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Samira Trust v. Harvard University

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 23, 2018




         Plaintiff Samira Trust brings a curated litany of claims against her former employer, Harvard University, [1] alleging, inter alia, gender and disability discrimination, retaliation, and interference with her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Harvard now moves for summary judgment on all counts of the Complaint. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be allowed.


         Trust was hired into the position of Academic IT Support at Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in the Division of Continuing Education on March 30, 2015, having previously been employed as a part-time User Assistant in the same department. See Pl.'s Responses to Def.'s Statement of Undisputed Material Facts, Dkt # 34, ¶¶ 3-4 (Pl.'s SOF). The job entailed assisting students and university personnel with IT issues; the job description also included “working with an I.T. group to develop and resolve complex technical problems for a unit, ” and “working with managers to determine project deadlines and objectives.” Id. ¶ 8. Trust was required to divide her time between two locations: a Harvard facility at 53 Church Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her supervisor was Pierre Julien, and Sever Library, also in Cambridge, where she reported to Mary Frances Angelini. Id. ¶ 5. Her offer letter stated that her “regular schedule [was] 35 hours per week, Monday through Friday, nine a.m. to five p.m. with one hour unpaid lunch every day.” Dkt # 28, Ex. A, Trust Dep. at 28: 5-10. Trust does not dispute that her offer letter stipulated that she was expected to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but she considered the offer letter “just a formality.” Pl.'s SOF ¶ 13.

         In the Fall of 2015, Harvard became aware that Trust was not reporting regularly for work; Julien would search for her without success at the two locations where she had a work space. Dkt # 28, Ex. B, Julien Dep. at 86:18-24. Both of her supervisors were led to believe that she was working with the other, when in fact she was not.[2] At her deposition, Trust conceded that at the time she worked “really odd hours, ” that some days she would work in the evenings, and on others only until 2 p.m. Dkt # 28, Ex. A, Trust Dep. at 30:24, 50: 16-18. She also stopped attending the required staff meetings after September 8, 2015, Pl.'s SOF ¶ 19, because she could not access her email to learn about the meetings and often had conflicting doctors' appointments.[3] She did not deny knowing that attending the meetings was a requirement of her position. Dkt # 28, Ex. A, Trust Dep. at 38:10-23.

         Harvard suspected that Trust was completing timesheets for work that she was not performing and, concerned that her sporadic attendance was undermining the morale of other employees, initiated the University's progressive disciplinary process by issuing her a verbal warning on October 19, 2015. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 22. At a meeting called to discuss her performance issues, Trust left after less than ten minutes, claiming that “she was, essentially, sabotaged at the meeting and felt compelled to leave.” Id. ¶ 23. Her managers then reissued the warning in writing, noting that Trust had failed to report to work at 53 Church Street since August 28, 2015, and had failed to report to Sever Library consistently during her scheduled hours. Id. ¶ 24. The warning also addressed her failure to attend staff meetings, laid out steps that she was expected to take to improve her performance, and set a deadline of November 18, 2015, to remedy her shortcomings. Id. ¶ 27. The warning cautioned that failure to do so could result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination. Id. Julien testified that after the disciplinary process began, Trust stopped coming to work altogether. See Dkt # 28, Ex. B, Julien Dep. at 91:3-6 (testifying that the last time Julien saw Trust was in October of 2015 when he issued her the written warning). Angelini testified that following the verbal warning, “[t]here was no change [in Trust's behavior] . . . There were days when I would not see her at all.” Id. Ex. C, Angelini Dep. at 33:1-7.

         At the onset of the disciplinary process, Trust claims to have begun experiencing back problems resulting from disc protrusion. Compl. ¶ 38. However, she did not request accommodations for the disability until January 26, 2016. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 47 (There is no evidence that Harvard was made aware of her disability claim prior to that date). For whatever reason, Trust's work performance did not improve: she failed continuously to report for work during her scheduled hours, and she did not attend the staff meetings held between October 19 and December 18, 2015. Pl.'s SOF ¶¶ 33, 35. In response, Trust makes the puzzling claim that “[she] was not expected to work the schedule set out for her in her offer letter and in the [warning] letter provided to her on October 19, 2015.” Id. ¶ 33.

         Harvard issued Trust a second written warning on December 18, 2015. This warning specifically addressed her absenteeism and tardiness and her failure to meet the benchmarks laid out in the previous letter. Trust was admonished that if she did not show improvement by January 18, 2016, further disciplinary action would be taken. Id. ¶ 31.

         In February of 2018, the disciplinary process was stayed when Trust sought, and was granted, medical leave pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and short-term disability leave (STD). The leave was the outcome of negotiations that began when Trust first requested disability accommodations on January 26, 2016. Id. ¶ 47. Trust requested that her leave begin on March 3, 2016, “so [she] could close everything, make sure everything was done before [she] went to Iran, ” Dkt # 28, Ex. A, Trust Dep. 55:1-9, where she planned to visit family and receive medical treatment.

         Upon receipt of the leave request, Harvard's Disability Services Office notified Trust by email on February 17, 2016, of the supporting medical documentation that she would be required to submit. When Trust failed to respond to the initial email, Karen Millett of Disability Services wrote her a second time on February 22, 2016, enclosing a disability accommodation fact sheet. Millett informed Trust that any questions regarding FMLA or short-term disability benefits should be directed to Cherie Green, the Leave of Absence Coordinator. Millett also advised Trust that the interactive process required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would begin once Disability Services received the required documentation from Trust's healthcare provider. Trust's physician provided Harvard with a note on February 25, 2016, stating that Trust had a “lumbar disc herniation, ” and was unable to perform certain job functions based on her “limited sitting tolerance.” Pl.'s SOF ¶ 52. Harvard subsequently granted Trust a leave of absence until April 15, 2016. Id. ¶ 53.

         Trust testified that at the time she received the initial leave approval, she planned to remain in Iran until June of 2016. Dkt # 28, Ex. A, Trust Dep. at 69:1-24. At some point (the record is unclear), Trust asked that her leave be extended until September of 2016. On April 19, 2016, Green emailed Trust, confirming receipt of the request to remain absent from work until September, and explaining that for Trust's position to remain open, her physician would need to supply Harvard's short-term disability insurer with additional medical information. Pl.'s SOF ¶ 56. The next day, Trust replied that she was overseas and would be unable to obtain the documentation until June at the earliest. Id. On April 27th - twelve days after Trust's approved leave had expired - Green again emailed Trust iterating that additional medical records and documentation were required before the request to extend her leave beyond April 15th could be considered. Trust replied the next day that “Medical documentation will be provided once I return to the US.” Id.

         As the twelve weeks of FMLA leave for which Trust was eligible was to expire on May 17, 2016, Anna Anctil, the FAS Senior Human Resources Consultant, informed Trust by email on May 10, 2016, that for her job to be held open, she would have to (1) provide Harvard's short-term disability insurer with documentation supporting her eligibility for continued short- term disability benefits, or (2) provide Disability Services with documentation substantiating her need for additional leave as a reasonable accommodation for her disc protrusion disability. Dkt # 27, Ex. B. Trust responded by sending additional medical documentation, and her short-term disability benefits were extended until June 26, 2016. However, in the month that elapsed between June 26, 2016, and July 20, 2016, Trust failed to document a need for a further extension of her leave. Id., Ex. C.

         On July 21, 2016, Trust's physician wrote to Harvard supporting her request for an accommodation of her disc protrusion. The doctor recommended that Trust be provided an “ergonomic chair, standing desk, [and] part-time schedule.” Pl.'s SOF ¶ 59. Green responded by asking Trust, in a July 26, 2016 email, for clarification of (1) her physician's assessment of her functional limitation, the recommended part-time schedule, and predicted return to work date; and (2) her completed reasonable accommodation form (which she had still not submitted). Dkt # 27, Ex. D.

         On July 28, 2016, Trust - having returned from Iran - emailed Anctil attaching a completed reasonable accommodation form and notifying Harvard that she had a doctor's appointment scheduled for August 18, 2016. Id. Ex. E. In that email, Trust expressed her frustration with Harvard's repeated requests for documentation supporting an extension of her leave: “I can also assure you that to be on leave means (Goddess forbid) NOT TO WORK and REST. I honestly don't know what resting means when I have to deal with the foul play of immature devolved adults.” Id. (emphasis in original). Trust closed on an ominous note: “This is just the beginning. With the interactive process coming, and having all these ill-intended adults negotiating . . . a Nebula will be born. Soon all this nonsense will come to rest. Samira.” Pl.'s SOF ¶ 61. The attached form requested the following accommodations: “STD, LTD, Unpaid Leave, Mental Accommodation (no harassment, no threat, no intimidation while on leave and at work), continued flexible schedule, starting with part-time then back to full-time (maybe), treadmill desk (standing desk is included), ergonomic chair, telecommute.” Dkt # 27, Ex. E at 3.

         The following day, Millett, in a remarkable exercise of restraint, politely replied to Trust, explaining that under Harvard's ADA implementation policy, her doctor's recommendations required clarification. In order to “assist [Trust] in the process of determining possible reasonable accommodations, ” id., Ex. ...

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