it is more likely that the First Circuit would rule that there are circumstances where the doctrine of equitable estoppel could apply to a retaliation claim. Therefore, the defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 23) is DENIED. However, based on the facts presented, which include, without limitation, the fact that the plaintiff took both FMLA and non-FMLA leave to cover his medical needs, it is questionable that the plaintiff can establish that he relied on any representation as to the applicability of the FMLA to his detriment. Therefore the court will hold a status conference to discuss whether it would be appropriate to proceed with another motion for summary judgment on the applicability of the doctrine of equitable estoppel to the retaliation claim before reopening discovery.

         II. STATEMENT OF FACTS[1]

         Mr. Reid began his employment with Centric on December 9, 2013 as a business developer, working from his home in Winchester, Massachusetts. Centric had fewer than 50 employees working within a 75-mile radius of Mr. Reid's worksite at all times before, during, and after Mr. Reid's employment with Centric. Given this number of employees, Centric was not covered by the FMLA.[2] Nevertheless, as detailed herein, Centric's human resources department (“HR”) treated Mr. Reid's request for a medical leave as if it were covered by the FMLA.

         In September 2014, Centric presented Mr. Reid with a performance improvement plan (“PIP”) because of Mr. Reid's lack of sales and other deficiencies. Mr. Reid received a written copy of the PIP on September 30, 2014 and corresponded with Centric's management about the plan on October 3, 2014.

         On October 7, 2014, Mr. Reid inquired of HR about a possible need for medical leave. Centric's management was unaware of any medical issue before this initial inquiry. In response to Mr. Reid's inquiry about the availability of FMLA leave in October 2014, HR informed Mr. Reid that he would be ineligible for FMLA leave until December 9, 2014 (after completing the requisite 12 months of employment with Centric to be eligible for FMLA).[3] However, HR noted, Centric had other non-FMLA leave options available for disability, including short-term and long-term disability leave. Mr. Reid requested and was granted a non-FMLA leave of absence by Centric, using paid time off, for surgery and recovery beginning November 19, 2014.

         Starting on December 9, 2014, at Centric's encouragement, Mr. Reid's leave of absence continued without interruption as “FMLA leave” and continued for the full 12 weeks until March 2, 2015. At that point, Mr. Reid was permitted by Centric to continue his leave of absence without interruption by switching back to “non-FMLA leave” for more than two additional weeks through March 20, 2015. Mr. Reid received the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave benefits and reinstatement from Centric as if Mr. Reid was an “eligible employee” under the FMLA. Centric would have provided the exact same leave and benefits to accommodate Mr. Reid's surgery and recovery, even if it had not voluntarily approved Mr. Reid for “FMLA leave.”

         Upon his return to work on March 20, 2015, Mr. Reid resumed the PIP with the same sales requirements as were originally designated before the leave of absence. On June 19, 2015, Centric terminated Mr. Reid's employment for what Centric attributes to Mr. Reid's failure to meet the PIP goals, which had been set for him before he requested medical leave. Mr. Reid challenges this explanation for his termination. Rather, he has brought a complaint alleging that his termination was in retaliation for exercising the rights afforded under the FMLA.

         The parties agree that Mr. Reid was not an “eligible employee” entitled to receive benefits under the FMLA. He claims that since Centric treated him as FMLA-eligible, it is estopped from arguing ineligibility in defense of Mr. Reid's retaliation claim. (Pl. Opp. at 4). Centric argues that neither Mr. Reid nor any plaintiff “can maintain an FMLA retaliation claim without showing he was an ‘eligible employee' under the statute, based on an equitable estoppel theory.” (Def. Mem. at 4).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Rights ...


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